Steve Ainsworth traces the roots of a description synonymous with dodgy dealing

Today the term ‘Snake Oil Salesman’ is an expression of opprobrium attached to any conman trying to sell a phony product. But, only a century ago, it was still possible to buy snake oil from one’s local pharmacy – with or without genuine snake in the recipe.

The original snake oil salesmen are indelibly associated with the USA. Though snake oil is said to have had its origins in the Far East. In the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants were brought to the USA in large numbers to work as labourers on building the first transcontinental railway. Those workers brought with them snake oil, one of many traditional Chinese medicines, which they used to treat joint pains such as arthritis and bursitis. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief.

Word soon got around that snake oil medicine was a commercial opportunity not to be missed. In the 20th century, the snake oil salesman became a stock character in Western books and films. The characters were very much based on real people.

Travelling medicine shows toured the western states, travelling at first by horsedrawn wagon and later by rail. In small towns, they peddled every kind of ‘patent’ medicine, and drew crowds by providing a variety of entertainment. Their snake oil medicines and other ‘miracle elixirs’ were confidently claimed to cure any disease in man or beast, smooth wrinkles, remove stains and prolong life.

Stealing the show
Though these travelling shows were nominally run by a ‘doctor’, the entertainment typically included a freak show, a flea circus, musicians and magicians. Often more akin to a circus than a medical service, other entertainers such as acrobats, musclemen, exotic dancers, and exhibitions of trick shooting would keep the audience entranced until the slick-talking snake oil salesman could deliver his pitch and sell his highly-profitable medicine.

It was, of course, a con. The ‘doctor’ was seldom either a doctor or a pharmacist. But he was a good salesman. And, to help his credibility, accomplices planted in the crowd would often attest to the value of the product in an effort to increase confidence amongst potential customers. The medicine show would have left town long before any buyers concluded that the miracle product they had bought might not have been quite so miraculous as they had been promised.

But what exactly was in ‘snake oil? In fact, the composition of snake oil medicines varied markedly. The best known was ‘Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment’.

Clark Stanley was the self-styled ‘Rattlesnake King’, and, by the start of the 20th century, he was America’s best known snake oil manufacturer. Stanley’s personal history was ‘colourful’, and perhaps not wholly true: he claimed to have been born in Abilene, Texas, in 1854. The cattle town of Abilene was not, however, founded until 1881. The Rattlesnake King also claimed that, at the age of 25, after spending 11 years working as a cowboy, he had studied for two years with a Hopi Indian medicine man in Arizona. His tuition included learning the secrets of snake oil.

With the help of a Boston pharmacist, Stanley began marketing his product at medicine shows throughout the west. But Stanley was after bigger bucks. In 1893, he and his rattlesnakes were a hit attraction at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His performance included killing rattlesnakes on stage and squeezing their bodies for ‘snake oil’. Later Stanley and his pharmacist partner went on to establish production facilities in Beverly, Massachusetts. Those big bucks were close.

Farming fallacy
By 1901, Stanley and his partner had moved to a bigger manufacturing plant in Providence, Rhode Island. There, he claimed to kill 3,000 snakes for his snake oil each year, as well as 2,000 more at his ‘snake farm’ in Texas. “In covered pens may be seen thousands of snakes fattened ready to be killed for their oil,” a reporter wrote.

The product labelling was unequivocal: “For Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Contracted Muscles, Sprains, Swellings, Frost Bites, Chilblains, Bruises, Sore Throat, Bites of Animals, Insects and Reptiles. Good for Man and Beast. A Liniment that penetrates Muscle, Membrane and Tissue to the very bone itself, and banishing pain with a power that has astonished the Medical Profession.”

An advertising poster of the time advised that the product was ‘available from all druggists’. Sadly, in 1917, the US Federal Government decided to seize and test Stanley’s snake oil liniment. On analysis, it was found to contain mineral oil, 1 per cent fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), red pepper, turpentine and camphor.

This is not unlike modern capsaicin and camphor liniments. None of the oil content was found to have been extracted from any actual snakes. The government prosecuted Stanley and his business for misbranding and misrepresenting its product, winning a somewhat nominal judgment of just $20 against them.

But if the fine was derisory the consequences were substantial. As a direct result of the court case ‘snake oil’ became synonymous with quack cures, and ‘snakeoil salesmen’ became a synonym for charlatans, conmen and dodgy politicians. And it has been so ever since.

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