Screenland // Public Domain
Screenland // Public Domain

13 Questionable Weight-Loss Products From History

Screenland // Public Domain
Screenland // Public Domain

By the late 19th century, Americans had developed a stigma around fatness. At the same time, magazines were becoming far more influential as both their number and circulation exploded. In 1860, 575 magazines were published in the United States; by 1905, that number was 7500. With more magazines came more advertising, and with a cultural shift toward thinness as a beauty ideal, many of those ads began promising weight loss, especially in film fan magazines and other publications geared toward women. But some of the methods they proposed for “reducing” (dropping the pounds) were questionable, while others were downright bizarre—and even dangerous.


Ad for Fatoff from Life magazine
Life magazine // Public Domain

Introduced around 1909, Fatoff claimed to simply melt your fat away with “No Dieting! No Dosing! External application only!” In one 1912 ad, the supposed creator of the product, Mary Spencer Borden, gave a confusing account of its origins: “I, Mary Spencer Borden, under oath say that less than six years ago I was a monstrosity with fat and rheumatism, and I weighed over 225 pounds in the upper part of my body and my lower limbs had atrophied. […] I had tried every known remedy to reduce my fat without any success whatever until I thought of this wonderful ‘FATOFF.’ […] I cannot say I discovered it. It was an inspiration.” Department of Agriculture chemists felt differently, calling the product an “unmitigated fraud” after a chemical analysis revealed Fatoff to “consist of 10 per cent soap and about 90 per cent water.”


An ad for Dr. Walters Rubber Reducing Garments in the NYT
New York Times // Public Domain

Made of rubber with a “medicated” coating, Dr. Walter’s garments claimed to stimulate weight loss by causing the wearer to sweat. The brand sold a garment for every conceivable problem area, including the chin, neck, waist, bust, hips, legs, ankles, arms, and hands. (Dr. Walter also offered a terrifying rubber face mask—“Excellent for bleaching the face.”)

Not only would Dr. Walter’s Famous Medicated Reducing Rubber Garments fix unsightly ankles and banish a double chin, but they even claimed to be comfortable. While wrapping your torso in rubber may not scream “comfortable” to us now, rubber girdles—Dr. Walter’s most popular product—were a welcome alternative to the classic corset, with its rigid, painful boning. Beginning in 1904, Walter submitted patents on a number of rubber garments, and she advertised her “reducing garments” in magazines like Vogue and newspapers like The New York Times from 1906 through the early 1920s. By 1922, ads touted “millions” of sales. “Reducing” corsets and girdles from various brands continued to be sold through the 1930s, serving the same purposes as today’s Spanx—except that they claimed to make you “look thin while getting thin.”


Ad for Dr Lawton's Fat Reducer in the Tatler
The Tatler // Public Domain

Launched around 1921, Dr. Lawton’s Fat Reducer was a suction cup device that claimed to “dissolve and eliminate superfluous fat from the system” using vacuum massage. Designed like a plunger, it produced results in four or five days, the ads asserted, by “break[ing] down the fat tissue” through its “massage effect.” The company offered a money-back guarantee if the customer didn’t see progress after 11 days.


An ad for a weight loss bath
Chicago Sunday Tribune // Public Domain

The Lesser Company advertised its Slim Figure Bath as “the sensation of Europe,” catching consumer eyes with images of naked, frolicking women. Presented as a German invention, Slim Figure Bath ads referred to “clinical tests” by “prominent Berlin physicians” and something called “the famous Nauheim principle”—representing the brand as exotically European and playing it up as highly scientific and modern. But Slim Figure was merely one brand of bath powder claiming the magical ability to melt fat—and like its competitors Florazona, Fayro, and Every Woman’s Flesh Reducer, it simply didn’t work.

According to Carl Malmberg, author of a 1930s exposé on fad diets called Diet and Die, Lesser Slim Figure Bath was composed of corn starch, baking soda, table salt, borax, and tartaric acid (which is present in cream of tartar). It did not need to come from a German lab but could be mixed up in the kitchen. Like the ads claimed, it was “absolutely harmless,” but it was also absolutely useless as a weight-loss product, with the American Medical Association (AMA) calling it an “elaborately exploited piece of quackery.”


An ad for a weight loss cream
Screenland // Public Domain

Creams that claimed to dissolve fat were another popular product in the 1920s. In addition to Dainty-Form Reducing Cream, consumers could purchase Melto Reducing Cream, Slendaform Reducing Cream, Franco French Reducing Cream, and the specialized FLEC Ankle Reducing Cream. “Ads for passive [weight-loss] products such as pills, tea, and soap were usually aimed at women,” writes Heather Addison, a film studies scholar, in her book Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture. Conversely, ads aimed at men often touted exercise and promised to build muscle. Dainty-Form cultivated its feminine image, often including testimonials from Ziegfeld Follies chorus girls in its advertisements alongside images of sylphlike women.


An ad for a weight loss soap
Picture-Play Magazine // Public Domain

La Mar Reducing Soap was a coconut-oil soap tinged with potassium iodide and sassafras that claimed to melt away fat while shrinking skin so that there would be no excess skin after the weight was lost. It sold at 50 cents per bar, and customers hoping to become thin could purchase the accompanying Slenmar Reducing Brush for an additional $3. At its height, the company sold 200 to 300 soaps per day, though it reportedly spent $120,000 advertising the product against just $150,000 in annual receipts. The head of the AMA’s investigative wing called the product “unadulterated hokum,” and in 1926, it was declared a fraud by the U.S. Postmaster General and the company was barred from advertising or processing sales through the mail.


An ad for Reducine
Screenland // Public Domain

Reducine was a “pleasant cream” that caused a “harmless chemical reaction […] during which the excess fat is literally dissolved away”—and it prompted the first-ever Federal Trade Commission case against a weight-loss product. In 1927, the FTC declared that Reducine was “useless and of no value for the purposes for which it is so advertised.” As a one-two punch against this fraudulent advertising, the FTC issued a cease and desist order to both McGowan Laboratories, which made Reducine, and a publishing company that had been running its ads in the magazine True Romances. By accepting the advertisements, the FTC ruled, the publisher had become “purposely and knowingly party to and part of a false and fraudulent plan for the misleading and deceptive advertisement and sale of a product”—an illegal act [PDF]. Cease and desist orders, as well as private agreements to shed advertising of questionable products, became key parts of the FTC's toolkit in attempting to root out sham weight-loss products in the following years.

(The “reducing cream” Reducine differed from another cream called Reducine, which was sold around the same time—and still is—as a remedy for horse lameness.)


An ad for Weil Reducing Belt
Spicy-Adventure Stories // Public Domain

First appearing around 1922, the Weil Scientific Reducing Belt promised to “melt away surplus fat” thanks to a “massage” action that would occur as the body moved against the “self-massaging belt.” Unlike most of the weight-loss products we’ve highlighted here, Weil’s belt was marketed primarily to men, advertising in magazines like Popular Mechanics, The Rotarian, The American Legion Weekly, and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen’s Magazine. Even ads in female-focused movie magazines like Screenland were headlined with callouts to “Fat Men!” The belt spent more than a decade on the market, but in 1936, the Federal Trade Commission launched an inquiry into the Weil Company for fraudulent advertising claims, eventually issuing a cease and desist order for any marketing asserting that the Weil Scientific Reducing Belt could actually reduce weight or fat, build up muscle, increase circulation, increase energy, “or otherwise improve the health” [PDF].


“Just think that all one has to do to take off ugly—unsightly rolls of FAT is to chew two or three pieces of a refreshing, delightful chewing gum.” Just think! Unlike many other so-called “obesity cures,” Silph Reducing Chewing Gum actually had the power to effect weight loss—but that’s because, despite marketing claims that it “contains no thyroid or dangerous drugs” [PDF], Silph included desiccated animal thyroid that exerted a hazardous influence on the metabolism. This mid-1920s product was also laced with laxatives and poisonous pokeroot. In 1926, the Post Office issued a fraud order and banned the product from being advertised or shipped by U.S. mail.

The idea of weight-loss gum reappeared in the early 1970s with Vel-X Gum. Advertised in comic books, Vel-X was investigated by the FDA and banned in 1972 from claiming any weight-loss properties.


An ad for the weight loss supplement Neutroids
Screenland // Public Domain

To promote his weight-loss invention Neutroids, Dr. R.L. Graham offered a bizarre explanation of why the body produces fat. “The fat in your body is caused by a simple chemical process,” ads explained. “Yeast cells in your stomach combine with starch and sugar and form ALCOHOL. When alcohol gets in the blood, fatty tissue is made instead of healthy, lean muscle. Fat people, even though they may be TOTAL ABSTAINERS have four billion yeast cells (or more) in their stomachs—enough to make 4 ounces of alcohol a day!” The solution: Neutroids, which purportedly destroyed yeast cells in the stomach and thus prevented the body from developing fat. The ads even included a helpful visualization of the resulting “reduction in stomach yeast cells,” in the form of a sketch of what looks like piles of grain.

Of course, Dr. Graham was wrong about why the body produces fat, and while his Neutroids could potentially have caused weight loss, it was not for the reason he asserted. According to analysis by the AMA’s Bureau of Investigation, the tablets contained 50 percent iodol, which the Bureau described as “distinctly poisonous”—a substance known to cause emaciation and death if taken in significant amounts.


An ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes
Collection of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising // Used with permission

Beginning in 1929, Lucky Strike Cigarettes ran an ad campaign urging people to lose weight by having a smoke whenever they felt a craving for food. Marketers considered a tagline that rhymed, “[W]hen tempted to nibble remember your middle. Light up a Lucky … be smart, be slender!” They eventually settled on the simple command “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” However, facing the threat of lawsuits from candy-makers, Lucky Strike dropped the word “sweet,” telling consumers to just “Reach for a Lucky instead.”

Lucky Strike ads condemned “harmful reducing girdles, fake reducing tables [and] other quack ‘anti-fat’ remedies condemned by the Medical profession,” explicitly positioning their cigarettes as a safe, doctor-approved weight-loss alternative to “ridiculous and dangerous nostrums.” Oddly enough, the company did not claim that Lucky cigarettes themselves caused weight loss, but only that the practice of having a smoke instead of a snack led to weight loss. We now know that smoking is an appetite-suppressant—and not just if you reach for a cigarette instead of a candy bar.


“The best exercise for the strong, the weak, also the blind, lame or crippled”—or so it claimed—Vigor’s Horse Action Saddle promised to cure everything from obesity to hysteria. Though it may look ridiculous to us today, in 1894 the British medical journal The Lancet called the product “very ingenious.” Vigor & Co. sold multiple versions of this device, with the cheapest costing 7 guineas and the most expensive going for 21 guineas. The models meant for women came equipped with a side saddle, while the men’s versions were designed for the user to sit astride. Though you won’t find horse-riding machines at workout facilities nowadays, the devices were relatively popular in their time—the Titanic even included a motorized version in its first-class gymnasium in 1912.


Sold during the 1930s by the Conley Company, the Hemp Bodi-Massager offered to roll your fat away. Equipped with rubber balls attached to a handle, the product claimed to massage “just like skillful human hands,” but the Council on Physical Therapy at the AMA reported that “it did exactly what, in practicing good massage, a masseur tries to avoid,” pinching the skin instead of kneading deep tissue. In 1935, the FTC blocked the Conley Company from a laundry list of claims, including any statements that the Hemp Body-Massager caused weight-loss or that it “works like magic” [PDF].

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images
An Affair to Dismember: John Wayne Bobbitt's Penis at 25
Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images
Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1993, Manassas, Virginia manicurist Lorena Bobbitt crept into the bedroom she shared with her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt. While John—who had been drinking heavily—slept, she proceeded to mutilate his genitals with a 12-inch kitchen knife. When a drunken John woke up, the sheets were covered in blood; Lorena ran to her car, knife and lump of flesh in tow. Not quite sure what to do next, she wound up tossing part of his shaft out the window.

The scene was so morbid and so titillating that the news media couldn’t get enough. From the time Lorena performed the amputation to her acquittal seven months later, the story of a marriage so broken it ended in genital disfigurement ran almost around the clock.

But reporters had a major hurdle to clear: The word penis had never been printed or spoken aloud with any regularity in American news coverage.

They tried euphemisms, i.e. male member, appendage. When those ran out, The New York Times finally acquiesced and began using “penis” in their coverage of the criminal trial. According to journalist Gay Talese, the sheer volume of the Bobbitt circus broke one of the last sexual taboos in mainstream culture. Soon after, the word penis began regularly appearing on late night talk shows and in print.

There was really no other choice. While the Bobbitt case raised issues over domestic violence, female empowerment, and even the threshold for celebrity, the story always boiled down to that one lurid moment. John Wayne’s reattached, mostly functional penis was—and perhaps still is—the most famous sexual organ in America.


John Wayne and Lorena first met in 1988, when the burly 21-year-old Marine walked into a club for enlisted men near Quantico in Virginia and spotted the then-19-year-old, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela. They married just months later and settled in Manassas, where Lorena worked in the beauty industry and John Wayne worked as a cab driver and bar bouncer. Friends and relatives of the couple who would later be questioned on the witness stand described a tumultuous coupling, one that saw the two separated briefly in 1991 before reconciling.

John Wayne was temperamental and physical with Lorena, a fact that her eventual prosecutors would later admit. Divorce was on the table when John Wayne came home the night of June 23, 1993 and when, Lorena alleged, he raped her. (In a separate trial, a jury found John Wayne not guilty of martial sexual abuse in the five days preceding the attack.) After falling asleep, he awoke to a mutilated penis, his wife having excised an inch or more of its lower third portion.

Police retrieved the missing flesh and handed it over to emergency doctors. Before being wheeled in for a nine-hour operation to reattach the severed portion, John Wayne said he considered suicide.

John Wayne Bobbitt testifies during a court appearance in 1994
Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The surgery was more or less successful—John Wayne later recollected calling his mother and enthusiastically telling her he had gotten his first post-operative erection—but attempts to have Lorena convicted for the attack were not. In January 1994, a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The defense argued that Lorena had been so traumatized by abuse that she acted irrationally but not maliciously.

The trial and its outcome seemed to provide metaphorical fuel for ever-present issues regarding gender. Although he had not technically been castrated, John Wayne was certainly emasculated, and in a rather horrific way—punishment, some believed, for his deplorable behavior. In defacing his manhood, Lorena seemed to become emblematic of what some women felt like doing to spousal abusers.

Lorena fielded book, movie, and interview offers but largely stayed out of the spotlight, reverting to her maiden name and trying to disappear. (She was also sentenced to a 45-day psychiatric evaluation to make sure she presented no danger to the public.) It was John Wayne who perpetuated his own celebrity, turning what was a gruesome assault into a story worth monetizing.

First, there was the requisite appearance on The Howard Stern Show in December 1993—one of many—in which Stern attempted to fundraise for Bobbitt’s $250,000 in medical and legal expenses.

Stern and other interviewers were preoccupied with Bobbitt’s sexual ability. As of that December, Bobbitt told Stern, he had not been able to engage in any intercourse; he claimed his penis bore little evidence of the attack aside from a “slight” scar; it hurt a little when he showered. He urinated with use of a catheter for two months following the procedure.

The radio panhandling met with some success, although as some observers noted virtually from the beginning, Bobbitt’s opportunities to cash in on his notoriety were almost inevitably in the red light district of the entertainment industry. In 1994, he signed a deal for $1 million to appear in an adult video distributed by Leisure Time Communications titled John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut. A kind of pornographic biopic, Bobbitt played himself, reenacting the attack and then proving his restored sexual abilities by engaging in sexual acts with a succession of actresses. In what must be one of the few adult movie reviews published by Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman observed that Bobbitt’s reconstructed penis had “no real stitch marks” but looked as though it “may have lost an inch or two.”

Uncut was a curiosity, but Bobbitt was unable to sustain interest in two follow-up tapes: One was titled Frankenpenis and may have lived up to a viewer’s anticipation of a freakish member, due to a penis enlargement surgery John Wayne underwent following the release of the first video.


Having exhausted his potential in pornography, Bobbitt and his penis sought other venues. First, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy. When that failed to pan out, Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunny Ranch brothel, paid him $50,000 a year to be a bartender/chauffeur/handyman

, not unlike the way aging boxing legends like Joe Louis used to stand near casino doors so patrons could shake the hand of a champion.

At the Ranch, Bobbitt introduced himself to men waiting for prostitutes and sometimes indulged their request to have him drop his pants for a look. Hof didn’t keep him on for long, later calling him a “stupid, low-life creep” and “boring oaf” who couldn’t keep his hands off of Hof’s female employees.

John Wayne Bobbitt arrives for a court appearance in 1994
J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images

Bobbitt later found a brief home in a carnival, alongside a professional insect eater and a man with a split tongue. Here, too, Bobbitt seemed to fail in realizing his potential, refusing to be a target for a knife-thrower or learn the art of hammering nails into his nose.

He also appeared to have learned little from the consequences of his boorish behavior. In 1999, he was jailed for pushing a girlfriend into a wall. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with battery in relation to an incident involving his new wife, Joanna Ferrell, the third such allegation during their now-defunct marriage. (He was later acquitted.) The accusations cost him a gig facing off against Joey Buttafuoco on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing.

Currently, Bobbitt has settled in Niagara Falls and works as a limo driver and carpenter. Lorena has founded Lorena’s Red Wagon, an organization offering assistance to women victimized by domestic violence. Lorena’s actions in 1993 were largely unmatched until 2011, when a California woman named Catherine Kieu took a knife and severed her husband’s penis following an argument.

The man would not have an opportunity for a Bobbitt-esque reattachment and subsequent victory lap. Perhaps learning from Lorena’s mistake, Kieu didn't merely toss the severed flesh away. She pulverized the penis in their garbage disposal.


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