By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Dick Quinn was in a cranky mood on October 20, 1978. The 42-year-old had survived a heart attack and bypass surgery six months earlier, but to him it seemed his recovery was not going well. He had no energy, no verve, no spunk. He often found himself weak, stumbling into magazine racks while walking through drugstores. Now his cardiologist at St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis, who'd been telling him that he was doing fine, just fine, had grown exasperated with Quinn's complaints. As Quinn would later
recall, the doctor finally told him: "What do you expect? They took your heart out of your chest, stopped it, cut it, and sewed on it. You can't expect it to run right."
That was the day Quinn decided to liberate himself from the confines of traditional medical care. He had bumped into an acquaintance a few months earlier who'd told him, "You look terrible. You need Capsicum--cayenne red pepper." At the time, Quinn had dismissed the suggestion as "some weird voodoo medicine idea," as heresy being proffered by a "leftover from the '60s." But now he thought back to her words, and drove directly to the general store in Somerset, Wis., where he bought a 69-cent can of Fairway-brand cayenne pepper. Once home, he emptied some capsules from an old prescription in the medicine cabinet, filled three with the pepper, and swallowed them.
Nothing happened until the next morning, when Quinn awoke animated with renewed energy. "I have never gone back to the doctor," Quinn would later write in his memoir. "He has nothing for me." For the next 16 years, he eschewed prescription drugs and mainstream medicine in favor of his own self-styled herbal remedies for cardiovascular health: "Every single day I bet my life on Cayenne. I put all my chips on it."
For his heart, and eventually for his livelihood. During the 1980s Quinn ran a direct-mail business in uptown Minneapolis with partner Charles Langley, who would later become his son-in-law. Quinn had always been a freelance writer, scripting text for direct-mail pitches, catalog copy, and the like. His breezy style of writing and his easygoing, gregarious personality made him a natural for the business. And he possessed an independent, entrepreneurial spirit: Back in the '60s, he'd operated a little business selling South American squirrel monkeys through the mail. Quinn's promotional instincts were second nature, but he didn't find the perfect pitch until the idea of selling cayenne capsules to the ailing public hit him. "He wanted to start telling his story about heart disease
because he thought it was terribly important," Langley recalls. "I think he thought it was his life's mission, that this was what he was put on Earth to do."
Beginning with the launch of Heart Foods Company in Minneapolis a decade after his 1978 epiphany, Quinn created, built, and nurtured his own cottage industry out of nothing more than the finely ground cayenne powder he funneled by hand into pill capsules; a short six years later, the company had sold more than $1 million in herbal supplements. He eventually cast himself in the role of evangelist, extolling, on the U.S. circuit of alternative health conventions and in print, the wonders of the fiery herb that he believed saved, or at least extended beyond all expectations, his life.
Unlike his previous stints writing ad copy for others, Quinn became his own product: His pitch was his story and his convictions about the curative powers of cayenne. Along the way Quinn helped both his closest friend and his eldest son to start their own cayenne-based enterprises, so that even before his death in September 1995, there were four separate and thriving companies--three pepper-peddling outfits and one publishing operation--all inextricably linked to his beat-the-odds life story.
With sales of his cayenne products at more than $250,000 annually, he left family to run Heart Foods in 1992 and continued his empire-building by penning a self-published memoir, Left for Dead--so titled because Quinn believed that's what the medical establishment had done to him. In the chatty, 200-page paperback--which to date has sold, by conservative estimates, some 120,000 copies, at $12.95 each--Quinn described his close call with death, railed against conventional medicine and doctors, and lauded the beneficial effects of herbs--cayenne prime among them.
According to Left for Dead, Quinn started every day with four cayenne capsules; when he found himself fatigued, he popped another and discovered that he could "get a nice lift in about ten minutes." As for his diet, he claimed, "I eat what I like and don't worry about it. Cayenne keeps my arteries clean and helps me control my weight by raising my metabolism." To treat hemorrhoids, he advised a concoction of raw potato and liquid vitamin E. Or cayenne. Quinn was such a cayenne devotee, he wrote, "I have also sprinkled some cayenne in my stockings as extra protection on especially cold winter days in Minnesota."
Quinn would devote the rest of his life to promoting his autobiography on dozens of radio shows and in hundreds of live appearances across the country, generating a faithful following as enamored of the five-alarm fix as he. Mention the cayenne cure in alternative health circles today, and Quinn's name is sure to be invoked, often in reverent tones. But while he exalted the healing effects of herbs, there is no counsel in Left for Dead that's been able to salve the wounds that have festered since Quinn's death at age 59. Acrimony and lawsuits have erupted between his family and friends--both inside and outside the courtroom--largely turning on questions of who stands to profit from the lucrative legacy of Dick Quinn and who has the right to trade on his good name.