When I was a kid,
one of my aunt’s many husbands suddenly decided that he was a reincarnated prophet,
and that he would spread his healing powers to the wayward people of Santa Barbara through powerful tinctures
– sold at a steep price.
The tinctures were popular;
many basked in the amazing effects
that these magic bottles seemed
to impart upon their imbibers.
Waltzing into his kitchen one day,
my father found my then-uncle in the process of making these elixirs, an herbal press on the kitchen counter–
– and dozens of handles of bottom-shelf vodka on the floor.
But The Laff Box, that machine of the much-maligned laugh-track, and it’s inventor, Charles Douglass, are distinctly modern–
The term ‘snake oil’ is nowadays synonymous with ‘scam,' but when originally conceived, it carried a mystical association that conferred nearly magical authority to relieve any number of ills.
One theory has it that the name is derived from the topical ointment derived from the Chinese Water Snake, and used by Chinese laborers to treat joint pain from their backbreaking labor.
Another says it’s a bastardization of ‘Seneca Oil,’ after the Native American practice of treating wounds with oil from naturally occurring oil seeps.
(Research suggests that the Omega-3 protiens found in such natural oils do indeed speed the healing process)
Whether the exotic connotation is occidental or oriental in source is immaterial– as early as the late 1700s, ‘patent medicines’ as they were originally called, arrived in America with the settlers to the new land .
England already had a long tradition of using such locally made medicines, though in the home country, the use of the products by royalty (using ‘patents of royal favor’, hence the name), rather than native origin, was the marketing point.
Arrival on America’s shores quickly made a robust market for such elixirs. In a land and age where quality medical care was often unavailable, these medicines, often filled with alcohol, opium, morphine and cocaine, were unsurprisingly popular for the relief of various ills.
By the late 19th century, a burgeoning middle-class and the rising expectation of a healthful life set the stage for an explosion of such homemade remedies, culminating in perhaps the greatest purveyor of all, The Rattlesnake King himself, Clark Stanley.
Claiming that he learned to milk rattlesnakes of their oil from the Hopis, (and at once combining the two origin cultures in one nice, neat xenophobic package), Stanley would go on to host one of the most famous traveling medicine shows of the time, one which always culminated in the killing, skinning and boiling of a rattlesnake in front of the crowd, to the hushed awe of his audience.
The crowd usually begged to be released of it’s cash.
Eventually, the medical and food safety establishment
would catch up with these hucksters and the patent medicines would fade from view.
A shipment of Stanley’s snake oil liniment itself was seized in 1916,with federal prosecutors alleging it contained mostly petroleum, beef oil, and turpentine.
Soon after that, ‘snake oil’ started to become synonymous with fraud, and the industry itself sort of dried up.