Tuesday, December 29, 2015

J.E. and the Violet Ray

It was probably a little over ten years ago that I first encountered J.E. He was a close friend of my stepfather and lived his whole life in and around Sevierville, Tennessee, just a stone's throw from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One morning, I stopped in for breakfast with my stepfather and his friends, who met each morning at the local Hardee's on Highway 411, adjacent to Tractor Supply and Big Lots. They called themselves "The University," owing to their rambling, yet quasi-scholarly opinions on subject matter far and wide.

I observed that one man was highly animated, a major contributor regardless of the topic at hand, and the only name I heard anyone call him was "J.E." On that memorable morning, J.E. related to me a story, the essence of which I will attempt to reproduce here. The language is as close as I can recall to what he actually said.
"Well, Richard, I had been havin' this problem with real bad pain in my arm, so I went to see this feller right up here on 66 (Tennessee Highway 66, which runs north from Sevierville up to Interstate 40). I heard he was good. And he was a medical doctor...he had a certificate on the wall and ever'thing.'
'I sat down and told him what was both'rin' me, and he pulled out this thang in a lo-o-o-ng black box. He plugged it into the wall, and then he run it right over my arm a few times, and just like 'at, the pain was GONE. I mean, it was GONE.'"
Surely, one cannot witness such an account without experiencing a rush of curiosity, and I was no exception. Having told the story to countless friends in the intervening years, I'd often wondered exactly what the device had been. As fate would have it, while browsing a large antiques store here in Atlanta over this past weekend, I happened to see a long black box with a plug coming out of it, so I went over to have a closer look.

Sure enough, I had hit pay dirt. There it was, the same type of instrument to which J.E. had been referring. Within the box was a wand-like tool and a couple of glass tubes, which would appear to be illuminated when inserted into the wand. A hand-written label attached to the power cord read, "Western Coil and Electric Co. -- Quackery -- not intended for use. $124.99." I had to know more.

I Googled the name of the company and discovered that indeed, such devices were commonplace in the early twentieth century and were used in a medical practice known as electrotherapy, which involved applying high voltage, high frequency, low current electrical stimuli to the surface of the body. The machines were collectively known as "violet ray" devices and were manufactured until after the Depression, when the companies who made them redirected their production efforts to making wartime equipment and other assorted electrical components.

Wikipedia provides an excellent description of violet ray technology, which was actually introduced by Nikola Tesla prior to 1900:
"A typical violet ray device consisted of an ungrounded electrical control box that controlled the interrupter and which housed the magneto coil, and an attached bakelite or other handle housing which contained the high voltage coil and an insertion port for attachments. Glass evacuated tubes of varying shapes and for different therapeutic uses could be inserted into the bakelite handle to apply the resulting current to different parts of the body."
Granted, the FDA may have seized all the violet ray devices in the early 1950's, but that didn't stop J.E.'s healthcare professional, Lord have mercy on his soul, from finding the right instrument to treat his patient's ailing arm in the new millennium. Besides, these devices were purported to help remedy everything from brain fog to catarrh, and that's no small feat. Quackery? I think that's jumping to conclusions, a premature assessment. The way I see it, when you've got something that works, stick with it.