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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Drugstore Cowboys

by Clay Coppedge

A lot of what we can say about Clark Stanley or Charlie Bigelow would come off today as a left-handed compliment or even a downright insult. Where's the glory in being history's best-known snake oil salesman, or even the original Drug Store Cowboy? Stanley and Bigelow have been called both of those things, and worse.

Stanley claimed to be from Abilene but he claimed a lot of things, including a birthday that would have him living in Abilene many years prior to the city's founding. His "snake oil" is used now to describe anything that promises nothing short of a miracle but delivers little or nothing. There were no laws requiring medicine makers to list the ingredients of their products when Stanley and Bigelow were selling their snake oils and Kickapoo Indian cures. They, and many others, eagerly jumped through that loophole.

In his own curious autobiography, published in 1897, Stanley wrote that he first "went up the (Chisholm) Trail" when he was 14 and lived the cowboy life for the next 11 years before he made a life-altering trip to Arizona, where he said he learned many ancient secrets from the Moki Pueblo tribe, including the miraculous healing power of snake oil.

Stanley first sold his new product in Abilene, and the people there couldn't get enough of it. To keep up with demand, he began manufacturing his snake oil in bulk as Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment. He hit the road, hawking his product far and wide, including the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Providence, Rhode Island recruited him to produce the magic medicine at a factory in their town, and he did.

The end came in 1917 when the government seized a shipment of Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment and ran tests to see what was in it, chemistry—and regulations—having come a long way since Stanley first went into business. His snake oil was found to contain some beef fat, kerosene, a little bit of red pepper, turpentine and camphor. Noticeably absent was anything derived from a snake, a fact all the more troubling because Stanley claimed to slaughter the reptiles by the thousands back home in Texas in order to produce the stuff.


Another Texan who made a good living in a variation of the snake oil business was Charlie Bigelow of Bee County. A man by the name of Phil Grant, aka Doctor Yellowstone, came though Bee County one day, and Bigelow became Texas Charley and went on the road with Dr. Yellowstone. Bigelow learned a few magic tricks, let his hair grow long, and became the traveling medicine man, Doctor Lone Star.

Bigelow hooked up with John Healy, who manufactured a liniment known as King of Pain, and formed the Texas Therapeutic Road Show. It was a multi-media event: dog and pony shows, minstrel skits, singing and dancing, all staged to lure the unsuspecting public to its incredibles Kickapoo medicines, including the miraculous cure-all, Kickapoo Segwa.

Members of the Kickapoo and Pawnee tribe were somehow persuaded to appear at the shows and claim that their people had used these natural cures for many centuries with great results. Bigelow and Healey also created a completely bogus endorsement from Buffalo Bill Cody: "An Indian would as soon go without his horse, gun, or blanket as without his Segwa."

Some of those patented natural remedies—Vick's Vaporub, Listerine, aspirin, Milk of Magnesia, and others— actually worked for certain ailments. Modern science keeps taking fresh looks at snake oils and especially snake venom, which has been studied as part of an effort to clone proteins that slow the growth of human tumors. Certain old timers believed that a good snakebite, if not fatal, could cure a lot of diseases. It was sort of the chemotherapy of its day, but also a fine example of how a cure can be worse than the disease.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 19, 2023 column
Related Topics:
Folk Medicine »
Snake Tales »
People »


Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Forgotten Tales of Sugar Loaf 7-13-23
  • Legend of Bosque John 6-26-23
  • Texas' Tobacco Road 5-29-23
  • La Menken and the First Horse Opera 4-11-23
  • A Different Kind of Alamo Story 2-18-23

    more »

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