Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Worst than the Ailment Itself was the Medicine that was Supposed to Cure You

There’s money to be made in medicine. That statement is no truer today than it was 170 years ago when Chinese immigrants came to America and were enlisted in the work of building the Transcontinental Railroad. When the backbreaking work became too intensive and tight, aching muscles and joints plagued them, they used oil they had extracted from Chinese water snakes, which were mildly venomous, to ease the pain. This, along with a growing awareness of the common man’s plight of not having access to medical care in rural America, drove unscrupulous salesmen to concoct their own brand of snake oil remedies and travel by wagon to sell their wares to unsuspecting consumers. Thus, traveling medicine shows in which stooges (men who were in cahoots with the traveling salesmen) were sometimes sent ahead to the next town they would be visiting to announce the coming show. But more than not, the stooges were planted among the spectators and, not disclosing the fact that they knew the traveling salesman, were then used to attest to the healing properties of the salesman’s concoction.

One of the reasons the traveling medicine shows were so popular was because they provided much entertainment to the townspeople. Not only did the traveling salesmen know how to pitch their concoctions with flattery and all kinds of flowery speech, but they usually incorporated a few magic tricks or touted the benefits of using their concoctions by showing muscle men in the prime of life who were using it. Great pains were taken by these salesmen, as is also demonstrated by such salesmen as those who actually slit open rattlesnakes and threw into a pot of boiling water as a knock-off on the snake oil idea. As you might imagine, the crowd would have responded with such shocked yet morbid fascination so as to keep their eyes fixed on the spectacle.

These salesmen certainly knew how to draw a crowd in.

The problem with this was that rattlesnakes don’t contain nearly the amount of Omega-3 oil that the Chinese water snake possesses, which reduces inflammation. One such salesman whose snake oil helped the word to become synonymous with fraud in American culture was Clark Stanley. His snake oil concoction was seized by the government after the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906 and determined to be made from mineral oil, red peppers, beef fat, and turpentine. Stanley was fined $20, which equals a little over $400 in today’s economic scale.

Snake oil medicine was not the only cure-all that appeared on the scene in this volatile time period. Others, such as Cocaine Toothache Drops, Needham’s Red Clover Blossoms & Extracts, Jamaican Ginger, Benjamin Brandreth’s Vegetable Universal Pills, and Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills were advertised in newspapers, and some were actually mentioned in popular literature of the day. Many of them contained opioids and other harmful ingredients, including alcohol. The Food and Drug Administration has since regulated medicine and its proper advertisement. 

From this colorful chapter in American history, the snake oil salesman has become a fixture in Western lore. In my latest book, Hope Springs Eternal, I used a snake oil salesman as a cover for my antagonist, whose real purpose is to find his ex-partner-in-crime’s widow and extract certain details of their missing loot from her. I originally had it in mind to make him pretend to be a long-lost relative of Susannah, who has lost her memory due to a skating accident, but the snake oil salesman persona in and of itself is much more vibrant for a character, and it blended so effortlessly into the story. 

Hope Springs Eternal is a story of love and the power of healing—real healing—that comes from learning to trust in God. It is the second book in my new Brides of Hope Hollow series and releases this Thursday, January 30, 2020. Take a look here: https://amzn.to/2Mb5lDH


  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I didn't know the exact etymology of the term "snake oil salesman." It's always fascinating to read about some of the wilder medical treatments of the past.

    1. You're welcome, Bea! I learned a lot while researching this subject as well.

  2. This is so very interesting, Thank you so much for sharing this information, I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot from it.

    1. You're so welcome, Alicia. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


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