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The bad rap of snake oil

I have a friend who told a humorous story about being in a meeting where someone was speaking of things that he knew to be untrue, downright bovine excreta. When he had taken all he could of it, he stood up, got up, slammed a dollar onto the table and cried out “gimme a bottle of that snake oil!”

Snake oil is indeed a popular metaphor for anything being touted as true, but in reality is fraud. And those attempting to sell or convince you to accept something fraudulent are referred to as snake oil salesmen. But snake oil started out as something that was genuinely helpful, so how did it become something derogatory? The answer lies in history.

Back in the mid-1800s, over 100,000 Chinese immigrants came to the western U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. The labor was hard, and so to relieve body aches they brought with them from China a liniment of sorts made of oil from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis). The oil was rich in omega-3 acids which is known to reduce inflammation and joint pain. As word got out, the desire to make and sell snake oil grew, and so a local substitute for the snake oil ingredient was sought. Rattlesnake oil was originally used, but it had far less of the beneficial acid in it, and so was not as effective.

That didn’t get in the way of making a sale however, and so the inferior American snake oil liniment was put on the market and sold. The late 1800s saw a boom in selling so called patent medicines that were advertised in newspapers and sold by traveling salesmen.

Some took the deception one step further, most notably one Clark Stanley. He made a splash at the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893 by making a show of taking live rattlesnakes, gutting them, then boiling them in water in front of an audience. When the fat rose to the surface, it was skimmed off, bottled, and sold on the spot. He sold out as fast as he could make it, and afterwards began selling “Stanley’s Snake Oil,” and did quite well.

The problem was that the snake oil product he later sold had no snake oil in it at all. In 1917 federal investigators revealed that all the product had in it was mineral oil, probably beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. The connection of snake oil and fraud was pretty much established after that, and western movies emphasized it even more by making the snake oil salesmen a common character.

Snake oil made from Chinese water snakes is still obtainable, and its formulation varies. It is generally a mixture of the extracted snake oil and some sort of carrier oil or salve. It is mainly emphasized as being good for arthritis.

Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.