“Snake Oil” is a well-known idiom for pseudo-scientific “cure-all” concoctions (literal or figurative), hustled by shifty profiteers targeting the weak and gullible.
Its origins date back to the American frontier, when hucksters extolled its virtues to cure all ills. We’ve spoken before about the dangers of quack medicine (as pioneered by Snake Oil), but the wild claims of these salesmen as to the contents and efficacy of their product also stands as a historic testament to how bad hyperbolic advertising can get.
But who the hell even had the idea to boil snakes for oil in the first place? That story is as shifty as the salesmen.
Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown
The most common story comes out of the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The guys in charge of building that thing discovered that their impressive facial hair alone couldn’t get the job done, so they brought in thousands of Chinese laborers.
Everyone worked hard, and got the blisters and joint pain to show for it. But while the white dudes just suffered, the Chinese had a traditional remedy: oil from the Chinese Water Snake. Whether it was a placebo effect or legitimately soothing, news of the snake oil spread throughout the American West, and to some folks, it smelled like opportunity.
All Hail the King
One hitch: there’s a distinct shortage of Chinese Water Snakes in America. So enterprising Americans, such as Clark Stanley, found other ingredients. Calling himself the Rattlesnake King, he claimed to have learned of the oil’s restorative powers from Hopi medicine men.
He and his product saw a distinct rise of profile thanks to his dramatic appearance at the 1893 World’s Exposition: As an awed crowd watched, Stanley reached into a bag, pulled out a live snake, sliced it open, and rendered it on the spot.
Stanley’s notoriety grew to such an extent that he attracted the interest of the U.S. federal government. They tested his stuff in 1917 and discovered his liniment had a lot of ingredients, but none of them involved snakes. They sued Stanley for false advertising and won a $20 (about $430 today) judgment against him.
Stay in School, Kids
The other common story also involves Native Americans. The Seneca people living in the New York and Pennsylvania area would rub skin abrasions with petroleum they got from natural oil seeps. European settlers somehow turned this into a panacea in a bottle, because that’s just how people rolled back then.
As the story goes, people misread or misheard “Seneca” as “snake.” Eventually everyone else gave up correcting them and just went with it.
The provenance of that story is a little shaky, but the core truth remains the same: Some people will say anything to make a buck.
There’s been a lot of legislation to prevent outright lies in advertising since Clark Stanley’s time, but that just made those types sneakier. His spiritual successors live on today, pretending to be Nigerian princes or offering a high-paying job you can do from home.
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