Snake Oil Essentials: The History and Science of the Much-Maligned Medicinal

Chinese Snake oil, from the erabu sea snake, has been a traditional remedy for arthritis and bursitis for hundreds of years, and seems to have been introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century when thousands of Chinese laborers were contracted to help build the Transcontinental Railroads–an estimated 180,000 emigrated to the U.S. between 1849 and 1882, according to Richard White’s book Railroaded.

The laborers “may have offered snake oil to fellow workers as relief for suffering long days of physical toil,” writes Cynthia Graber in a 2007 Scientific American article. She continues, “Richard Kunin, a California psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology research, became intrigued with the idea of snake oil in the 1980s. He had been following early research on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for health and it dawned on him that the much-maligned snake oil might be a particularly rich source.

Kunin thus went to San Francisco’s Chinatown, bought some snake oil, and had it analyzed alongside the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes. He published his findings in a 1989 letter to the Western Journal of Medicine, but before we look at his findings, let’s see about these rattlesnakes.

Common in the American Southwest, the rattlesnake has been widely adopted into religion and ritual. In her classic book of anthropology, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict describes the Hopi Snake Dance: “In the first set the Antelope priest dances, squatting, the circuit of the altar, and retires. The Snake priest repeats. In the second set Antelope receives a vine in his mouth and dances before the initiates, trailing it over their knees. He retires. Snake follows, receiving a live rattlesnake in his mouth in the same fashion and trailing it over the initiates’ knees.”

In another account at The Free Dictionary, the Hopi Snake Dance ends thusly: ” A priest draws a circle on the ground, the catchers throw the snakes in the circle, the Snake priests grab handfuls of them and run with them to turn them loose in the desert.” Neither account suggests the killing of snakes for medicinal purposes, rather, they are explicitly released.

That did not, however, deter enterprising nineteenth-century medicine showmen who seem to have fused the efficacy of the Chinese Snake Oil (supplies of which were probably easily exhausted) with the sacredness of the native rattler, added a giant dose of entertainment, exploited the great yawning need for cheap cure-alls in frontier America, and presto, you get Stanley’s Snake Oil, and Arizona Bill’s snake oil, and Wormer’s Snake Oil and Miller’s Snake Oil… There were a lot of them and although, as Wayne Bethard describes in his Lotions, Potions and Deadly Elixirs, “most of the old medicine show formulas contained no real snake oil at all,” they were nonetheless ubiquitous.

If we are inclined to scoff at the great popularity of the medicine show, we ought to first consider our own television shows that squeeze more than one pharmaceutical ad in nightly! Ann Anderson makes the connection clear in her detailed analysis of the rise and (supposed) fall of the phenomenon in Snake Oil, hustlers and Hambones. It’s a great read and loaded with colorfully dusty characters, but here’s one example to the point: “Arizona bill was an Indian medicine showman whose Welsh origins and British accent did nothing to damage his credibility. Billing himself as “The Benefactor of Mankind,” he wore fringed buckskins and long hair in the manner of an Indian scout. He told a story about being stolen by Indians as an infant and raised in their midst, all the while learning their miraculous herbal cures. His specialty was Rattlesnake Oil, a liniment that when rubbed on sore muscles would enable the most decrepit Indian warrior to keep on fighting.”

Arguably, the most famous and notorious snake oil was that of Clark Stanley “The Rattlesnake King.” Stanley had been a cowboy before he turned to peddling snake oil and paints a convincing picture of “life in the far west” before he gets to recounting the origins of his formula in his little book The Life and Adventures of the American Cow-boy. I would like to quote the whole damn thing, for one cannot help but be charmed by, for example, his defense of the “cow-boy’s outfit” against the people of the East who have the impression that it is worn merely for “show and bluster,” or the many lonely cowboy verse and lively cowboy dance tunes such as this one: “Gents chase and put on style, Rehash and a little more style. Little more style, gents, a little more style. First lady out to the right; Swing the man that stole the sheep, Now the one that hauled it home, Now the one that eat the meat, And now the one that gnawed the bone,” but I must move along to the relevant:

“After the round-up in the Spring of 1879 I started with some of my father’s best friends to the Moki [Hopi], Pueblos at Wolpi, Arizona, to witness the snake dance which takes place once in two years; there I became acquainted with the medicine man of the Moki tribe, and as he liked the looks of my Colt’s revolver and asked me to show him how it would shoot, I gave him an exhibition of my fancy shooting, which pleased him very much; he then asked me how I would like to stay there and live with him, I told him I would stay until after the snake dance. …I was so much pleased with the dance I decided to remain with them and see the dance again. I lived with the Moki tribe two years and five months, and during that time I learned their language and dances and the secret of making their medicines. The medicine that interested me most, was their Snake Oil Medicine as they call it. It is used for rheumatism, contracted cords and all aches and pains. As I was thought a great deal of by the medicine man he gave me the secret of making the Snake Oil Medicine, which is now named Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.”

However much of Stanley’s story is true, I can’t say, but it bears a striking resemblance to those of other medicine showmen of the time. And, whether or not his original formula contained snake oil, by the time he came to making it in a factory in the East, there was not a trace of snake left, notwithstanding the rattlesnake holocausts: “I traveled through the Western and Southwestern States and met with unbounded success, and during the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, as an advertisement I made my Snake Oil Liniment in full view of the audience, killing hundreds of snakes which were shipped to me by my two brothers from my home in Texas.”

In 1917 his oil was analyzed by the government and shown to contain mineral oil, some fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), turpentine, red pepper, and camphor. Stanley’s “secret formula” was actually very similar to others of its kind. “Miller’s snake oil formula, a popular remedy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rode the tail winds of snake oil’s reputation. Millions of bottles were sold, which contained camphor, turpentine, coal oil, paprika, carbolic acid, oil of cassia, eucalyptus, cloves, origanium, sassafras, and methylsalicylate, and they honestly said so right on the label,” writes Bethard, but of course not everyone labeled their ingredients because, before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, they didn’t have to.

“The irony is, some of the old topical formulas actually worked on superficial aches and pains,” continues Bethard, who is a bona fide modern-day pharmacist. The typical snake oil formula resembles today’s over-the-counter liniments, which derive their analgesic properties from the same chemical compound that makes red peppers hot. In addition, camphor and turpentine, used since ancient times as decongestants and cough suppressants, are active ingredients in present-day cold products such as Vicks VapoRub, which, though I protested loud and long against my mother slathering it on me, did, I have to admit, work pretty well.

In other words, Stanley’s fakery was about false-advertisement, not necessarily efficacy. Blame for snake oil’s decidedly downward spiral may have been more diffuse if Stanley’s Snake Oil hadn’t enjoyed the unfortunate distinction of being singled out for analysis. In any case, the public turned quickly from buyers of snake oil to ridiculers of the same.

Stanley did not contest the findings and paid his fine of $20, but from that well-publicized moment forward, snake oil became synonymous with false cure and quackery, and the image was thence cemented in the public imagination with snake oil salesmen peddling their wares in the periphery of countless Westerns.

It may have been this universality that prompted Kunin, in 1989, to have the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis and Crotalus tigris) analyzed alongside the Chinese snake oil bought over the counter. The rattlers were trounced. As Graber puts it, “Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. In comparison, the rattlesnakes had only 8.5 percent EPA. And salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3’s, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”

This begs the question: in an age where omega-3’s are coveted and everywhere praised and gobbled up in fish oil capsules and flax seeds, how is it that snake oil’s reputation has not risen with this tide?

Graber suggests the answer may have something to do with the fact that, when Kunin’s article first came out in the 1980’s we were just learning the wide-ranging health benefits of omega-3’s, and despite the fact that several Japanese studies have supported Kunin’s original findings, the Japanese research is not widely known in America. However, one might argue that it is not easy to overturn an ideology, even with the help of science. Despite several stories inspired by Kunin’s findings–NPR’s Code Switch for example–the quackery of snake oil is far too engrained.

Perhaps the biggest problem Chinese snake oil faces is that, in the western mind at least, there is as yet no romance surrounding the Erabu sea snake and plenty around the American rattler. The old medicine shows did too good a job making snake oil synonymous with rattlesnake oil, and then with fakery by not even filling their bottles with the real thing. Still, I’m sure those red-pepper liniments packed quite a bite!