Snake oil in the 1880s

… There are persons who pin greath faith still to the virtues of rattlesnake oil … [Emphasis mine]
- Daily Globe, June 7, 1882

While researching snake oil — the actual oil made from actual snakes — I've kept running into a number of myths which are very widespread in this small but fascinating field of history, medicine and quackery.

1) The Chinese came with it. Wrong — snake oil came from Europe where it had been used for centuries. The first mention of American oil is from 1687 (World Wide Words: Snake oil). There are plenty of examples from the early 19th century. The Chinese began to arrive in numbers around 1850.

2) A guy called Clark Stanley made it big. Wrong — Clark Stanley was just another peddler. What he did was to write a 1897 pamphlet, the supposed facts of which people still believe in. He certainly didn't, for example, slaughter snakes at the 1893 Chicago fair, and it was certainly not he who made snake oil a household item.

3) Snake oil got big around the turn of the century. Wrong — and here's a couple of newspaper clippings just from the 1880s to prove it.
Men and women who have wit enough to make a living and keep a little money in their pockets swallow with child like confidence the yarns of the 'Indian Doctor' on the fairground, and buy his 'rattlesnake oil,' in the full persuasion that it will not only cure toothache and corns, but any other ailment that may intrude into the territory between toes and teeth.
- The Red Cloud Chief, February 17 1881
... There are persons who pin great faith still [i.e. it is not a new fad] to the virtues of rattlesnake oil, and who believe it is a specific for rheumatic afflictions.
- Daily Globe, June 7 1882
... 'Rattlesnake Tom,' an old man who has for years earned a living by killing snakes for their oil.
- The Bee, June 24 1882
... Paul G. Schuh's advertisement of Rattle Snake Oil in this paper... [PGS was a snake oil businessman in Cairo, Ill.]
- The Daily Cairo Bulletin, April 29 1883
[A hermit on Peter's Mountain, Penn.] sustains his life by selling rattlesnake oil which he makes.
- Semi-Weekly Bourbon News, August 28 1883
For many years different persons living in the mountains of Sullivan and Ulster Counties have made very snug sums every year in the sale of rattlesnake oil, which is believed to possess wonderful curative powers by a large proportion of the inhabitants of not only those, but adjoining counties.
- News and Citizen, October 18 1883
"Oh, it's wonderful good, the grease is, for sickness and rheumatix and carache and sich like — leastwise so the doctors and most folks think, and so I encourages 'em to think so, 'cause it makes a demand for snake oil. I gets $1 an ounce for the oil. [...] They uses the skin for stuffin' 'em, and then for sickness, too. Beats all. The nastier a thing is the better some people like it for sickness, don't they?" [Interview with John Gotlieb of Port Jervis, NY, who certainly knew his trade]
- Richmond Dispatch, August 6 1884
Having heard that rattle-snake oil was good for deafness and ear complaints generally, I wrote out to Arkansas to my man to provide me some. Sure enough, he had a two-ounce vial of it for me when I got there, and two huge snake skins stuffed for me to bring home.
- Clarksville Weekly Chronicle, December 6 1884
[Pine Creek Region, PA, described as a rattlesnake trading hub with several snake farms..?] When business was brisk they were kept busy transporting whiskey into the camps of those employed at the snakeries, and in taking rattlesnake oil down to Williamsport or some other seaport ...
- The Sun, April 19 1885
As high as $5 per ounce is paid by those who believe in the wonderful curative qualities of the snake oil. [The newspapers enjoy mentioning all kinds of prices. How realistic they were I really don't know.]
- The Rock Island Argus, May 26 1885
He stated that he was going to fry the oil out of the snakes to sell for a cure of rheumatism.
- The Somerset Herald, July 29 1885
[Longer article about Rattlesnake Island, Green Hill Farm, nine miles below Columbia, SC.] The negroes on the farm carry on a large traffic in the sale of rattlesnake oil, which is applied externally for the cure of rheumatism. [...] This traffic in rattlesnake oil is rapidly increasing, and is becoming popular among the white sufferers from rheumatism ...
- Juanita Sentinel and Republican, August 26 1885
"Rattlesnake oil was a great remedy in those days." [Grandma Brown remembers the early 19th century.]
- The McCook Tribune, October 8 1885
[An article describing two young rascals who visited the editors of Republican Gazette, Clarion. They got a text in the paper praising rattlesnake oil. Then they went to the drug store, bought a gallon of linseed oil, mixed in some scented oil, and put it in small bottles which they sold for 25 cents each.]
- The Forest Republican, May 5 1886
We're after rattlesnake oil. Hunting snakes in the chaparral. [From a short story.]
- The Ottawa Free Trader, May 22 1886
Among the people living in the country infested by them their oil is held in great repute for the cure of ear ache, deafness, stiff joints and various other ills, and sells readily at $1 per ounce, while their gall preserved in chalk is regarded as an excellent remedy for fever.
- Wichita Eagle, 28 september 1886
The backwoodsmen of the United States have an almost superstitious faith in the efficacy of rattlesnake oil as an ointment and liniment ...
- The Sun, December 5 1886
"Dear sir – I am a snake hunter; make my living by hunting rattlesnakes and selling their skins and oil."
- Fort Worth Daily Gazette, April 9 1887
In some parts of the country rattlesnake oil sells at a good price.
- The Columbus Journal, April 13 1887
There is a rattlesnake farm in Illinois which supplies these poisonous reptiles to a house in Philadelphia, where the oil of the snake is used in preparation for the cure of rheumatism. [Stover's Snake Farm, near Galton, Ill., run by Capt Dan Stover, his wife and assistant William Dunn.]
- The Sun and many others, May 8 1887
... This old residenter, who was hunting rattlesnakes for oil ...
- The Sun, June 12 1887
Anton Hinderman, of Elizabeth, N. J., goes up every year to Pike county, Pa., to live in a hut and hunt rattlesnakes. [...] the greenish oil which is reputed to be a sovereign cure for rheumatism and kindred complaints.
- The Cambria Freeman, July 29 1887
He had a doctor put the snake in you by applying snake oil to your bosom ... [Snake oil supposedly used in a curse]
- St. Paul Daily Globe, February 10 1888
Please call at the Medical Department of the United States Army and see the very best cash offer you can get for one dozen salted alligator skins and also one gallon of pure rattlesnake oil, which is good to rub soldiers' limbs after hard marching. [Item from "Collection of funny letters – Some of the ridiculous requests made upon United States Congressmen." Barnes from Georgia asked his colleagues about the most ridiculous requests they had got from citizens, and got suggestions about flying machines, whisky etc]
- Fort Worth Daily Gazette, March 10 1888
I have been here two weeks now and have not had a drop of "rattlesnake oil" in all this time. [Snake oil was also used as a colloquialism for whisky, usually the worst brands. This is the first example I've seen.]
- The Saline County Journal, March 15 1888
The high value that is set on rattlesnake oil wherever the snake is found is widely known. I have known as much as $5 to be paid for an ounce of rattlesnake oil, so great was the purchaser's faith in it as a cure for rheumatism.
- The Sun, June 3 1888
Charles Low was selling snake oil in Columbus, Ga., Saturday night, and during his talk exhibited a rattle snake which bit him on the hand! He made for a drug store, where he fell unconscious and will likely die. [Haven't found out what happened to him.]
- The Cambria Freeman, Septembers 14 1888
The honorable members [of the Arizona senate] had been living for years on the various brands of tarantula juice, rattlesnake oil [ie whisky], tequilla and other liquids indiginous to Arizona ...
- Western Liberal, March 15 1889
They hunt the rattlesnake every summer about Adams, Mass., for his oil, which is believed to be a cure for diseases, and as such is  worth $2 an ounce.
- News and Citizen, April 25 1889
As to rattlesnake oil, everybody believes in that as an infallible remedy for rheumatism and kindred ailments.
- The Sun, July 28 1889
"... Hunting the snakes, trying out their oil to sell to druggists ..." [Interview with Cephas Platt, snake hunter of Rattle Island in Lake George, NY]
- Pittsburgh Dispatch, August 18 1889
Most people think that rattlesnakes are entirely useless upon the Earth, but the story told by the Athens, Ga., Banner will set aside such a belief. There are places in South Georgia where men extracted oil from the rattlesnake and used it to cure rheumatism. [...] It sells at $2 per ounce ...
- Pittsburgh Dispatch, September 30 1889
Yes, we have calls for some very odd remedies. I have been asked for dog fat, cat fat, rabbit fat, skunk oil, snake oil, spirits of ants and the like queer medicines, mostly by old Germans who had heard of them from some old granny in the fatherland. [Viper oil was big in Europe long before Columbus.]
- Barbour County Index, October 9 1889

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