OLD WEST MEDICINE SHOWS
By Laurie Kingery
Hello Christian Fiction Historical Society readers! For my spot this month I'd like to discuss the old-fashioned medicine shows that sold patent medicines and so-called miracle elixirs in small towns across America, and especially in the old west during the 1800's. My interest in this subject stems from research I did for a character in a future "Brides of Simpson Creek" series book for my publisher, Love Inspired Historicals. As my story (title yet to be thrashed out with my publisher <g>) begins, my hero, Nate Bohannan, is an assistant to an unscrupulous medicine show man who arrives in Simpson Creek to sell his so-called "Cherokee Marvelous Elixir" to the credulous of the town, make a profit, and skedaddle. Robert Salali uses all the tricks of the quintessential snake oil salesman, the supposed connection to arcane Native American lore, the energetic pitch full of hyperbole and claims to miracle cures, the fake testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers who've been relieved of an unbelievable list of ailments ranging from the everyday catarrhs, piles, and dropsies to the psychiatric, hysteria, catatonia and the like.
These medicine show pitchmen, frequently addressed as "Professor" or "Doctor" were also known as "snake oil salesmen." "Snake Oil" has come to represent any sort of fraudulent concoction, and its purveyor a charlatan. One famous snake oil salesman was cowboy Clark Stanley, who supposedly used snakes slaughtered back in Abilene, Texas. Snake Oil when used topically (on the skin) actually did promote some comfort from sore muscles and aching bones, but taken internally, it could cause great harm. When Stanley's products were seized in 1917 and analyzed, it was found to contain only beef fat, kerosene, red pepper, turpentine and camphor, but not a trace of real snake oil. Ironically, "patent medicines" usually were not patented at all, but trademarked.
Medicine shows frequently involved musical acts to attract the interest of passersby from as far away as possible, demonstrations by a "muscle man" of amazing strength, supposedly due to the elixir, horsemanship acts, pow-wows, and invocations to dark spirits. The more organized shows, sent out from the East on various routes simultaneously, involved real Indians, frequently Kickapoos who had supposedly divulged the secret recipes of their concoctions for the good of mankind, but even the one-man shows frequently claimed to be using Indian recipes.
The pitchmen had often planted shills within the crowd who, when the Professor called for "unsolicited testamonials," would come to the front and testify how the elixir had helped them. The pitchman would also offer to demonstrate the miraculous powers of the elixir, and fake "victims" would come forward, hobbling with supposed lameness, for example, only to be "cured" by whatever potion the medicine man was peddling.
The potions often contained a sizeable percentage of alcohol, and even more dangerous ingredients such as turpentine, calomel (a popular patent medicine of the time containing mercury), morphine, opium and cocaine. But many other patent medicines were safe and later became branded items such as Listerine, Milk of Magnesia, Bayer Aspirin, and Vix Vapo-rub.
Doctors, such as my hero in THE DOCTOR TAKES A WIFE (Love Inspired Historicals, 2011) were critical of the dangerous kinds of patent medicines, and they finally won the battle in 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed into law, which required ingredients to be listed on the container and made misleading advertising illegal. In 1938 another law was passed that required testing of a product for safety before it was sold. In 1968 tests for effectiveness were required.
I hope you've enjoyed this look at medicine shows of the 1800's and their pitchmen. I'm obliged to Kathy Wieser of LegendsofAmerica.com for her information and the use of the first picture and the picture below. Another great reference is Lotions, Potions and Deadly Elixirs by Wayne Bethard.
Blessings, Laurie Kingery