Updated: Feb 6
Starting in the early 19th century, maritime trade between the United States and China led to a wave of Chinese immigrants to America. The first wave arrived in 1815 and by 1850, there was around 25,000 Chinese immigrants in the United States. By 1882, around 300,000 Chinese had come to the United States and made up a tenth of the Californian population. Most of these immigrants came from the Taishan and Zhongshan regions and the Guangdong province and they were mostly made up of peasants, farmers, and craftsmen. This was the height of the California Gold Rush, so many immigrants worked in the mines in Northern California. Other Chinese immigrants took jobs as farmhands, garment industry jobs, and railroad labor jobs for the Central Pacific and Transcontinental Railroads.
Many of the immigrants would book their passage from China to the U.S. on ships with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company. The money to buy their tickets was usually borrowed from relatives or commercial lenders. American employers would also send hiring agencies to China and would offer to pay for passage to America if the person couldn’t raise enough money on their own. The money that was advanced by the agency to cover the cost of the ticket would then have to be paid back by wages earned by the laborer when they arrived in America, which created an indentured servant system. Because many of these immigrants were desperate to pay off these loans, send money back home to their families in China, and survive in this new country, many accepted jobs with reduced wages, longer hours, and fewer days off.
The railroad companies could cut their labor costs down by a third by hiring Chinese-Americans versus European-Americans because they wouldn’t pay for their board or lodging. Chinese-Americans were hired to do the most back-breaking and dangerous parts of building the railroad. Charles Crocker, the manager of the Central Pacific Railroad, set records for laying track and finishing his project seven years ahead of the government’s deadline by working his laborers past the point of exhaustion. The railroad had to go through two mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, so tunnels had to be created. The railroad decided to use the newly invented, but very unstable nitroglycerine explosives in order to create these tunnels without losing much time. Six laborers were killed just transporting the nitroglycerin to the blast site, not including how many laborers lost their lives when planned explosions went off. When a nitroglycerin explosion killed 15 people in the Wells Fargo office in San Francisco, the California legislature banned the transport of liquid nitroglycerin, so the Central Pacific had to find a new way to create tunnels. The Central Pacific then had Chinese laborers suspended from large baskets place large amounts of black powder at the blast site and then quickly pulled back to safety after the fuses had been lit. Construction went through hot summers and very cold winters. Sometimes entire labor camps would be completely buried under avalanches.
After a long, hard day at work, some of the Chinese laborers would use medicines they brought from China to ease their aching muscles and joints. One of these medicines was snake oil. Oil from the Chinese water-snake or the black-banded sea krait, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as an anti-inflammatory to treat arthritis, bursitis, and other joint pains. Chinese water-snake oil has a very high content of omega-3 fatty acids and appears to also help in lowering systolic blood pressure, improving cognitive function, reducing the risk of dementia, and relieving depression. The Chinese-Americans working on the railroad would rub the oil on their joints after a long day of hard work and would share it with their European-American co-workers and word quickly spread of the healing powers of Chinese snake oil.
Because it was hard to get your hands on a Chinese water snake in America, many Americans made and sold their own snake oil that they made from rattlesnakes. Americans could now buy Tex Bailey’s Rattle Snake Oil, Tex Allen’s Rattlesnake Essential Oil Compound, which was recommended for “rheumatic pains, back pain, strains, sprains, bruises, sores, aching feet, stiff joints, sore muscles, throat irritation, headache, earache, and more”; Rattlesnake Bill’s Liniment, that was “made from the fat of a real diamondback rattlesnake”; the Great Yaquis Snake-Oil Liniment; Blackhawks Indian Liniment Oil; Monster Brand Snake Oil; and Mack Mahon the Rattle Snake Oil King’s Liniment for Rheumatism and Catarrh.
The self-dubbed “Rattle Snake King” Clark Stanley, published a fifty-page booklet in 1897. The first half of the pamphlet was all about his life as a cowboy, while the last half was devoted to the wonders of snake oil. Cowboys were very cool in the late 1800’s, people loved to read about the Old West, Cowboys, and Indians and Clark Stanley definitely looked like what you would imagine a cowboy to look like. He had a handlebar mustache, goatee, broad-brimmed hat, boots, handerkerchief, and jeans. Stanley would tell people that he was born in Abilene, Texas during the Civil War and started cowboying around the age of 14. In 1879, he went with his some of his father’s friends to Walpi, Arizona to see the snake dance of the Moki (now known as the Hopi) Indians. In his booklet Stanley wrote “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 the snake dance.” After the snake dance, his father’s friends left, but Stanley decided to stay and lived with the Moki for two years and five months.
Stanley wrote “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 called 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. Snake Oil is not a new discovery, it has been in use by the Mokis and other Indian tribes for many generations, and I have made an improvement on the original formula.” Stanley continues in the brochure to write about how he tried his snake oil on friends and neighbors back home and that it worked so well that he decided to start manufacturing and selling it with “unbounded success” across the West and Southwest.
In 1893, the World’s Exhibition was held in Chicago. 25 million people attended the exhibition over the six months that it was open and it was there that President Grover Cleveland threw an electric switch open, the ferris wheel made it’s international debut, and Clark Stanley showed off his snake handling skills. A journalist at the exhibition interviewed Stanley and he described his routine as “The audience see me kill the snakes, draw out the oil and put it into a glass dish. Then I walk down among them and show it to them. Then, I go back and here is a big glass jar, like you make orangeade in. First, I put the snake oil in, and then I put nine other oils in which have previously been mixed in a can, so that they don’t see all of what my formula is. I pour that in on top of the snake oil, turn the mixture around, and if it doesn’t mix thoroughly, looks a little cloudy, I stir it again. Then I let it set for just a moment and it becomes clear.”
Stanley would sell the freshly made liniment along with snake oil liniment bottles that had been made beforehand and he would quickly sell out to the group that had just watched his demonstration. Stanley
would travel across the United States, showing off his snakes and making snake oil right in front of people. A druggist from Boston is the one that talked Stanley into opening a manufacturing plant in Boston. A reporter from the Boston Transcript visited Stanley at his office which was a house just filled with snakes. A quote from the article states “The snake man took the reporter up to his bedroom, and opening a light wooden box, with a wire window in the side, dove his hand into it with as much unconcern as if he were taking an egg out of a basket, and brought it out again with a snake seven feet long writhing in it.” Stanley then pulled out two more snakes and let them just slither and wrap themselves around his body. Stanley told the reporter that “The bite of any one of these snakes is absolutely deadly. No, I am not the least afraid of being bitten. In fact, I have been bitten hundreds of times. Look here!” and Stanley showed the reporter his hands that were covered in tiny white scars all the way to his wrist. Stanley went on to say that “Not all are from poisonous snakes, but I have also been bitten by snakes which had their glands full of poison and meant business. The reason I am not dead is because I have what I believe is the only remedy for snake-bite and there is no question that it is a perfect one” It’s most likely that Stanley had just built up a limited immunity to snake venom.
In 1901, Stanley moved his manufacturing from Boston to a bigger plant in Providence Rhode Island. A reporter writing about Stanley wrote “In covered pens may be seen thousands of snakes fattened ready to be killed for their oil. Clark Stanley says that the world is just beginning to realize the actual value of snake oil and that there are hundreds of uses to which it might be applied that are not yet recognized.” Stanley claimed to kill 3,000 snakes that previous year and 2,000 others at his snake farm in Texas because business was booming.
The label on his snake oil bottles, as well as the booklet that accompanied the bottle, claimed the oil could be used for hundreds of uses, stating “For rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, contracted muscles, sprains, swellings, frost bites, chilblains, bruises, sore throat, bites of animals, insects, and reptiles. Good for man and beast. A liniment that penetrates muscle, membrane, and tissue to the very bone itself, and banishing pain with a power that has astonished the Medical Profession.” There were two figures that illustrated how to use the oil to cure partial paralysis of the arms and another figure showed how to bathe the head for neuralgia, headache, and tic douloureux. If you were bitten by an animal, insect, or reptile, you were instructed to apply the oil as soon as possible. “The oil kills the poison, relieves the pain, reduces the swelling, and heals the wound.”
In 1906, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. This legislation would prevent “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.” This created a few problems for Stanley’s snake oil. Firstly, the medical claims that he made for his oil would be far-fetched for even Chinese water-snake oil, but they are outrageous for rattlesnake oil, which contains only a third of the omega fatty acid that Chinese water-snake oil does. Secondly, Clark Stanley’s snake oil that he manufactured didn’t contain even a drop of snake oil. In 1917, federal investigators seized a shipment of Stanley’s snake oil. Analysis of a sample by the Bureau of Chemistry found that the oil was mostly comprised of a light mineral oil mixed with about 1 percent of fatty oil which was probably beef fat, capsicum (commonly known as red pepper), and possibly a trace of camphor and turpentine. Stanley was fined $20 (or about $429 today) for misbranding the oil and fraudulently representing it as a remedy for all pains and illnesses. Stanley did not dispute the charges.
It was around this time that snake oil started to become synonymous with fraud. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1927 poem “John Brown’s Body” the poet talks about “Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades…sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” Other tonics that were advertised to cure wide varieties of ailment that were found to be false medicine began to be referred to as snake oil as well. The term has evolved to mean a product or policy of little real worth or value that is promoted as the solution to a problem. In 2013, Senator Mitch McConnel sent out a campaign mailer in which he called his opponent in the Republican Primary, Matt Bevin, a snake oil salesman. At a rally during the 2012 presidential race, President Obama referred to Romney’s tax plan as “trickle-down snake oil” and in 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund took out full-page ads in the Washington Post calling President George W. Bush’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “100 percent snake oil.”
“Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without History” by Lucy M. Cohen
“The Chinese-American Heritage” by David M. Brownstone
“The Use of Black Powder Nitroglycerine on the Transcontinental Railroad” from the Transcontinental Railroad resources from the Linda Hall Library
“The Army of Canton in the High Sierra” by Alexander Saxton
“The History of Snake Oil” by Andrew Haynes in the Pharmaceutical Journal
“The Rattlesnake King” an excerpt from “Natural Causes: Death, Lies, and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry” by Dan Hurley
“A History of ‘Snake Oil Salesman’” by Lakshmi Gandhi