Just off Interstate-15 in a lonely section of San Bernardino County, Calif., sits the implausibly named locale of Zzyzx.
To get there, you take 4.5-mile-long Zzyzx Road.
The name was the creation of a quack preacher/televangelist/medicine man named Curtis Howe Springer, who arrived in the Southern California area in 1944.
Looking to set up a health spa, Springer came up with the name Zzyzx. By naming his spa the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort, he was able to claim that it would be known as “the last word in health,” according to the website Roadtrippers.com.
Springer, born in 1896 in Alabama, had already enjoyed a lively career traveling the nation preaching, promoting various endeavors, selling fraudulent cures and working to stay a step ahead of authorities by the time he arrived in California.
Among his many enterprises was founding health spas. During the 1930s and 1940s, he opened a spa in Fort Hill, Pa., and tried to open others in Maryland and Iowa. But because Springer wasn’t fond of paying taxes, he lost his Pennsylvania spa to government seizure.
By the mid-1940s Springer had headed west and, working in conjunction with an associate, filed a claim to 12,800 acres in California’s Mojave Desert.
Springer, ever the resourceful sort, hired homeless men from Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row to build the Zzyzx resort.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Springer’s resort, which ultimately included a 60-room hotel, spa, mineral baths, a radio studio, and a church, was built on a fraud. He used a boiler to heat pools around the resort.
He promoted the resort through his radio program, which was carried on more than 320 stations, according to Roadtrippers.com. It also included advertisements for his special remedies.
“Listeners would send in donations for his ‘cures,’ which he claimed could relieve constipation, hemorrhoids, hair loss and, oh yeah, cancer,” according to the website. ”However, what people were getting was, well, actually a bit better than snake oil. It was mostly celery, carrot and parsley juices.”
In the late 1960s, he was “swapping” lots in Zzyzx for large sums of money. If the Feds didn’t take notice of his quack cures, they did eventually catch on to the fact that Springer was making a lot of money and not paying much in taxes.
He was accused of squatting on the land and his claim to Zzyzx was invalidated. Springer and the other inhabitants of the community were evicted, and Springer was convicted for selling junk “cures,” although he served less than two months in jail.
He died in 1985 in Las Vegas.
For the past 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed schools in the California State University system to manage the land in and around Zzyzx.
While the remains of Springer’s charlatan empire is still evident around Zzyzx, the area is now home to a highly regarded Desert Studies Center, the handiwork of a consortium of CSU campuses.
3 thoughts on “Zzyzx, Calif.: Where a charlatan created an empire”
I’d always wondered whom it was that Richard Branson took as a role model….mystery solved!
Branson’s eccentric, not crazy. As long as you don’t get caught, you’re an eccentric.
He was caught for a tax fraud years ago…but it disappeared into the long grass….