Just about everybody has heard of snake oil -- and knows to be wary of it, no matter what form its peddled. But in the 19th century, faithful believers lined up at the medicine show to get that mystical cure-all. Rattlesnake oil, gathered at presumably great risk, was especially prized. Actually, snake oil did nt come from any kind of slithering reptile. Over-the-counter products such as white gasoline and wintergreen oil provided the potent mix that carried the sure-sell label of snake oil.

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  • See Doc Scott give his famous Snake Oil Pitch

  • Peg Leg and Chief Rain-in-the-face start to work the crowd

  • The Chief works 'em into a buying frinzy

  • Only eight bottles left!
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    Miracle Cures:

    Neither miraculous nor curative

    No Medicine Show was complete without a show of medicine, even if the "cure" was as dubious as the tonic. Here are some of the ways the traveling doctor provided the illusion curing the afflicted.

  • Is your arthritis kicking up again? Medicine Show doctors offer immediate relief. How? Strong hand pressure and vigorous rubbing of the liniment dulls the pain just long enough to clinch the sale.

  • Hard of hearing? Showmen can make your ears audibly better. Listen closely how its done. Knowing that impacted earwax commonly affects hearing, the application of a few drops of oil and a deft sweep of a finger results in a loud "pop" and improved hearing for the appreciative customer.

  • Got tapeworms worth measuring? If you suspect you might, try the miracle pill guaranteed to expel more than you can imagine. The trick? The pill conceals a ball of string that will work its way out of the body as a slimy worm-like creature.

    Source: The Great American Medicine Show

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    Making the "pitch": a brief etymology

    There are two theories regarding how the terms "pitch" and "pitchman" became a term of trade in the medicine show.

    One possibility is that the term came from the pine-pitch torch with which, before electricity, medicine show salesmen peddled their tonics after dark.

    A second theory seems more plausible: it derives from "to pitch," as in to pitch a tent.

    Source: "Alagazam: the story of Pitchmen high and low," Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 14, 1929.