• Notes From The Frontier

The Original Snake Oil


Cure-alls, quackery, flimflammery, tartuffery & hocus pocus! The wacky world of medicinal cures in the 1800s.



Cure-alls promising everything from protection from the deadliest diseases to good fortune and relief from unhappiness have existed probably as long as the human condition has existed. Hope is a human trait and hope embodied in a liquid or powder has always had an irresistible allure for humans.


But in the 1800s in America, cure-alls in a bottle became the panacea for all troubles and tribulations from baldness to bad breath, from flatulence to flat foot, tuberculosis to toothaches, diabetes to dementia. The biggest seller, the cure that really started it all was snake oil.


Snake oil had long been used in many ancient cultures, especially the Chinese, as a common medication for minor pains. The ointment has traditionally been made from the fat tissue of the Chinese Water Snake, which modern science has since revealed is very rich in omega-3 acids that reduce inflammation. So its claims of helping to alleviate arthritis, bursitis and minor muscle aches probably did have some efficacy.


The folk remedy spread first to Britain when its colonizing efforts spread to the Orient and some Chinese medicines were introduced to the United Kingdom. In 1712, Richard Stoughton’s elixir, made from vipers, was first patented.


Many other snake oil concoctions appeared on the European markets, including recipes for homemade snake oil. One snake oil recipe from 1719 appeared in (Juan de Loeches’ Tyrocinium Pharmaceticum, printed in Spain: "The viper oil of Mesues. Take 2 pounds of live snakes and 2 pounds 3 ounces of sesame oil. Cook slowly, covered in a glazed pot, until meat pulls away from bone. Strain and store. Use to clean skin, removes pimples, impetigo and other defects."


The boon in snake oil usage in America really came with the Chinese laborers building the First Continental Railroad. The thousands of Chinese workers, no doubt had many joint and muscle pains from the rigorous railroad work, and they used their native snake oil medications to treat their aches and pains. The practice spread like wildfire to miners, pioneers, ranchers, and other settlers, who had their own considerable aches and pains from frontier life.


The California Gold Rush and the massive immigration of many Chinese to the new territory also presented fertile markets for traveling “snake oil salesmen” who often drove painted wagons splashed with promises of cures, happiness, and relief from all cares. Their wagons were brimming with a pharmacopeia of elixirs, ointments, tinctures, powders, salves, serums, pills, tablets, and horse pills that could cure whatever ailed you. And if you did not have an ailment, you would probably be talked into having one!


Many cures contained high amounts of alcohol, cocaine or even heroin, which was bound to make you feel better, at least for a little while. And the numerous snake oil treatments, that bore dubious names like “Old Hag,” “Rattlesnake King,” “Daffy’s Elixir,” “Old Crow,” and even “Red’s Pure Old Panther Piss”, most probably contained little if any ingredients derived from snakes, given the difficulty in obtaining and handling such creatures and rendering them for medicinal purposes.


One of the most infamous snake oil products, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was finally examined by the new government Bureau of Chemistry after the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906 and found to contain only mineral oil. Stanley faced federal prosecution and hence forth, “snake oil” and “snake oil salesmen” became synonymous with fraud and charlatans peddling fraudulent goods.


The snake oil movement expanded to even more dubious medicants: Dr. Baffy’s Asthma Cigarettes were recommended for breathing problems. Bickmore’s Mortician Powder spread on the entire body allayed body odors. Bayer’s Heroin Hydrochlor cured colds. French’s Cold Treatment contained alcohol, cannabis and chloroform. Coca-cola containing cocaine was recommended for headaches. Codeine, cocaine, heroin, cannabis, laudanum, and opium were common ingredients that eventually fueled an opioid epidemic among the American population, especially Civil War veterans after the Civil War.

Snake oil salesmen and their questionable cures became fixtures in the Old West and wreaked untold havoc on those looking desperate for help. In 1927, Stephen Vincent Benet’s wrote his epic poem, John Brown’s Body, and referred to the West’s snake oil salesmen as: "Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades ... sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings."


Some things never change....


©2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER


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