Clark Stanley looked into the eyes of the crowd gathered in front of him and spun a captivating tale about the benefits of snake oil. 

Stanley, wearing Western attire, delivered a smooth, well-practiced presentation about traveling to Walpi, Arizona Territory, in 1879, and meeting with a Hopi medicine man to learn all about this magic elixir.

During the presentations, Stanley killed dozens of rattlesnakes to process the venom for his all-purpose-cure—Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment. 

Snake oil, he ballyhooed, could be used for all kinds of aches, pains, colds, and even rheumatism.

Stanley claimed he was born in Abilene, Texas, in about 1854, and worked as a cowboy for eleven years. Abilene, however, wasn’t founded until March 1881.

Despite such glaring discrepancies, he became a popular draw at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His products included Stanley’s White Cactus Soap and Western Herbs and proved successful enough to open production facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In 1897, Stanley published a 40-page booklet, The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: Life in the Far West.* Besides promoting his products, the booklet contained lyrics to cowboy songs and passages about cowboy life. 

Some people, however, contend Stanley never spent any time as a cowboy.

Many American fraudsters—labeled snake oil salesmen—traveled across the frontier from town-to-town, extolling snake oil and other elixirs’ healing powers.

They boasted their products would ease pain from rheumatism, aching muscles, joints, inflammation, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and anything else that ails you. Oh, and deafness, as well.

  (Typical Newspaper Advertisement)

These products couldn’t possibly work as advertised—or there wouldn’t be any need for physicians. But, an impressionable and unsuspecting public fueled the sales of these magical compounds. 

In 1905, Collier’s magazine featured an expose of these quacks and their lucrative cures. 

In the article, The Great American Fraud,* Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote: 

“Gullible America will spend … millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines … huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of various drugs ranges from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far more than all other ingredients, undiluted fraud.”

Itinerant con men became known as snake oil salesmenThis collective term applied to any shyster who peddled miracle cures to the public. 

Characters of the same ilk proved so fascinating they often appeared in the scripts of American westerns. 

In reality, most products didn’t contain much snake oil. The ones that did, contained the wrong snake oil.

The origin of snake oil containing healing power can be traced to the 19th century when Chinese immigrants came to this country to help build the Transcontinental Railroad.

At the end of the grueling work days, these immigrants applied a liquid compound they brought with them to help soothe sore muscles and aching joints. 

The critical component in the curative liquid was snake oil.

When Americans learned how well the treatment worked, snake oil found new life as an all-purpose remedy for almost every ill. In 1885, rattlesnake oil sold for $4 an ounce.

In 1891, the Wheeling (West Virginia) Register reported rattlesnakes went for $25 to $50 each—as long as they were four feet or longer. 

The products that contained authentic rattlesnake oil (most did not) weren’t as effective as Chinese workers’ oil. And, for a good reason. 

Chinese oil came from water snakes—not rattlesnakes. Since water snakes were aquatic, they ate mostly fish, something rattlesnakes in the desert never do. 

Oil from Chinese water snakes proved particularly useful in fighting inflammation and other health issues.

The oil was “rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation.”  

Public furor over useless, fraudulent, and sometimes dangerous elixirs led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act* in 1906. 

The feds flexed their regulatory muscle against Clark Stanley for violating the food and drug act.

Scientists found its curative powers pretty much worthless. None of the ingredients came from snakes. The mixture contained mineral oil, red pepper, camphor, turpentine, and one-percent fatty oil.

Charged with “misbranding” and “falsely and fraudulently” misrepresenting his product “as a remedy for all pain,” Stanley was fined $20 (about $430 in today’s dollars). 

Stanley elected not to dispute the charge and paid a pittance of a fine, probably with a sigh of relief.

He ranks among the top ten peddlers of wacky cures* for a gullible public. 


*The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: Life in the Far West

*The Great American Fraud

*Pure Food and Drugs Act

*wacky cures


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2 comments to “THE SNAKE OIL KING”

  • Patent medicines, medicine shows, and snake-oil salesmen fascinate me and I’ve included one or all three in several of my books. I didn’t know about Clark Stanley, though. He seems quite the character. Thanks for this terrific post. ☺

  • Hi Jacquie–Thanks so much for stopping by. Clark Stanley opened the door for other cure-all products, including: “Dr. Baffy’s Asthma Cigarettes (recommended for breathing problems) … “Dr Kellogg’s Curious Cure” (imported putrified snake oil designed to relieve everything from flatulence to syphilis) … “Bickmore’s Mortician Powder” (spread across the entire body, aimed at eliminating body odors). So many products like this flood the American market. In 1956, playwright Eugene O’Neill even referred to snake oil in his 1956 play “The Iceman Cometh.” One of his characters suggested that a rival was “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

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