Step Right Up Ladies and Gentlemen - Have I Got A Deal For You!


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

(Public Domain)

The salesman promised a tonic that cured whatever ailed you and people came and bought the “miracle drug”. The market for this miracle cure had it’s beginnings during the California Gold Rush and exploded as Chinese immigrants moved into the West Coast bringing with them their culture of medicine and remedies including the Chinese water snake. The Chinese water snake had been used successfully for years in China to cure their aches and pains and there was a whole new market in their new country.

Unfortunately the Chinese water snake is not found on the west coast of the United States nor anywhere else in the country So how did snake oil originally sold as a “cure” for what ails you devolve into a whole new industry for shysters. It’s the old time honor tradition of greed. Once a lucrative product arrives on the scene people are ready, willing and able to get in on the action and towards the latter half of the 1800’s charlatans were making huge money by marketing whatever they could pass off as “snake oil”.

At first they began by boiling rattlesnakes and skimming off the oil that rose to the surface, although as the people came to buy, hucksters found other cheaper and easier ways to pass off the oil.

Then it was on to marketing.
Of course the first method to fool the people
put it in a pretty container


(Public Domain)

and then advertise it cures all
chronic pain, headaches,
"female complaints" and kidney trouble​

On the front page of “The Daily Evening Tribune” on January 31, 1884 the following advertisement appeared for the Needham’s Red Clover Blossoms & Extracts. What did it claim to cure:

“cure cancer, rheumatism and all blood diseases. And dyspepsia, liver complaints, piles and kidney disease. If that wasn’t enough, it regulated the bowels and purified the complexion.” {2}

Products were flying off the shelves faster than one can say “rip-off”. An oil that was used by the Chinese for many years as a topical ointment for aches and pains was now marketed as the ultimate cure all. Of course there are no federal regulations on this new industry so producers could make any claim without ever going to clinical trials or having their product tested scientifically.

As the public became aware of the fraudulent snake oil they were purchasing the salesmen’s of the products were called “snake oil salesmen”, a trader in lies and sells products that are worthless and the king of snake oil salesman was Clark Stanley.


“The Rattlesnake King”
(Public Domain)

Not much is known about Clark Stanley. He claimed to have been born in Abilene, Texas in 1854 nearly twenty-seven years before it was established and some reported he was actually born Providence, Rhode Island.

His break came in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He was so successful that he opened production facilities in Beverly, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island. Unfortunately for Stanley the government was not far behind his exploits. In 1906 the congress established the “Pure Food and Drug Act” and although it would take another ten years before his “medical cure-all” would be proven to contain nothing more than “mineral oil, a fatty compound thought to be from beef, capsaicin from chili peppers, and turpentine”. {4}

Snake oil salesmen were popular in America throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s. There is always someone around that is trying to get others to part with their hard earned money. Before the civil war usually they travelled around the country as one-man shows. Not only were they salesmen, they were entertainers and reporters as they spread news to neighboring towns. After the Civil War, snake oil salesmen grew into a larger entertainment industry. Sometimes they would include music and employed full casts in their productions. When the government began to regulate the “medicines” toward the early 20th century then this type of entertainment was forced into retirement or was it?

“Caveat emptor”
“Let the Buyer Beware”

$ $ $ $ $ $ $

4. Chemistry, United States Bureau of (1917). Service and Regulatory Announcements. U.S. Government Printing Office.

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Sep 2, 2019
Raleigh, North Carolina
Great story! I had obviously heard of 'snake-oil salesmen,' but didn't know the origin of the term.

Back in the 1980s when my grandma in South Carolina was still alive (Ola Belle Dukes, 1904-1994), I asked her to tell me more about my grandpa (Buchanan C. Ellis, 1879-1939). She was reluctant to tell me what he did for a living, but finally revealed he was 'a salesman.' I then asked what it was he sold, and she grudgingly admitted, 'patent medicines.'

I never could get my close-mouthed grandma, or my mother for that matter, to tell me much about their family, but at least I have this tidbit.

Roy B.

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
I want to know what a nervous lump does. Sounds awfully uncomfortable, doesn't it?

Seems to me we kinda liked being schnookered or at least wanted to believe perfectly ridiculous stuff. Barnum was pretty much a snake-oil salesman on a grand scale, that's all. We don't remember a tenth of the outrageous claims attached to displays in his museum and he made millions. AND he's remembered well ( for some reason ).

Here's one from 1849, in Conn., Rattlesnake Oil! Must have just been crawling in to usage. Sorry.
snake oil 1849 conn.JPG


Mar 25, 2014
The Boonslick area of Central Missouri
St. Joseph's Oil was a 'snake oil' of a higher caliber and prestige than than the afore mentioned Clark Stanley's and Dr. Drake. Touted as an an elixir and a "remedy for rheumatism" St Joseph's Oil developed a unique manner of advertising and marketing of their product. The company utilized a steamboat which plied the waters of the Mississippi River Basin stopping at river towns along the way. Along with barkers selling and distributing the product they offered their customers live shows much in the manner of a minstrel show or vaudeville show. The back of one of the trade cards describes the elegance of the vessel. Their manner of sales and advertising attracted wide attention from the customers (rubes) standing in line to make their purchase. as seen in the original period photograph. I would not be surprised if it contained a wee bit of opium or cocaine in an alcohol base. (The two trade cards and the original photograph are from my personal collection).

St. Jacob's Oil Boat #1.jpg

St.Jacob's Oil Boat #2.jpg

St. Jacob's Oil #3.jpg

Boonville Riverfront -Best.jpg

St. Joseph's Oil Boat moored at Boonville Landing (Missouri).
Image by J.C. Macurdy- around 1875.
Last edited:


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
Thank you for the additional information and story of the St. Joseph Oil’s marketing strategy including the "celebrity" (1800's style) endorsements

Regarding the Chinese water snake, (mildly venomous), they discovered it is “rich” omega-3 acids and according to “Scientific American”

“Research since the 1980s has demonstrated the necessity—and efficacy—of omega-3 fatty acids. These acids not only reduce inflammation, such as arthritis pain, but also improve cognitive function and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and even depression.”

and after further research and analysis

“Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. In comparison, the rattlesnakes had only 8.5 percent EPA. And salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3's, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”

and the conclusion

“Even those hucksters who did sell actual snake oil would likely have sold the rattlesnake variety, nearly useless for any ache-relieving medicinal purpose. But the original Chinese purveyors of snake oil offered something that probably did exactly what they claimed it would do: help fellow workers relieve the pain of their labors.”

From your last picture - “if you sell it they will buy” - is evident when you see the folks lined up on the shore.