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Frontier Oregon swindlers:
The traveling medicine shows

The basic idea: Mix a few dramatic ingredients like whiskey, red pepper and laudanum, stick a label on it; hawk it on streetcorners as a universal medicine; and leave town before the suckers can get wise.

An advertising circular promoting a patent medicine of the type often sold at traveling medicine shows; this label dates from 1851. (Image: Library of Congress)

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 were probably never higher in the Beaver State than they were back then.

One of the most popular ways for a con man to steal a buck or two 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.

The “traveling medicine show” spectacle was used to criticize President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy in the Nov. 2, 1910, issue of Puck Magazine. (Image: Library of Congress)

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 takes in the character of the crowd and begins his oration: He has a medicine for sale that will cure catarrh, asthma, epizootic, and all other diseases.

“He is a ventriloquist. Here he lifts up his ‘Punch and Judy’ and makes her sing a song about Henry Ward Beecher, which amuses the crowd. He then makes her say something about the value of his medicine in curing all 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 here in Portland 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 take a pinch of that,’ shouts the doctor, ‘and see if it doesn’t clean out your nose.’ The victim obeys and sniffs, sneezes, snorts until the tears run down his cheeks and then laughs. He proudly shoves the package into his breeches pocket, with an expression on his face that shines out through dirt and tobacco juice, which the crowd reads as saying, ‘By golly, I think that medicine ain’t no humbug.’

“Now the sharper shouts out: “Gentlemen, if you are skeptical of this medicine, I don’t blame you. You have been humbugged and robbed by your doctors until you have no faith in medicines.’

“Here he snatches up a package of his stuff and, extending it to the crowd, proceeds: ‘Gentlemen, we humbug nobody. We believe in dealing on the square. Please, walk up and try some for yourself. This may be your last chance to get a medicine for a dollar that will do you more good than a thousand dollars spent on a doctor. 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. Don’t wait until it is too late.’

“At this point, the rattle of dollars dropping into the collection box sounds like a gambler’s table. It is now 10:00 and the intelligent fellow-citizens are tired. The doctors bid them an affectionate good-night, promising to be back tomorrow night, and in the meantime they can be found at their room at the hotel where they will be pleased to relieve as many sufferers as choose to call.

“On reaching their rooms, their piety evaporates. They don’t even say their prayers and go to bed, but proceed to open their bag and count out 57 webfoot dollars, as the result of their night’s work. At four other doctors’ stands the receipts range from $20 to $80. The doctors crawl into their beds happy, and … the ventriloquist says, ‘Jim, they told us the truth in California, didn’t they?’

“‘How’s that?’

“‘That there are more doggone fools in Portland than anywhere else.’

“Jim replies, ‘You bet! It’s a good place to gather goose feathers up here in Webfoot.’”

(Sources: Larsell, O. The Doctor in Oregon. Portland: Binfords, 1947; Bromberg, Erik. “Frontier Humor: Plain and Fancy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1960)