In the 1800s, snake oil was brought to the American West from China, where it was used in traditional Chinese medicine practices.
Question: What was snake oil used to treat in the American West in the 19th Century?
Answer: Arthritis and bursitis
After 11 years of working as a cowboy, Clark Stanley, the self-titled “Rattlesnake King,” decided that the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the place to debut his wares for the first time.
Dressed in a showy, frontiersman fashion, Stanley got up on stage in front of a crowd, dragging with him a sack at his feet. He reached into the sack and pulled out a writhing rattlesnake, which he dangled in front of the audience so that everyone could take a peek at its venomous form.
He then quickly slit the snake open with a knife and immediately tossed its body into a vat of boiling water behind him. Gradually, the snake fat rose to the surface in the vat, Stanley then scooped it out and placed it into liniment jars, which had previously been prepared with herbs inside. He then offered the name of his product to the crowd: Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Treatment.
The crowd at the 1893 Columbian Exposition were the lucky few who ever bought snake oil from Stanley that contained actual snake. In 1917, federal investigators learned that Stanley’s snake oil was lacking the snake portion of what was advertised.
But for 24 years, Stanley would sell his snake oil around the country, and many were eager to buy his wares. In 1897, he published an autobiography that he titled The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: True Life in the Far West. Part self-mythology, part cowboy poetry, and part advertisement of his snake oil, this book explained how a Hopi tribe in the Arizona desert taught him the healing powers of oil infused with snake.
Unfortunately for Stanley, snake oil was a thing, but it was brought to the American West by the Chinese and was not a traditional element of Hopi medicine. In the 1800s, many Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States, bringing with them traditional Chinese medicine practices.
In traditional Chinese medicine, snake oil was used to relieve pain and inflammation and treat arthritis and bursitis. This is due to the high Omega-3 fatty acid content of Chinese water snakes, which, when used appropriately, can work as an anti-inflammatory.
Unfortunately, Chinese water snakes generally live in China. So, when supply dwindled from what was brought across the Pacific Ocean to the American West, people would turn to the next best option available: rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnakes are far less beneficial than Chinese water snakes for health problems relating to inflammation due to their low fatty acid content, making rattlesnake oil far less effective than the original.
Additionally, Stanley didn’t actually put rattlesnakes into his rattlesnake oil. After federal investigators seized the contents of one of his shipments, they began an official inquiry into his snake oil and found that the contents contained mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine.
Stanley was charged a fine of $20 for the violation of the Pure Food and Drug Act due to the misbranding of his product. Stanley then quickly slipped away from the annals of history a wealthy man. Yet, the mythos of the Rattlesnake King would live on, as he had become the first snake oil salesman in history.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.