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Lock, Stock, and History

Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment,

Today the term ” snake oil salesman” is used to describe any person or business who sales a dubious product, especially when it comes to medical products.  The term originated in the 1800’s when Chinese immigrants came to America, bringing with them traditional medicine which made use of snake oil.  Eventually white merchants too came up with their own snake oil concoctions with claims that it could be used to cure any ailments.  Many of these concoctions had no snake oil, but instead were mixtures of common household products made to relieve people of their hard earned money.  Snake oil salesmen would often travel town to town, selling their product, then leaving before the customers grew wise to the fraud.

One of the most popular snake oil concoctions was “Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment”.  A former cowboy, Clark Stanley began selling his liniment in the 1880’s, claiming it was a secret recipe from a Hopi medicine man.  Calling himself “The Rattlesnake King” Stanley’s liniment became so popular that production facilities in Beverly, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island, were set up to produce Stanley’s Snake Oil.  Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment claimed to cure almost every painful ailment, including rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains, swellings, frost bites, chill blains, bruises, sore throat, and bites of animals, insects and reptiles. Simply rub the liniment on the affected area and enjoy the effects.  Perhaps the products popularity were due to the salesmanship and marking of Stanley, who had an act where he would slaughter and process rattlesnakes in front of prospective client.  During the Columbian Exposition of 1893 his act was especially popular, adding to the fame of his product.

In 1915 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, providing regulations for the safety and effectiveness of medicines.  After tests were conducted on the liniment, it was discovered that it contained nothing more than mineral water, turpentine, red peppers, and beef fat.  

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