Marshall Trimble

Where did “snake oil” originate?

Robert Tignor
Independence, Missouri

“Snake oil” comes from 19th-century Chinese railroad workers who used medicine made from the Chinese water snake. The stuff worked; rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, it effectively treated conditions such as arthritis and bursitis. Americans were amazed by its healing powers.

The term took on a new meaning when phony patent medicines promised to cure every disease known to man. Made up of mostly alcohol, this snake oil convinced people they felt better.

Since America did not have Chinese water snakes, some entrepreneurs used rattlesnakes. Perhaps the best known of these snake oil salesmen was Clark Stanley, the self-proclaimed “Rattlesnake King,” a former cowboy who claimed he had been tutored by Hopi medicine men in Arizona. He deceptively used mineral oil to make his “snake oil” potent. Making a show out of his treatment, Stanley pulled a rattler out of a sack, slit it open and dropped the snake into a pot of boiling water.

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