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February 14, 2024 10 mins

There’s a great origin story behind snake oil salesmen, and it has to do with just one guy who singlehandedly gave it a bad name.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:04):
Hey, welcome to the short Stuff. I'm Josh, and there's
Chuck and Jerry's here too, and we're all thinking of
Dave right now. So his ears are probably burning like
flames on the side of his face or in my throat. Yeah,
Chuck's got a little sore throat, but not really. What'd
you say, You've got some dust in your throat?

Speaker 2 (00:22):
You know, when you just have a little coughing fit
because it feels like there's a tickle in your throat
you can't get rid of. Always call it.

Speaker 1 (00:27):
You sound like you're about to cough it.

Speaker 2 (00:28):
Let's call it dust in my throat.

Speaker 1 (00:31):
Sure, Yeah, that's a good description. Yeah. Also, we're going
to try to muddle through everybody.

Speaker 2 (00:35):
It's gonna say a great Time Waits album, but the
joke's dumb, so I'm not gonna say it.

Speaker 1 (00:39):
Dust in my throat is great time. That was a
great chick.

Speaker 2 (00:42):
This one's fun.

Speaker 1 (00:43):
You dug this one up.

Speaker 2 (00:44):
We talked, have talked over the years a lot about
snake oil and what's called patent medicines, and this is
the origin story of snake oil.

Speaker 1 (00:56):
Yeah, and it kind of ties into our episode we
just released on Meat and Food before the FDA came along. Yeah,
So to quote the Oxford English diction, oh, snake oil
is quote a quack remedy or panacea. And essentially what
they're saying there, in high falutint terms, is that snake

oil is it's it's well, it's a quack remedy. It
doesn't actually work. It's something that's sold is a medicine
or a cure that that doesn't do anything like it says,
and it just has a bad association. We think of
snake oil as just something you're something you're duped by,
and the person you're duped by is a snake oil salesman.

But this is one of those really interesting stories, Chuck,
where there's an actual origin to this and as bad
as we think of snake oil today, like it actually
had a legitimate use back in the day and still
does depending on where you live.

Speaker 2 (01:55):
Yeah, and that's if you're literally talking oil from a snake,
and we're talking about in China, they would use Chinese
water snakes, venomous Chinese water snakes to get their literal extract,
you know, extract oil from the snake. And that oil
is very high in omega three fatty acids, which we
all know are very good for your health. So the

original snake oil, and you know, ancient China actually had
a use. It wasn't like this this bunk medicine. You know,
it's good for your brain health, your heart health. I
think it can reduce inflammation, kind of like fish oil.
Everyone knows that omega three fatty acids are great, and
that was what the original snake oil was.

Speaker 1 (02:38):
It was so high or it is so high in
omega three fatty acids that it reduces inflammation if you
just rub it on your skin. It's just really potent stuff,
which is pretty much the opposite of what we think
of a snake oil today, like not only does it
not really work, it's fake. Snake oil is original snake
oil is not fake. It was very potent. And in

the nineteenth century there were a lot of Chinese immigrants
who came over either by their own volition or as
indentured workers to work on the railroad, the Transcontinental Railroad
in particular, and they brought this snake oil with them
and it became like kind of a popular curative for
people when they wanted to relieve sore muscles or inflammation,

and it caught the attention of one guy named Clark
Stanley who became he was a cowboy, He was a
legit cowboy, but he became a patent medicine seller. And
you toss that word around, patent medicines, but there's an
actual explanation to how we got to where patent medicines
had this bad reputation. And it's in the name too.

Speaker 2 (03:42):
Yeah, because you could say, I have this medicine, I
want to patent it so only I can sell it.
And part of having a patent can mean that you
don't have to tell what's in it, so you're you know,
it's proprietary, so you can have your little secret recipe.
And so patent medicines were where you know, they became
these medicines that was essentially snake oil. It's like, you know,

who knows what could be in this stuff, and these
hucksters are selling it for you know, a quarter of bottle,
ten cents of bottle, fifty cents a bottle, as we'll see,
which is like eighteen bucks today, and no one knows
what's in it. So that is where snake oil, well,
actually we're not quite there yet. That's what patent medicine was,
and maybe we should take a break then with that

cliffhanger about how snake oil as hucksterism came about.

Speaker 1 (04:42):
If you want to know, then you're in luck. Just
listen up to.

Speaker 2 (04:49):
Chuck selfus shoe.

Speaker 1 (04:55):
So, Chuck, you left us off on the cliffhanger where
we were talking. Patent medicines were basically fraudulent and fake,
and snake oil was about to enter the realm of
from legitimate medicine to fake patent medicine, and it did
so via that cowboy turned patent medicine seller Clark Stanley.

Speaker 2 (05:13):
Yeah, so he was around and he said, hey, these
Chinese people are using this snake oil or they're you know,
have stories of using this snake oil because they didn't
have those Chinese water snakes in the American West, of course,
but he heard these stories. He was into this patent
medicine thing, and he said, well, one thing we have
a lot about here is rattlesnakes. So I'm gonna well

we'll get to the little twist here in a second,
but I'm going to make patent medicine, this snake oil
liniment out of rattlesnakes. I'm gonna say I'm the rattlesnake King.
I'm going to put out a little pamphlet to really
gussy up my story called the Life and Adventures of
the American Cowboy colon Life in the Far West in
eighteen ninety seven, And it's going to have horses and

cowboy poetry and like lasso throwing advice, and I'm gonna
include this with this snake oil. Gonna charge fifty cents
a bottle, which, like I said, was eighteen bucks today,
and it's gonna cure almost anything you can think of.

Speaker 1 (06:13):
Yeah. He said that it was the strongest and best
liniment known for the cure of all pain and lameness,
for rheumatism, neuralgias, sciatica, lay back lumbargo, contracted muscles, toothaches, sprain, swellings,
et cetera, cure's frost bites, chill blades, bruises, sore throat,
bites of animals, insects, and reptiles. That was on the label.

Speaker 2 (06:32):
Yeah, he's like the early medical marijuana places in California,
Like can't sleep, try marijuana, too much sleep, try marijuana.

Speaker 1 (06:44):
So if you notice, though, this is like laying back,
contracted muscles, like he's tying into the reputation that snake
oil already has. It's an anti inflammatory that you rub
on your skin, right, But he never gave credit to
the Chinese people who introduced him to snake oil or
who introduced it through the United States. He said that

he learned to make snake oil from rattlesnakes from years
of study with a hopey medicine man, and also because
he was a bit countless times by rattlesnakes, so I
guess that gave him some entree into it. The problem is,
rattlesnake oil has about a third of the Omega three
fatty acids that oil from Chinese water snakes too, which

makes it about a third is potent.

Speaker 2 (07:30):
Yeah, and then here's the real twist that we promised.
He didn't even use rattlesnake oil, so even if he
was using it, it would have been, you know, far
less potent. But he wasn't even using that stuff, and
we know and this is how it ties into the
episode from yesterday. Because of the Pure Food and Drug
Act of nineteen oh six. In that episode yesterday, we
talked about one of the things they did was a

big crackdown on patent medicine. So he was exposed and
they tested his snake oil in nineteen seventeen and had
beef fat, red pepper mineral oil, a little bit of
camp for and a little bit of turpentine.

Speaker 1 (08:08):
Yeah, that's it. That was what was in Stanley's snak
oil linament, nonake oil. He got caught red handed, and
he knew he was caught red handed. This new FDA
or I don't even think it was the FDA yet
they busted him and so for decades of selling fake medicine,
he was fined twenty dollars, yeah, which is less than

five hundred dollars today.

Speaker 2 (08:30):
And that was that.

Speaker 1 (08:32):
But the thing is is he single handedly gave snake
oil a bad name, like it was him. He was
the conduit through which snake oil turned legitimate. To this
umbrella term, this catch all term for any kind of fake,
fraudulent medicine, or any time somebody's trying to sell you
something that's not real or just kind of hustling you,

that's snake oil. So by a snake oil salesman and
our friends at code switch to have found the first
use of snake oil is kind of a catch all
term to deride all patent medicines in that one.

Speaker 2 (09:07):
Yeah, it was about ten years afterward. It was ten
years after Clark Stanley was busted. In nineteen twenty seven
a poem by Stephen Vincent Bennet called John Brown's Body,
which is I think fairly famous. Right, I've heard of that,
haven't I.

Speaker 1 (09:23):
That's where we get that John Brown's body lies a
moldering in the grape. Oh okay, but that's like two
lines of this almost book length epic poem that it's from. Yeah.

Speaker 2 (09:32):
One of the lines as well was Sellers of Snake Oil,
bomb and Lucky Rings. And then also in nineteen fifty six,
it was in the very famous play The Iceman Cometh
from Eugene O'Neill.

Speaker 1 (09:44):
Right, Yeah, so one character says that someone else another
character is quote standing on a street corner in hell
right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there's
nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.

Speaker 2 (09:56):

Speaker 1 (09:57):
That's classic Eugene O'Neil. So that's it. That's where snake
oil came from, or that's where snake oil's bad reputation
came from. And you can thank Clark Stanley for it
or blame them if you're a snake oil manufacturer.

Speaker 2 (10:09):
Yeah, and I love this because I'm sure we'll talk
about snake oil again and then we can reference Clark Stanley.

Speaker 1 (10:14):
Yeah, for sure, Chuck. And since I said for sure,
everybody and I don't think either of us have anything
more about snake oil. Short stuff is accurt. Stuff You
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