Snake oil. Snake oil salesman. Flim flam. A medical con. A 19th century staple. Mix a bit of alcohol with a bit of morphine (or cocaine or heroine or strychinine - name your poison), give it a pretty bottle and an arm's-length list of its therapeutic properties, then hit the road in your wagon and boast of your magic elixir.
To this day, we use the term to describe questionable "natural" health products (and politicians). But where did the term come from? The answer might surprise you. Because snake oil, and its beneficial properties, was at one time the real deal.
Snake oil - or specifically the oil from the Chinese water snake - was a staple among the Chinese laborers who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1850s for the California Gold Rush and then in the 1860s to build the transcontinental railroad. The work they did was back-breaking, and the product they used for relief of sore muscles and bursitis was the snake oil they brought with them. It contained concentrated omega-3 fatty acid. Soon the other workers on the rail lines wanted it, and then enterprising charlatans found an entire new "Cure All" to sell.
Since Chinese water snakes weren't available in the US, rattlesnakes were deemed just as fit for the job. Boil the rattlesnake, skim off the oil, tell customers you got the exact formulation from the Yaquis or Apaches (and add in a good tall tale of your adventures accessing the tribe in a canyon lost to the modern world), add some mineral oil for good measure and take your profits to the bank. Clark Stanley used such a formula for financial success well into 1916 when the newly formed Bureau of Chemistry called his liniment an out-and-out fraud made of mineral oil, camphor, turpentine and chili peppers for a good zing. He pleaded no contest (and no guilt) to the charge of fraud, paid a $20 fine to the Federal government, and one assumes went back to his fancy abode paid for with those many bottles of magic.
One would think that snake oil and the elixirs, remedies, and tonics that followed in its stead would lose their reputation and appeal. How many actually did what they said they would? Since quite a few contained copious amounts of narcotics, my guess is nobody really cared. They either succumbed to the numbing qualities of laudanum (opium and alcohol, and also the main go-to for ladies of the Victorian era) or enjoyed the pleasant drifting buzz of a cough medicine (gluco-heroin is touted as the main ingredient) or saved their pennies for a good slug of whiskey. Patent medicines and the frauds who hawked them abounded in the late 19th century. Consumers from east coast to west coast and the broad swath of wilds in between could not get enough of the stuff.
Which brings us right around to our trusty 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog. Sears had no intention of letting this cash cow pass them by. A small sampling of "medicines" available through the grand dame of merchandising: Mexican Headache and Neuralgia Cure (frees one from martyrdom); Dr. Rose's Obesity Powders (also cures rheumatism, nervousness, headaches, dropsy, and kidney disease); Electric liniment (a newly discovered process where the powders are electrically charged for more forceful treatment of severe cases of rheumatism, sprains, bruises, and lung trouble); White Ribbon Secret Liquor Cure (God knows what was in the powder, but God also knows that imbibing of spirits at the time was at a catastrophic high); and a Sears, Roebuck Twenty-Minute Cold Cure (sold under a positive guarantee).
No more need for The Great Yaquis' Rattlesnake Liniment. Everyone knew that to be a lie. If you needed good solid cure-alls, you turned to pages 440-451 in the Sears catalog and all ails would be relieved. Didn't have a catalog? Any drug store or mercantile would be happy to help.
K.T. Blakemore grew up in the United States West and never left. THE GOOD TIME GIRLS is the first in the Wild-Willed Women of the West Series, featuring women who take no prisoners and succeed through sheer grit, determination, and a parcel of luck.
Her award-winning historical suspense and young adult historical fiction, written under the pen name Kim Taylor Blakemore, has been awarded a Silver Falchion Award, Tucson Festival of Book Literary Award, and a WILLA Award for Best YA Fiction.
In addition to writing, she runs the Novelitics ranch, which provides developmental editing and workshops to novelists. She teaches editing and craft workshops to writing groups around the United States and Canada.
She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse.
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