Column: Snake Oils

by Jason Rankin

Take Heed! You Do Not Make Another Tempter of This Snake
A smug fleshy man in a dusty suit rides a buckboard wagon into a frontier town. As Americans, we know him in our collective heart. He brings the medicine for all of our woes.  He sells us a lie, and we will buy and swallow every drop. The cure may prove, in time, to be a poison worse than what we believed to ail us. This matters not. We are desperate for the cure. Before he rode into town, did we understand exactly how sick we were? Had the notion of remedy even occurred? Edify and heal us, Snake Oil Man.

Snake oil, in our cultural lexicon, refers to a false remedy. The original snake oil, however, was brought over by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. An omega-3 fatty acid found in the Chinese water snake may have acted as a genuine anti-inflammatory agent, as well as an excellent nutrient for heart and brain. The efficacy of snake oil, or snake fat, has been confirmed by lab science, but this is where the truth of snake oil ends. This is where the truth of our culture begins.

If the snake oil being used by Chinese laborers for centuries had actual medicinal value, how did the name of said medicine become synonymous with something that has none? The problem lies, possibly, in the dearth of Chinese water serpents on the American frontier. Although you can probably go buy a legitimate bottle of snake oil in Chinatown today, in the 19th century, once that original imported bottle ran empty, it stayed that way. What to do?

Well, if you are an enterprising and ambitious American, you make do. One thing that the West did have—and in great supply—was rattlesnakes. You can make your own snake oil. The problem is, rattlesnakes do not have nearly enough of the precious omega-3 to actually help you much. Not to worry, if you have the testimony of someone who has used actual snake oil in the past, then you have legitimacy. If the word of the healing power of the oil has spread far enough, you may not even need a real witness. Just to be safe, you might want to bring one along with you. Nobody has to know that the witness is on your payroll.

You have noticed, by now, that the folks to whom you are selling have a great capacity for taking someone’s word for it. You will have also noticed that acquiring rattlesnake fat is difficult and dangerous work. You could put some other kind of fatty oil in the mix instead.  Beef fat is much more available. Actually, when the Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley’s snake oil was seized by the feds in 1917, beef fat (1%) is what they found. A lawsuit ensued, besmirching the name “snake oil” forevermore, but the $20 fine that Stanley paid probably did not eat up much of the profits he made before he was exposed.

Today, we hear this story and chuckle. None of us are surprised. A very American tale it is and we continue to use the euphemism. Few of us will ever try real snake oil. Nothing lost, nothing gained. Just another day in the American marketplace.