Open main menu

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil

Snake oil is a euphemism for deceptive marketing. It refers to the petroleum-based mineral oil or "snake oil" that used to be sold as a cure-all elixir for many kinds of physiological problems. Many 19th-century United States and 18th-century European entrepreneurs advertised and sold mineral oil (often mixed with various active and inactive household herbs, spices, and compounds, but containing no snake-derived substances whatsoever) as "snake oil liniment", making frivolous claims about its efficacy as a panacea. William Rockefeller Sr. sold "rock oil" as a cancer cure without the reference to snakes. Patent medicines that claimed to be a panacea were extremely common from the 18th century until the 20th, particularly among vendors masking addictive drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol and opium-based concoctions or elixirs, to be sold at medicine shows as medication or products promoting health.

A snake oil recipe from 1719/1751 (Juan de Loeches, Tyrocinium Pharmaceticum), printed in Spain: "The viper oil of Mesues. Take 2 pounds of live snakes and 2 pounds 3 ounces of sesame oil. Cook slowly, covered in a glazed pot, until meat pulls away from bone. Strain and store. Uses: Cleans the skin, removes pimples, impetigo and other defects."

In traditional Chinese medicament, it is a medicine utilizing fat extracted from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis).[1][failed verification] It is a rubefacient or ointment, and is applied topically to relieve minor physical pain. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many centuries, and is a relatively common medication prescribed by doctors ascribing the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. Its effectiveness as medicine has been a historical source of controversy in the Western world, where there is much confusion over its origin and constitution due to a U.S. District Court judgment against Clark Stanley.


The marketing concept for snake oil was likely transferred to the US from trade, immigration, and exposure to 18th-century British culture. However, the actual source of its use as a folk remedy was likely introduced, similarly to its introduction in the UK, by Chinese laborers involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad in the US, and were undoubtedly familiar with traditional Chinese medicine, using snake oil to treat joint pain such as arthritis and bursitis, while introducing it to fellow American workers.[2] When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by 19th-century rival medicine salespeople, who competed with snake oil entrepreneurs in peddling other medicines for pain, often offering more hazardous alternatives such as alcohol or opium.

Patent medicines originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's elixir in 1712.[3] There were no federal regulations in the United States concerning the safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act.[4] Thus, the widespread marketing and availability of dubiously advertised patent medicines without known properties or origin persisted in the US for a much greater number of years than in Europe.

In 18th-century Europe, especially in the UK, viper oil had been commonly recommended for many afflictions, including the ones for which oil from the rattlesnake (pit viper), a type of viper native to America, was subsequently favored to treat rheumatism and skin diseases.[5] Though there are accounts of oil obtained from the fat of various vipers in the Western world, the claims of its effectiveness as a medicine have never been thoroughly examined, and its efficacy is unknown. It is also likely that much of the snake oil sold by Western entrepreneurs was illegitimate, and did not contain ingredients derived from any kind of snake. Snake oil in the United Kingdom and United States probably contained modified mineral oil.

In popular culture within the United States, snake oil is particularly renowned to be a commodity peddled at American Old West-themed medicine shows, although the judgment condemning snake oil as medicine took place in Rhode Island, and involved snake oil manufactured in Massachusetts.[6] The snake oil peddler is a stock character in Western movies, depicted as a traveling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) will often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" will leave town before his customers realize they have been cheated.[2] This practice has wide-ranging implications, and is known as a confidence trick, a type of fraud. This particular confidence trick is purported to have been a common mechanism utilized by peddlers in order to sell various counterfeit and generic medications at medicine shows.

The drastic amount of fraud extending to the drug epidemic was unfolded, and exposed with a judgment against Clark Stanley, which condemned the patented Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment in US District Court.

From cure-all to quackeryEdit

A report of the 1917 decision of the United States District Court for Rhode Island, fining Clark Stanley $20 for "misbranding" its "Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment".

The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly among products.

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment – produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King" – was tested by the United States government's Bureau of Chemistry, the precursor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA,) in 1916.[6] It was found to contain: mineral oil, 1% fatty oil (assumed to be tallow), capsaicin from chili peppers, turpentine, and camphor.[3]

Although most snake oil in the Western world was drastically overpriced and falsely advertised, it is arguable whether or not it is actually representative of a placebo—given that Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment, the only Western produced snake oil known to have been examined, is similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments or chest rubs. None of the oil content was found to have been extracted from actual snakes. Nonetheless, the composition of most snake oil is essentially the same as Vicks VapoRub, which contains camphor. Snake oil (along with many chest rubs) utilizes camphor as an active ingredient. Clark Stanley, the most renowned peddler of snake oil who is popularly known as "The Rattlesnake King", marketed a brand of snake oil containing capsaicin as an active ingredient in addition to camphor. Capsaicin also continues to be commonly used in many non-narcotic pain patches, and is found in many competing brands of chest rubs as well as in pepper spray.

In 1916, subsequent to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment was examined by the Bureau of Chemistry, and found to be drastically overpriced and of limited value. As a result, Stanley faced federal prosecution for peddling mineral oil in a fraudulent manner as snake oil. In his 1916 civil hearing instigated by federal prosecutors in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, Stanley pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to the allegations against him, giving no admission of guilt.[6] His plea was accepted, and as a result, he was fined $20[6] (about $457 in 2018).[7] The term snake oil has since been established in popular culture as a reference to any worthless concoction sold as medicine, and has been extended to describe a widely ranging degree of fraudulent goods, services, ideas, and activities such as worthless rhetoric in politics. By further extension, a snake oil salesman is commonly used in English to describe a quack, huckster, or charlatan.

Modern implicationsEdit

Many modern health products continue to be marketed using techniques formerly associated with snake oil. The marketing comprises storefronts, retail stores, and traveling peddlers; example products are herbalism, dietary supplements, or a Tibetan singing bowl (used for healing.) Claims that these products are scientific, healthy, or natural are dubious.

There are no known accounts of snake oil peddled in the United States or Europe containing any trace of actual snake extract (unlike snake oil in traditional Chinese medicine). Snake oil in Western culture is a fraudulent panacea, although generally less dangerous than many other patent medicines containing intoxicating or hazardous ingredients. Nonetheless, snake oil represents a type of fraud that covers the intoxicating drugs once sold at medicine shows. Many of these remain available today, though they may be manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, require a prescription, and undergo government regulation.

Historical interpreter Ross Nelson as "Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap", resident snake-oil salesman at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park, Boerne, Texas.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Alves, Rômulo; Rosa, Ierecê Lucena (19 September 2012). Animals in Traditional Folk Medicine: Implications for Conservation. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9783642290251.
  2. ^ a b Graber, C (1 November 2007). "Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something". Scientific American. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  3. ^ a b Nickell, J (1 December 1998). "Peddling Snake Oil; Investigative Files". Skeptical Inquirer. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 8 (4). Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  4. ^ "The Long Struggle for the Law". Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  5. ^ Klauber, Laurence M. (1997). Rattlesnakes, vol II. University of California Press. p. 1050.
  6. ^ a b c d Chemistry, United States Bureau of (1917). Service and Regulatory Announcements. U.S. Government Printing Office.
  7. ^ "$20 in 1916 → 2018 | Inflation Calculator". Retrieved 7 April 2018.

External linksEdit