Come! Buy my sketch meds!
You can trust me, because I
Saw Indian once.
Welcome to Quack Week, where we explore some, how shall we say, ‘questionable’ practitioners and peddlers of medicine. We begin with Clark Stanley, who originated our image of the snake oil salesman.
Snake oil as a medicine originated with the Chinese. It came to the US via the workers who came to build the First Transcontinental Railway, using it to treat their occupational aches and pains. It’s efficacy continues to be a matter of debate but it’s definitely preferable to the other popular option of the time period, opium.
Enter Clark Stanley, who was born around 1854 in Texas. We don’t know much about his early life, unless you trust his ‘autobiography’, which claimed that he spent two years studying with a Hopi medicine man. (19th century consumers ate that shit up. “Oh, those Indians are so wise and mystical! Let’s kill the means of their livelihood and swipe their lands.”)
This made him a medical expert, so after branding himself the ‘Rattlesnake King’, he mixed up his Snake Oil Liniment, guaranteed to cure absolutely everything, promise. Then he whipped up an amazing stage show, complete with rattlesnake beheadings, and took it on the road.
Then Big Government swooped in and ruined everything. In 1916, they were gunning for Stanley, using the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Through their analysis, government chemists determined that Stanley’s concoction contained: mineral oil, animal fat, capsaicin (for that spicy flavor), turpentine, and camphor.
Not contained: snake oil.
What seems to have gone down: importing the Chinese water snakes used in the traditional medicine was super expensive. So why not use rattlesnakes instead? Same same, right? NO. Much less oil, much more venom. But… he still wanted money. Surely no one would notice if he just left out the snake oil.
The District Court of Rhode Island fined him $20. That might not seem much (it wasn’t), but the judgement killed public demand for the product.