Welcome to **Interesting If True**, the podcast that slithers right into your ear holes and fills them with the wonders of yee-oldie medical stuff.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are:
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that when you wear a mask with a big beard you look like an underwear ad from the 70’2
I’m Steve, and I’ve learned that the only place where I’m considered “essential” is at work, during a pandemic, so I can fix people’s computers, so they can keep shopping on Amazon… etc, etc, etc.
### There Be Oil In Them Thar Snakes!
Today’s show will slither in under the bar I’m sure… because it’s snake oil!
I’m a funny.
Snake Oil really has two histories. One of moderate efficacy in a better-than-nothing sense. And another of screwing people out of money, health, and often life with fake cure-alls.
The history of snake oil is a miss-mash of nonsense that’s impossible to put into a straight line, but in general, it goes something like this:
1. Boil stuff, maybe a snake,
So, let’s begin with, you guessed it, yee-oldie terrible doctors. The records are, of course, a bit of a mess and my research was not helped by my inability to read Chinese.
Snake Oil seems to have two origins. One with folks like Pliny The Elder, and another in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I should differentiate Traditional Chinese Medicine from TCM as it’s now known. Today’s TCM was created largely during the Great Leap Forward when people were dying by the millions and there was no real help for them so the Chinese government basically just made some nonsense up to placate the suffering. On the other hand are curatives that were used, traditionally, by the Chinese for hundreds of years. Much like yee-oldie western medicine most of this was rubbing dirt on you then hoping your dick doesn’t fall off.
Before we dive into oils and how to apply them, what was Pliny’s cure for blindness?
That’s right, pickled snake skins! And for extra bad cases of not being able to see reduce the remainder of the snake to ash, mix that with the skin oil then rub that in your eyes daily until well visoned.
So, snake oil. Despite its common meaning today O.G. snake oil was actually better than nothing. Made from the oils released when boil-rendering a Chinese Water Snake, snake oil was rich in omega-3 acids that can reduce inflammation. 1
A Californian psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology, Richard Kunin, analyzed snake oil from San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the oil of two rattlesnakes he bought. His findings were published in the 1989 Western Journal of Medicine, this write up being from a Scientific American 2 article. He found that Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies.
“Snakes and fish share one thing, they’re both cold-blooded animals,” Kunin says of Omega-3 fatty acids found in snakes and salmon etc. A similar, but more recent study, from the Japanese National Food Research Institute found that the Erabu sea snake—used in Japanese Snake Oil and a relative of the Chinese water snake—contained significant amounts of beneficial omega-3’s that did some interesting in encouraging stuff to mice in clinical trials. The researchers saw reduced inflammation, increased stamina and brain activity, and reduced blood pressure, cholesterol, and depression. All of which is a major contributing factor or Omega-3 fatty acid woo, which is another show I’m afraid. The takeaway is, there’s something to EPA, but it’s not better than, say, a paracetamol.
In the early 19th century Chinese laborers built America’s Transcontinental Railroad. For the Chinese laborers Snake Oil was often used topically on the arthritic or after a long day’s work. The work was back breaking, the pay meager, and the working conditions all but a war-crime. The few westerners who worked with the Chinese laborers quickly took to using the Snake Oil offered to them and it developed a reputation for efficacy at a time when the best medicine really was laughter… and I guess, whiskey.
Unfortunately, Chinese Water Snakes—as the name would suggest—are not native to the American west. But Rattle Snakes are.
And so now-notorious Snake Oil salesmen like Clark Stanley or ex-magician John Austin Hamlin began making their own concoctions. Sometimes using Rattle Snake oil, sometimes using whatever oil they could get their hands on like Sassafras, or… you know… crude.
Soon “patent medicines” were all the rage. You could find ads for them on the backs of newspapers and magazines. Or being sold by a cart by a flim-flam man. Basically, exactly what you’re picturing when I say turn of the century snake oil salesmen.
Interestingly, this is where Coca-Cola got its start.
John Hamlin, launched his liniment in 1861. It caught on far more quickly than his magics did. As seen in the ad on your screen, it could cure:
> rheumatism, neuralgia, toothache, headache, diphtheria, sore throat, lame back, sprains, bruises, corns, cramps, colic, diarrhea, and all pain and inflammation.
Which does beg the question, if it cured “all pain” why list headaches and so on? Ahh, yee-oldie marketing.
Unlike the Chinese Snake Oil, or the oils of other charlatans like Clark Stanley (who we’ll get to shortly) Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, as it was called, was not merely rendered snake fat, no, it included: 55% straight grain alcohol, 40% essential oils like camphor (a tree oil used topically to this day), and the rest was a mixture of ammonia, unidentified alkaloids, chloroform, sassafras, cloves, and turpentine.
Hamlin is the snake oil salesman you picture. Hell, he popularized the cain-waving, top-hat sporting, fast-talking, smooth salesmen snake oil would come to typify. 3
Eventually his claims would run afoul of the Secretary of Agriculture who reported him to the U.S. District Attorney for the North of Illinois. Specifically, that it could cure cancer.
> Cancer — Hamlin’s Wizard Oil will check the growth and permanently cure a Cancer if treatment is begun in the early stages of its development and faithfully continued for a long enough period of time. We have knowledge of a number of permanent cures of Cancer by the use of Hamlin’s Wizard oil. 4
He also claimed it could cure hydrophobia, pneumonia, and tumors once they’d be surgically removed. It was said to be good for ulcers if taken internally and deafness if taken… ear…ally.
Speaking of cures for deafness and the previously mentioned Pliny the Elder, panel, what was his go-to cure for deafness?
That’s right, rose pedals, oils, and hog jiz! 5 Just, jerk off a pig right into your ear. Yep.
Clark Stanley became famous in 1897 when he published an autobiographical… pamphlet… called “_The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy, by Clark Stanley, Better Known as the Rattle Snake King_”. 6 Yes, that’s all title.
According to the book he had learned of the healing power of rattlesnake oil from Hopi medicine men. Which was, of course, nonsense. Eastern mysticism hadn’t made it big in the west yet so people were still trading in the ancient wisdoms of Native Americans when they needed to hawk stuff.
Stanley would eventually find his way to the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago where, before a ruckus and enthusiastic crowd he boiled live snakes in a caldron to skim the residual oil off for onlookers.
Joe Schwarez, the direct of McHill University’s Office for Science and Society, said of the showman:7
> “[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”
Given Stanley’s success there were, of course, imitators, like Miller’s Antiseptic Oil or simply “Lincoln Oil”
Soon fraudsters began marketing their oils by their own names, or made up names that invoked imagery appealing at the time. But the writing was on the walls. The various potions offered by charlatans often did little good, more often, they did real harm.
As doctors began accepting the germ theory of disease criticism grew of homemade and marketed cure-alls. In 1905 Collier’s Magazine published a scathing article admonishing patent medicine as nonsense and those selling it as fraudsters. 8 The public outrage led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907.
In 1917 the FDA seized a shipment of Stanley’s Snake Oil and tested it for ingredients and efficacy. They revealed that the Snake Oil contained mineral oil, red pepper capsaicin, turpentine, camphor, and its fatty oil content was beef tallow. Snakes, it would seem, need not apply.
The Snake King was arrested and charged with fraud and after pleading no contest was fined $20—the equivalent of about $500 today—for “misbranding” his product by “falsely and fraudulently represent[ing] it as a remedy for all pain.”
Snake Oil’s fate was sealed. It was now regarded as poppy-cock and snake oil salesmen charlatans. The first written derogatory usage of the term “Snake Oil Salesman”, according to NPR, is in Stephen Vincent Bennett’s epic 1927 poem John Brown’s Body, “Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades … sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.”
So there ya go. Yee-Oldie GOOP turned semi-efficacious Chinese-Japanese snake-based Icy Hot into the commonly understood definition of being full of shit.
1. [History or Snake oil, Pharmaceutical Journal](https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/opinion/blogs/the-history-of-snake-oil/20067691.blog?firstPass=false) ↩︎
1. [Collectors Weekly](https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-snake-oil-got-a-bad-rap/) – [Scientific American Article](https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/snake-oil-salesmen-knew-something/) ↩︎
1. [Wikipedia entry listing ingredients](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlin%27s_Wizard_Oil) ↩︎
1. [Culinary Lore quotes about cancer](https://culinarylore.com/other:hamlins-wizard-oil-the-cancer-curing-liniment/) ↩︎
1. [Pliny the Elder, Latin Library, 1 AD-100AD, National Histories](https://www.loebclassics.com/view/pliny_elder-natural_history/1938/pb_LCL418.121.xml?readMode=recto) ↩︎
1. [Google Books Excerpt](https://books.google.com/books?id=Aiw-KntGPrgC&pg=PA75&lpg=PA75&dq=hopi+indians+clark+stanley&source=bl&ots=qYqJJ_wh-E&sig=ACSXlxs6wjTuUY_3d4Rdv9-gU-s&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eKMXUoHIIvf_4AO6v4DoCg#v=onepage&q=hopi%20indians%20clark%20stanley&f=false) ↩︎
1. [NPR Report on Stanley](https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/08/26/215761377/a-history-of-snake-oil-salesmen) ↩︎
1. [Museum of Quackery archive of Collier’s Magazine article](http://www.museumofquackery.com/ephemera/oct7-01.htm) ↩︎
1. [Ancient Origins](https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/snake-oil-0011317)
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### The Thirsty Cardinal
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I have been quickly moving through my library with this covid in the air, and also snow because why not. I realized I have most genres represented but severely lack trashy romance novels. With some research I was able to dig up a gem called “The Cardinal’s Mistress,” and boy was I happy.
“The Cardinal’s Mistress” is a story as old as time, or actually as old as the catholic church. First published in installments in Trento newspaper back in 1910, that is a newspaper in Trent, which at the time was in Austria. The story is about Emanuele Madruzzo (the fictional Cardinal of Trento during the papal reign of Alexander VII in the mid-1700s), his mistress Claudia Particella, and their sad love affair. Madruzzo wants to resign his office and legitimize the relationship, but the pope won’t let him. The couple has many enemies who seek to destroy them. The evil Don Benizio could help them, but only if Claudia will yield to his lust. She says, “No way!” Assassins are recruited to kill her; finally they succeed in drugging her wine and she dies. The end. In addition to the gripping plot, the book is filled with lots of anti-church rants and portraits of the greed and vengefulness of the clergy.
I managed to find a quick excerpt for you to enjoy. This is when Don Benizio, the bad guy, tries to seduce our fair Claudia.
> Don Benizio wept like a boy. And like a boy he knelt at Claudia’s feet. With broken phrases, interrupted by terrible groans which burst from his breast, with words which were in turn puerile, disordered, suave, and terrible, with the desperate gestures of one who has been crushed, he begged love, pardon, pity.
> “Do not cast me into the abyss. Do not make me drain the bitter cup of vengeance. Cast a ray of your light into my darkened soul.”
> Then phrases of mystic adoration hurtled past his lips. (Hee! Literary commentary mine). “I will build you a secret altar in the depths of my conscience. You will be the Madonna of the temple within me. I will be your slave. Strike me, despise me, beat me, open my veins with a subtle dagger, but grant me the revelation of yourself, grant that I may speak to you, grant that I may lose myself with you in the supreme illusion.”
> But Don Benizio’s eloquence did not move Claudia. Then the priest returned to thoughts of vengeance.
> “Ah, you do not listen to me, shameless courtesan, harlot. Well, I shall come to get you in this same castle. I shall let the common brutes of the market-place satiate their idle lusts on your sinful body. You shall be the mockery of the unreasoning mob. Your corpse will not have the rites of Christian burial. You will be cast into the field of the Badia with the witches. And when the hour of your agony comes, when, trampled on, transfixed and rent by the blows of the mob, you shall implore aid and succour with the eyes which now so disdainfully regard me, I shall be the evil demon of that supreme hour, I shall come to torture you with memories of me, to gloat in my triumph.”
You may have gathered from the synopsis and the excerpt that this is not great literature, nor would you expect it to be, given its author. I haven’t mentioned the author yet as you may have noticed, that’s because this is the only novel the author wrote. You see back 1909 the author was working in Trent as a secretary to a trade union organization, and assisting the editor of the local socialist newspaper Il Popolo and its weekly supplement La Vita Trentina. For La Vita Trentina he wrote a serial, the extravagantly titled Claudia Particella, l’Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. Apparently the story was popular with the readers of the magazine, but with the passage of time it was forgotten.
This author went on to become famous in other ways, mainly politics where he would go on to start and lead the national socialist party and in 1922 would lead the March on Rome where he would take power and become the longest running PM in Italy. Is the author ringing any bells? Steve?
You see back before he became a scary power monger, Benito Mussolini wrote a romance novel…
It faded from view until Mussolini became famous as Il Duce, at which point it was resurrected and published in book form in Italian, German, and English in 1927. But Mussolini’s status as celebrity author was short-lived. In 1929, he made a truce with the Vatican when he signed the Lateran Treaty. Among other things, the Vatican acknowledged Italian sovereignty over the former Papal States and Italy recognized papal sovereignty over Vatican City and paid £30 million to the pope in compensation. At that stage, it seemed a good idea to pull The Cardinal’s Mistress out of circulation.
Before becoming hard to find, like today, the great american poet Dorothy Parker wrote a scathing review;
> ”When I am given a costume romance beginning, ‘From the tiny churches hidden within the newly budding verdure of the valleys, the evensong of the Ave Maria floated gently forth and died upon the lake,’ my only wish is that I, too, might float gently forth and die, and I’m not particular whether it’s upon the lake or dry land.”
Some even postulate that this is the book about which she famously quipped, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force,” but that is more likely to be Atlas Shrugged.
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
Find out more about the show, social links, and contact information at [InterestingIfTrue.com](https://www.interestingiftrue.com).
Music for this episode was created by [Wayne Jones](https://youtu.be/TkBeWQc9NSc) and was used with permission.
The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms.All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.
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