Clark Stanley: The First Snake Oil Salesman

Aug 9, 2022 1 comments

The term “snake oil” is frequently used to describe any substance that has no real value but sold as a remedy for a particular set of problems. By extension, a snake oil salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is himself or herself a fraud, quack, charlatan, and the like. But where did the term come from?

Snake oil was a real product—a traditional Chinese medicine that was brought to the United States in the 1800s by thousands of Chinese migrants who came to the country in order to find work building the Transcontinental Railroad. They brought with them their families, their culture, and their medicines. One of these was snake oil, extracted from Chinese water snake, and used to treat arthritis and joint pain.

Modern-day research suggests that Chinese water-snake oil may indeed have health benefits because of its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and are alleged to offer many other health benefits such as lowering systolic blood pressure, improving cognitive function, reducing the risk of dementia and relieving depression. A few years ago, researchers in Japan found that mice fed with Chinese sea-snake oil showed a significantly improved the ability to learn mazes and swim compared to mice fed lard.

The Chinese workers wouldn’t have known these, but they did perceive an improvement in their condition when they rubbed snake oil over their joints after a hard day’s work. They might have shared the oil with some fellow Americans, who marveled at the effects, helping build the miracle-cure aura of this product and spreading the news far and wide.

As word of the healing powers of Chinese snake oil grew, many Americans wondered how they could make their own snake oil here in the United States. Because there were no Chinese water snakes in the American West, many healers began using rattlesnakes to make their own versions of snake oil.

Clark Stanley

It was Clark Stanley, the self-styled “Rattlesnake King” who successfully capitalized upon this. Stanley traveled across the United States, dressed as a cowboy, and put up shows. In front of a crowd, he would slice open a live rattlesnake and throw it into boiling water, and when the fats of the reptile rose to the surface, he would skim the top and bottle up the oil. Throngs of people lined up at his shows to buy the stuff.

Stanley claimed that he learned about the healing power of rattlesnake oil from Hopi medicine men. In 1893 he and his rattlesnakes gained attention at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Later he went on to establish production facilities in Beverly, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island.

However, there was a problem with Stanley’s product: rattlesnake oil wasn’t as effective as Chinese water snake oil. Chinese water snakes contains around 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid, which is a type of omega-3. Rattlesnakes, on the other hand, only have a little over eight percent of the acid.

Secondly, Stanley's Snake Oil didn't contain any snake oil at all. In 1917, federal investigators seized a shipment of Stanley's Snake Oil and found that it contained primarily mineral oil, fatty oil believed to from beef, chili peppers, turpentine, and camphor. Stanley was charged for fraudulent marketing and fined $20.

Ever since then, the term ‘snake oil’ has been established in popular culture as a reference to any worthless concoction sold as medicine, and has been extended to describe a wide-ranging degree of fraudulent goods, services, ideas, and activities such as worthless rhetoric in politics.

Comments

  1. The term "snake oil" comes from Seneca Oil, sold by medicine show hucksters in western Pennsylvania circa 1850.

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