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Mountebanks; Pyramid Schemes and Ponzi Schemes

Updated on December 1, 2014
The Mountebank, aka, quack, travelling doctor, magician, performer, often travelled with a circus or some other performance show. This is a Painting of a mountebank plying his medical snake oil trade on the unsuspecting.
The Mountebank, aka, quack, travelling doctor, magician, performer, often travelled with a circus or some other performance show. This is a Painting of a mountebank plying his medical snake oil trade on the unsuspecting. | Source
Even in popular cartoons, we see the mounteback depicted.
Even in popular cartoons, we see the mounteback depicted. | Source
Mountebanks came in many presentations, but they usually had some wondrous and miraculous cure to promote and sell.
Mountebanks came in many presentations, but they usually had some wondrous and miraculous cure to promote and sell. | Source

From the Days of Gypsy Caravans to International Financial Deception

In the era prior to the 20th century, especially in Europe, there were plenty of self declared healers and wheelers that procured a living based on the misery found in the grass roots of most cultures where ignorance and gullibility prevailed and was cultured in the lowest in society by the elites. By elites, this refers to the royal court and the religious order, followed by the emerging bourgeoisie. The Mountebank (from the old French) or in English of the era; Mountback, we have the title given to street healers, entertainers, seers, magicians and the like, who functioned as travelling street entrepreneurs, sometimes alone with all their gear packed on their backs and sometimes in a troop with a horse drawn caravan. Thy plied their living from the susceptibility of the peasants and the emerging land displaced working poor of the era. These folk would travel alone, or in gypsy style caravans and sometimes within larger travelling shows like carnivals, circuses and side shows. The more professional mountebank always had his shills within his employ to work up a target audience. Some even had pick pockets in their employ. There was sometimes a band that travelled with the mountebank and of course, there were acts of magic, bottles of cure all medicine for sale and sometimes fortune telling. The Movie “The Inspector General” featuring Danny Kaye, Walter Slezak, et al, shows such a mountebank at work at the beginning of the film during the Napoleonic era in Southern Europe at the height of Napoleon's reign. This mountebank made a living from a dubious cure all that was sold to the desperate, pain ridden and gullible country peasant and small towns folk. A population steeped in magical thinking, religion, superstition, ignorance and gullibility were the prime targets to gather funds from the sale of doubtful cure all medicinal agents, magic acts and fortune telling. This practice still continues, albeit differently as we will see. Many of the arts practised by the mountebank have split into several occupations; mainly, cure all quackery, fortune telling, magicians, street performers, confidence tricksters, drug pushers, hustlers and the like. Some have gone high tech in the era of the internet and command large international audiences with the potential for making a fortune. The most successful are the MLM CEOs who sell nutrients and potions at a high price in a pyramid scheme. These mountebanks are so successful, that they boast mansions and yachts instead of a gypsy caravan of a bygone era. Today, these medicine folk are called quacks, but they still have an unusually strong influence, particularly where an uncertain economy causes desperation for a get rich quick mentality.

We cannot overlook the contribution of witches to the existence of the mountebank as one aspect of witches was their connection to nature and their knowledge of natural cures using available biota and other substances. Witches have been often unjustly persecuted over religious grounds insofar as their apparent miraculous ability to heal where the church failed. But their miracles were based on ancient knowledge passed on for countless generations. The further we delve into the past, the more true it is that witches and witch doctors played a vital role in community health, physically and mentally. It can be said that Jesus, who was a healer, relied on such knowledge and was a traveller, making him both involved with witchery and being a mountebank. He was intimately familiar with magic of the era and may things which he did appeared miraculous, especially to the uninformed. Witches never fared well in the presence of the church, being viewed as competition and accused of being in league with the devil in order to effect such magic. Jesus himself was accused of doing miracles and magic through Beelzebub. For much of history, the witch and the mountebank had a close association and sometimes were one and the same person. Then there are the fakers who offered all sorts of potions, generically called “snake oil” that more often did nothing but cheat folks out of cash or goods and occasionally, poisoned them.

The modern mountebank gets rich from promises of wealth to all who sell some health product or diet program. The mountebank gains and those on the bottom lose.
The modern mountebank gets rich from promises of wealth to all who sell some health product or diet program. The mountebank gains and those on the bottom lose. | Source

Early Manifestations of Healers Were Condemned by Church and Politics

Karl Marx specifically identified mountebanks as among those who were useless “lumpen-proletariat” in the context of making a revolution, as these folk depended on the corruption rife within the existing social order. In his 18th Brumaire, of Louis Bonaparte of 1852, he states in Chapter 5;

Alongside decayed roues (streets, alleys, paths) with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks(emphasis ours), lazzaroni (tools and hired goons of an absolutist government), pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux (pimps), brothel keepers, porters, literati (intellectual critics and mouthpieces of a regime), organ grinders, rag-pickers (dumpster divers, recyclers), knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème. (bohemians; poets, artists, troubadours, ner-do-wells and all other aforementioned)”(1)

Even in the heyday of laisse faire capitalism of the late 18th and the whole 19th century, the bourgeoisie that had deposed the monarchy and the church in France, there were plenty of folk who did not derive any benefit from the bourgeois revolution. Most of these, who supported the overthrow of the monarchy and church by the emerging bourgeoisie, were later betrayed, especially after the terror in 1793 and ending with the takeover by Napoleon Bonaparte who established himself as emperor of France years later. Many displaced peasants and no longer useful folks wound up in the streets to become the emerging lumpen-proletariat. Many made their livelihoods by any means they could find, much like today after the crash of 2008. Among these refuse and flotsam of society was the mountebank/mountback, hitherto fore described. The original mountebank, who was a jack of all trades, split into several practices that are common today. All of them are roundly condemned by many of the Marxist left, both as lumpen-proletariat and under the general category of lifestylism, with some exceptions who in particular, believed in the truth of seers who had proven clairvoyant ability. One such author is Andre Breton of the Surrealist movement. In his book “Manifesto of Surrealism” he provides a defence of the seer in his 1925 writing “A Letter to Seers”. These folk would include clairvoyants, palm readers, astrologers, tarot readers and mediums. Most of the seers were women, but in the current era, there are plenty of men too. A few are genuine, but the majority are frauds, as Marx correctly suggested. In the era prior to the bourgeois revolution, seers were condemned by the church for being in league with the devil, hunted down mercilessly and tormented, and after the revolution, they were cast offs of that revolution, left to fend for themselves. Karl Marx was born and lived in turbulent times and wrote voluminously on many questions. Some of his works were never completed and were written from notes and outlines he left after his death. He lived variously in Germany, France and Britain and was a witness to much of what went on including in the Paris Commune of 1871.

Beware of anything that sounds and looks too good to be true and especially if it recruits you into promoting and selling the same ostensibly to get rich. Chances are you will lose money on some variant of snake oil.
Beware of anything that sounds and looks too good to be true and especially if it recruits you into promoting and selling the same ostensibly to get rich. Chances are you will lose money on some variant of snake oil. | Source

Have Gun Will Travel, Presented a Show on a Mountebank in Season 4, Show 15

The Modern Version of the Mountebank Works in the Same Way as of Old

As society evolved into ever more concentrated manufacturing metropolises, the old ways of the roving gypsy caravans featuring the “wonders” of the mountebank, morphed into the modern day counterpart complete with their own websites and TV specials. Many of the TV promoters hinge around diet solutions to many modern civilized problems like obesity, inflammation, dietetics, immunity problems and other diseases. Many a modern day mountebank still sells his wondrous curative potions at an exorbitant price, with the add on draw that you can get in on the act, get rich quick in the latest pyramid scam if you happen to wind up in one of the upper tiers of their Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) program. This idea tricks the seeker and customer into becoming a shill for the mountebank as a key to personal riches. The mountebank gets rich while you attempt to attract as many folk under you by selling the miracle health potion, in effect, building a pyramid scheme within a larger pyramid in a process called multi-level marketing (3). To become involved in such a program, makes one at least an accessory to the mountebank if not an aspiring mountebank in one's own right. There are hundreds of these schemes in operation at any time including the present, that skirt the fringes of what is legal (4). A few are big and span international regions while most are small, being restricted to more local regions. Some MLMs are well known names and you may know one of the shills personally. Well known names like Amway and Watkins are among the many MLMs (5) and they were sometimes started by a single individual who may have actually worked as a lone wanderer or gypsy caravan mountebank. One company; Shaklee, is a Christian supported pyramid. Many others are less well known and some start-ups don't even offer a product, but will sell positions within the start-up with the promise that the product will soon be available. Many MLMs are listed on the stock exchanges of the world. Some of these products can be financial in nature, which means that banks and insurance companies can be drawn into the pyramid schemes. In financial circles, this is more likely to be referred to as a Ponzi scheme. These mountebank like schemes offer wonders like the non-secured, non-collateralized debt obligations, toxic assets, derivatives, leveraged assets and rehypothicated financial collateral among other services. There is also a neat feedback system between banks and governments via government bonds. Much of this is available on the international market and has recently caused tremendous upheaval in the world economy.

The mountebank is one of the results of laisse faire capitalism, a throwback to an era where there was more healthy competition. But today, with monopoly being the ever encroaching norm, start-up MLMs are finding it harder to establish a fresh niche. With bankers, all they need to do it seems, is to draw something out of thin air and convince the rest of the consumers that there is a new get rich quick miracle afoot, just like the old fashioned travelling mountebank magicians and potion sellers of the gypsy caravan plying their trade in the less aware parts of the world. The Mountebank and the financier have a lot more in common than it appears on the surface. Both have as their objective, to con the masses out of anything of real value for something of questionable worth in exchange.


  1. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 1852, Chp. V






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