Frontier swindlers had ‘medicinal’ tonics to go

Oxygenated bitters were thought to be good for what ails one, according to the con men of yore. Oxygenated bitters were thought to be good for
what ails one, according to the con men of yore.

By Finn J.D. John
For the Enterprise

The four decades following the Civil War were something like a golden age of charlatanry in the West, and Oregon was no exception. From swindling tourists at a gambling parlor, to fleecing miners in a tent-city saloon, to peddling stock in nonexistent gold mines, the opportunities for a morally-flexible fellow to make a stack of ill-gotten greenbacks was probably never higher in the Beaver State than it was back then.

One of the most popular ways for a con man to steal a buck or two, back then, was with a medical-miracle scam. An enterprising con would mix up a concoction containing a few substances with dramatic effects – red pepper, alcohol and laudanum, say – and mix in a couple different flavoring agents to give it the proper medicinal taste: eucalyptus oil, for example. Then, into a bottle it would go, and the con, calling himself “Doc,” would roll from town to town selling it as a secret-recipe folk remedy for whatever seemed most likely to sell.

This basic scheme was demonstrated in one of the more famous episodes of The Lone Ranger radio show, from 1938 – in which “Doc Stubbs” rolls into town selling a product called “Snake Oil Tonic,” which does nothing but put the residents to sleep so that his accomplice can pick their pockets.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many stories of specific medico-cons in the historical record. Touring the country under false names and often a skip or two ahead of the law, they did their best to stay out of the history books as long as possible.

But the legitimate physicians in the towns they visited have left us some pretty colorful accounts of their general business methods.

“Do you see that open barouche coming down the street with a torch on either side … and two California sharpers sitting just back of the driver?” wrote Dr. William L. Adams, an eclectic physician working in Portland in the 1870s. “They wear stovepipe hats and are neatly dressed in broadcloth with high standing collars, and wear massive watch chains washed with oroids and glistening in the light of their torches. …

“They stop on the corner of First and Alder streets. By this time, attracted by the torches and the music of a fiddle, there has gathered around them a crowd. The orator stands up in the barouche. He begins his oration: He has a medicine for sale that will cure catarrh, asthma, epizootic, and all other diseases.

“He makes an eloquent speech with loud intonations and violent gestures. ‘This medicine is a sure cure for asthma, consumption, catarrh, or anything else you happen to have. Anyone who buys it and is not satisfied will have his money refunded.

“We sold 5,000 packages last year at a dollar a package and if there is a man here who was not satisfied, let him walk up and return it and we will refund the money.’

“Of course nobody does.

“This satisfies the crowd that the medicine is a good thing, and one poor laboring man walks up and hands over a dollar and receives an ounce bottle of magnesia, table salt and red pepper, nicely mixed.

“Now the sharper shouts out: ‘You may not be diseased now, but you may be within a week after we have gone back to California, and when we come back next year you may be down in your graves, or on your beds past cure. You know that millions of souls have been eternally lost because they failed to get religion when the preacher invited them. Don’t make the same fearful mistake. Get medicine when you have a chance.’

“At this point, the rattle of dollars dropping into the collection box sounds like a gambler’s table.”

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. Sources: Larsell, O. The Doctor in Oregon. Portland: Binfords, 1947; Bromberg, Erik. “Frontier Humor: Plain and Fancy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1960)