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
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, chemistryand
regulationshaving 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.
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
Some of those patented natural remediesVick'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.