Last updated
Pietro Longhi: The Charlatan, 1757 Bemberg Fondation Toulouse - Le Charlatan - Pietro Longhi - Inv 1029.jpg
Pietro Longhi: The Charlatan, 1757

A charlatan (also called a swindler or mountebank) is a person practising quackery or some similar confidence trick or deception in order to obtain money, fame or other advantages via some form of pretense or deception. Synonyms for "charlatan" include "shyster", "quack", or "faker". "Mountebank" comes from the Italian montambanco or montimbanco based on the phrase monta in banco – literally referring to the action of a seller of dubious medicines getting up on a bench to address his audience of potential customers. [1] "Quack" is a reference to "quackery" or the practice of dubious medicine or a person who does not have actual medical training who purports to provide medical services.



The word comes from French charlatan , a seller of medicines who might advertise his presence with music and an outdoor stage show. The best known of the Parisian charlatans was Tabarin, who set up a stage in the Place Dauphine, Paris in 1618, and whose commedia dell'arte inspired skits and farces inspired Molière. The word can also be traced to Spanish; charlatán , an indiscreetly talkative person, a chatterbox. Ultimately, etymologists trace "charlatan" from either the Italian ciarlare , [2] to chatter or prattle; or from Cerretano, a resident of Cerreto, a village in Umbria, known for its quacks. [3]


Hieronymous Bosch paints a scene of a Renaissance mountebank fleecing credulous gamblers. Hieronymus Bosch 051.jpg
Hieronymous Bosch paints a scene of a Renaissance mountebank fleecing credulous gamblers.

In usage, a subtle difference is drawn between the charlatan and other kinds of confidence tricksters. The charlatan is usually a salesperson of a certain service or product, who does not try to create a personal relationship with his "marks" (the persons to whom the service or product is sold), or set up an elaborate hoax or con game using roleplaying. Rather, the person called a charlatan is being accused of resorting to quackery, pseudoscience, or some knowingly employed bogus means of impressing people in order to swindle his victims by selling them worthless nostrums and similar goods or services that will not deliver on the promises made for them. One example of a charlatan is a 19th-century medicine show operator, who has long since left town by the time the people who bought his "snake oil" or similarly named "cure-all" tonic realize that it does not perform as advertised. A misdirection by a charlatan is a confuddle, a dropper is a leader of a group of con men and hangmen are con men that present false checks. A gaff means to trick or con and a mugu is a victim of a rigged game.

In reported spiritual communications, a charlatan is a person who fakes evidence that a spirit is "making contact" with the medium and seekers. Notable people who have successfully debunked the claims of purported supernatural mediums include magician/scientific skeptic James Randi, Brazilian writer Monteiro Lobato and magician Harry Houdini.

Infamous individuals

See also

Related Research Articles

Snake oil fraudulent medication

Snake oil is a euphemism for deceptive marketing and health care fraud. It refers to the petroleum-based mineral oil or "snake oil" that used to be sold as a cure-all elixir for many kinds of physiological problems. Many 19th-century United States and 18th-century European entrepreneurs advertised and sold mineral oil as "snake oil liniment", making frivolous claims about its efficacy as a panacea. William Rockefeller Sr. sold "rock oil" as a cancer cure without the reference to snakes. Patent medicines that claimed to be a panacea were extremely common from the 18th century until the 20th, particularly among vendors masking addictive drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol and opium-based concoctions or elixirs, to be sold at medicine shows as medication or products promoting health.

Confidence trick Attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence

A confidence trick is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their trust. Confidence tricks exploit victims using their credulity, naïveté, compassion, vanity, irresponsibility, and greed. Researchers have defined confidence tricks as "a distinctive species of fraudulent conduct ... intending to further voluntary exchanges that are not mutually beneficial", as they "benefit con operators at the expense of their victims ".

Quackery Promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices

Quackery, often synonymous with health fraud, is the promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices. A quack is a "fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill" or "a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, qualification or credentials they do not possess; a charlatan or snake oil salesman". The term quack is a clipped form of the archaic term quacksalver, from Dutch: kwakzalver a "hawker of salve". In the Middle Ages the term quack meant "shouting". The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market shouting in a loud voice.

Patent medicine product that is promoted and sold as a medical cure, which may not have any medical value

A patent medicine, also known as a nostrum, is a commercial product advertised as a purported over-the-counter medicine, without regard to its effectiveness.

Gustavus Katterfelto Prussian magician and quack

Gustavus Katterfelto was a Prussian conjurer, scientific lecturer, and quack.

The panacea, named after the Greek goddess of universal remedy Panacea, is any supposed remedy that is claimed to cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. It was in the past sought by alchemists in connection with the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone, a mythical substance which would enable the transmutation of common metals into gold.

John R. Brinkley American physician

John Romulus Brinkley was an American who fraudulently claimed to be a medical doctor who became known as the "goat-gland doctor" after he achieved national fame, international notoriety and great wealth through the xenotransplantation of goat testicles into humans. Although initially Brinkley promoted this procedure as a means of curing male impotence, eventually he claimed that the technique was a virtual panacea for a wide range of male ailments. He operated clinics and hospitals in several states, and despite the fact that almost from the beginning, detractors and critics in the medical community thoroughly discredited his methods, he was able to continue his activities for almost two decades.

Elisha Perkins American physician

Elisha Perkins was a United States physician who created his own fraudulent medical device, the Perkins Patent Tractors. It was later subject of the first placebo research.

Morris Fishbein American physician (1889–1976)

Morris Fishbein M.D. was a physician who became the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) from 1924 to 1950.

George Walter de la Warr was born in the Northern England, and in later life became a civil engineer in the pay of Oxfordshire County Council. In 1953 he resigned from this post to work on within the discredited field of radionics, in which he was a pioneer. His devices were denounced by medical experts.

Siddha medicine System of traditional medicine originating in South India

Siddha medicine is a traditional medicine originating in Tamil Nadu, India and practiced over centuries. The Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy of the Government of India regulates training in Siddha medicine and other traditional practices grouped collectively as AYUSH. Practitioners are called siddhars, and may have formal training with advanced degrees, such as BSMS, MD or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The Central Council of Indian Medicine, a statutory body established in 1971 under AYUSH, monitors education in areas of rural Indian medicine, including Siddha medicine.

Radionics form of alternative medicine

Radionics—also called electromagnetic therapy (EMT) and the Abrams Method—is a form of alternative medicine that claims that disease can be diagnosed and treated by applying electromagnetic radiation (EMR), such as radio waves, to the body from an electrically powered device. It is similar to magnet therapy, which also applies EMR to the body but uses a magnet that generates a static electromagnetic field.

William Frederick Koch (1885–1967) was a U.S. medical doctor and pharmaceutical entrepreneur. In the 1940s he marketed glyoxylide, a drug which he claimed would cure cancer. The claims were never scientifically proved, and he was considered a charlatan by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Natural News is a far-right conspiracy theory and fake news website. The website sells various dietary supplements, promotes alternative medicine and climate change denial, makes tendentious nutrition and health claims, disseminates fake news, and espouses various conspiracy theories and pro-Donald Trump propaganda. These conspiracy theories include chemophobic claims about the purported dangers of "chemtrails", fluoridated drinking water, anti-perspirants, laundry detergent, monosodium glutamate, aspartame, and vaccines. It has also spread conspiracy theories about the Zika virus allegedly being spread by genetically modified mosquitoes and purported adverse effects of genetically modified crops, as well as the farming practices associated with and foods derived from them.


The Electropoise was a fake medical instrument patented and sold in the United States of America by Hercules Sanche, who also invented and sold other later fake instruments later termed as "electroquackery" such as the "Oxydonor" to remedy a range of ailments.

Ruth Beymer Drown was an American chiropractic and proponent of radionics.

William Read (oculist) English oculist

William Read was a well-known unqualified quack medical practitioner who made fraudulent medical claims, styled himself as an oculist and was knighted by Queen Anne for his medical services.

Arthur J. Cramp British-born American medical doctor, researcher, and writer

Arthur Joseph Cramp was a medical doctor, researcher, and writer. He served as director of the American Medical Association's (AMA) Propaganda for Reform Department from 1906 to 1936. He was a regular contributor to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). Cramp was "a bitter opponent of proprietary and medicinal abuses." His three volume series on 'Nostrums and Quackery', along with his public lectures to schools, professional groups, and civic organizations across the country, helped bring awareness to the problem of patent medicines or nostrums, by subjecting the claims to scientific analysis. He was critical the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and advocated stronger regulation of product labeling and advertising. In an article announcing his death, the AMA called him "a pioneer in the fight against quackery and fraud in the healing arts."


  1. Dictionary Reference, possibly a folk etymology
  2. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Charlatan"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 5 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 891.
  3. Charlatan.
  4. Radionics Skeptics Dictionary.
  5. Nash, Jay Robert. (2004). The Great Pictorial History of World Crime, Volume 2. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 364. ISBN   1-928831-20-6 "Gustavus Katterfelto launched a successful medical swindle. Passing himself off as a worldly philosopher and scientist, Katterfelto swindled Londoners with his sleight of hand tricks and medicine show for nearly three years. In 1872, he claimed to have invented the Solar Microscope, which he used to detect a deadly plague similar to the Black Death."
  6. Quen, Jacques M. (1963). Elisha Perkins, Physician, Nostrum-Vendor, or Charlatan? Bulletin of the History of Medicine 37: 159–166.

Further reading