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A History of Snake Oil

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Elixirs, potions, and pills guaranteed to cure what ails you have been a favourite of scam artists for a long time. “For just one dollar, Dr. Horatio Horsefeather’s balm will banish forever gout, constipation, toothache, and scrofulous lurgy.”

Patent Medicines

“The term ‘patent medicine’ has become particularly associated with drug compounds in the 18th and 19th centuries, sold with colorful names and even more colorful claims” (Hagley Museum and Library).

Back when Latin was the dominant language such a concoction was called a “nostrum remedium” (our remedy).

By the 17th century, the British Crown granted “patents of royal favour” to people who formulated over-the-counter remedies. Among these we find Dr. John Hooper’s Female Pills that were pedalled as an “anti-hysteric.” The tablets were also said to deal with “a dejected countenance” and “palpitations.”

Dr. Hooper, who was actually a publisher name John Newbery, cleverly inserted a warning on his label that his product should not be taken by pregnant women. People surmised, no doubt incorrectly, that the brew could be used to induce an abortion.

There were plenty of other similar rubbish therapies:

  • Daffy’s Elixir Salutis was said by its inventor, Reverend Thomas Daffy to cure toothache in teething babies. In the 1940s, an unopened bottle was found and analyzed; it was a mixture of the laxative senna and alcohol.
  • Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops treated disorders of the chest as well as diarrhea, cramps, colic, and a bunch of other problems. The active ingredients were alcohol and opium. In 1822, physician and pharmacist Richard Reece wrote that “it is capable of doing irreparable mischief, by disordering the head, constipating the bowels, and accelerating the circulation . . . in the hands of ignorance [it] is a very dangerous remedy.”
  • Godfrey’s Cordial was laudanum in sweet syrup. It was chiefly given to colicky and fussy babies to keep them quiet, which it would do as it was derived from opium. It also killed more than a few.
A struggling young man is force fed Godfrey’s Cordial.

A struggling young man is force fed Godfrey’s Cordial.

Quackery in America

Many of these patent medicines crossed the Atlantic along with immigrants who believed them to be effective. Scoundrels, already long settled, spotted an opportunity to enter the quack cure trade.

In the United States, such brews were rarely patented, but were often trade marked, however the generic term patent medicine was used. Other names were employed: fake remedy, bogus medicine, fraudulent therapy, baloney, and snake oil.

The National Museum of American History says “The second half of the 19th century is considered to be the golden age of American patent medicines.” It was certainly golden for the charlatans who made goop from unicorn hair, pixie dust, and opium.

Let’s say hello to Dr. Sylvester Kilmer (1840-1924) of Binghamton, New York. He studied homeopathic medicine and became a prolific creator of salves to soothe the gullible. There were his Ocean Weed Heart Remedy, Indian Cough and Consumption Cure, and Autumn Leaf Extract. Few could resist the appetizing allure of his Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure.

The National Park Service says of Dr. Kilmer’s potions, his “cures were a mix of roots, herbs, and a hearty dose of alcohol. While it is possible that these plant-based additives did lend healing properties, it was more likely that any relief experienced by those taking the remedy was due to the substantial amount of alcohol present.”

On the plus side, Dr. Kilmer did not put cocaine, opium, or morphine into his elixirs as so many of his competitors did.

For example, Dr. Barton’s “Brown Mixture,” was made by a man who couldn’t think up a snappy brand name. Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton of Philadelphia put his formula on the market as a cough medicine. It contained liquorice and opium and proved to be an entry point for addiction.

There's a happy patient leaping from his sick bed.

There's a happy patient leaping from his sick bed.

Open Season for Bogus Cures

Medical practice in the early 19th century was still fairly primitive; germ theory and antibiotics were still years in the future. Physicians could offer what was sometimes called “heroic medicine”; the hero being the patient who underwent purging, compounds to cause vomiting, and bloodletting.

So, many turned to the offer of a miracle cure in a bottle as a better alternative to having a vein opened. There was no drug regulating mechanism so the flim-flam artists could get away with anything as long as it didn’t kill their costumers, although, in numerous cases, it did.

From the 1970 Movie Little Big Man

The compounds were aggressively advertised in newspapers. The National Museum of American History notes that “Patent medicine makers were pioneers in the use of such advertising techniques as solicitation through the mail, the provision of free samples and promotional trinkets, national newspaper campaigns, outdoor signage, and testimonials.”

The business was far more sophisticated than our mental image of a grifter in a top hat selling bottles of snake oil off his buckboard wagon in some dusty Western town, and then disappearing into the dusk before his clients came down with the staggers and jags.

Drug Regulation

People began to realize that Swaim’s Panacea and others of its ilk were not delivering the promised relief from illness. In 1905, Collier’s magazine ran an expose of the patent medicine industry under the title “The Great American Fraud.” This and other activism led to the Food and Drug Act of 1906.

More rules and regulations followed and labels had to list all ingredients. Violators were prosecuted.

Did government action put a stop to the shady dealings of the snake oil merchants? Of course it didn’t.

Remember Laetrile, the wonder cancer cure that came from apricot pits? It doesn’t work, it was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1980, but it’s still around. Hucksters on the internet sell it under a variety of names with “stories of personal successes after using it, the scientific proof simply isn’t there” (WebMD).

Or, how about fat-busting green coffee beans? Dr. Mehmet Oz on his television show waxes rhapsodically: “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type.” No they haven't and, according to Healthline.com, green coffee beans can cause frequent urination, trouble sleeping, and anxiety.

And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the floodgates for crooks to offer quick fixes. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says that “evidence-free remedies such as pure vodka in Fiji or dried fish in Egypt have been circulating online.” By July 2020, the group had found “243 distinct storylines about false cures, preventative measures, and diagnostic procedures.”

The snake oil scammers haven’t gone away, if anything the internet has made them more prevalent.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to writer J.E.S. Hayes, the following medications were available in America in the 19th century: Sa-Yo Italian Mint Jujubes, Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, The Inspirator and Great Geneva Remedy, Ballard’s Horehound Syrup, Dr. Fuller's Electro Spiral Magnetic Vegetable Vapor Cure, Durno’s Catarrh Snuff, and Dr. Batty’s Asthma Cigarettes.
  • Americans spend $35 billion a year on dietary supplements alone. Food policy expert Tamar Haspel writes in The Washington Post about “vitamins, minerals, botanicals and various other substances that are touted as health-giving but mostly do nothing at all. Nothing at all!”
  • Travelling medicine shows were a popular form of entertainment throughout America during the 19th century; the last ones surviving until the Second World War.

Sources

  • “History of Patent Medicine.” Hagley Museum and Library, undated.
  • “The Art of Medicine.” Adrian Teal, The Lancet, February 1, 2014.
  • “Balm of America: Patent Medicine Collection.” The National Museum of American History, undated.
  • “Dr. Kilmer’s Medicine Bottle.” National Park Service, May 20, 2020.
  • “Is Amygdalin a Safe Cancer Treatment?” Carol DerSarkissian, WebMD, October 28, 2019
  • “Doctor Oz and his Magic Pills.” Rupert Taylor, discover.hubpages.com, January 7, 2019.
  • “Profiting from Panic: the Bizarre Bogus Cures and Scams of the Coronavirus Era.” Alaa Ghoneim, et al., Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 24, 2020.
  • “Coughs & Colds in the Old West.” westernfictioneers.blogspot.com, May 13, 2016.
  • “Most Dietary Supplements Don’t Do Anything. Why Do We Spend $35 Billion a Year on Them? Tamar Haspel, Washington Post, January 27, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on March 07, 2021:

Fascinating. Amazing people were using heavy drugs and it was sold to them as cures.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 05, 2021:

Yes John. They are often also called politicians.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 05, 2021:

Very interesting article Rupert. I think snake oil salesmen will be around forever.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 03, 2021:

I did comment on this Rupert. If you didn’t receive it let me know.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 03, 2021:

You have given us an interesting history of snake oil and other so-called remedies. I think that fake cures or crazy ideas like using bleach to treat Covid-19 are probably here to stay. Buyer, or listener, beware!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 03, 2021:

Thanks Miebakagh but the rascals are selling fake remedies to vulnerable people over the internet more than they ever were in the 19th century. Even big pharmaceutical companies are in on the supplement bonanza.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 03, 2021:

Rupert, in those days, orthodox doctors usually fail they patients. Hence, the rise in the quick fix trade till date.

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