Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Medicine Shows Part 1

We all know the scene: that fool in a Colonel Sanders outfit fleeing the dusty town ahead of some mob of trusting folks, a banjo playing in the background. They’re all shaking their fists and wondering why the man’s baldness cures and ‘revitalizers’ gave them a bunch of extra toes and made their teeth fall out.
Well, their stupid ain’t got a monopoly on the Old West (we got plenty o’ dummies who paved that road) but damn sure without it, we wouldn’t have an important piece of the Weird West. Without ‘em, we wouldn’t have medicine shows and wouldn’t have them dark brown bottles of snake oil our fine Colonel liked to trade town to town, promising everything from longer legs to proper diction.
Why snake oil? Well, word is, the Seneca Indians, up New York and Pennsylvania way used to rub oil seepage – that is, petroleum that seeped up the ground on its own – on their cuts and scrapes. The European settlers saw that and thought ‘Let’s bottle it for a buck or two!’ and the phrase ‘Seneca Oil’ became ‘Se-nake-a Oil’, then ‘Snake Oil’.
But we all know that’s bullshit. It don’t ever work out so perfect. Really, no one can say absolutely why. A better story comes from actual snake oil (venom, it’s supposed) taken from rattlers that Chinamen put on their aching joints while building the Transcontinental in the 1860’s. Thing is, though, there was ‘viper oil’ before that, back in Europe and them folks used it for every damn thing.
Maybe it’s a bit of all that. Maybe too, it comes from the rattlesnake root, or ‘seneca root’, a plant that resembled a rattler’s rail. The ‘rattlesnake oil’ squeezed off it was believed to cure a rattle bite or even repel the serpents out on the frontier. So, in that roundabout way – once folks started using it for everything from corns to colic – we ended up with ‘snake oil’.
Whatever we did, we had ourselves something someone says does something we ain’t exactly sure it actually does. (And are pretty sure it don’t, but can’t chance not believing in it. Called the ‘placebo effect’, that is.) Let’s not forget, there wasn’t much ‘science’ to medicine back in the Old West, no sir. Best depend on the Weird to get your doctorin’ done.
Folks employed a speciously logical approach to things, you see. If you had an ailment and did this or that and the ailment went away, well, that must be the cure. Maybe that was your intention, maybe not but the word went out. There’s a reason folks still believe you can rub a wart with a piece of potato and bury it under the moon or douse your face with pee to cure acne.
And the Colonel and his types knew this. Knew this because it worked so well for their predecessors, in Europe way back when. The Colonel (AKA the Doctor or, a big favorite, The Professor) of course, isn’t a new thing. He took his cues from the charlatans, who rolled into say, Paris, and strung up a show with music and some hootenanny and danced around selling quack medicine in the 1600’s or so.
‘Quack’ now, comes from a few decades before all that, around 1570 with ‘quacksalver’ which is Dutch for ‘hawker of salves’ or, medicines. Like the snake oil Professor, someone who promises something he can’t deliver. But it goes farther back still. The Ancient Romans had a phrase ‘Nostrum Remedium’ (our remedy) suggesting the Weird West can’t lay claim to scrubbing folks of their hard earned dollars, nor can folks in 17th century Paris or those back in the Middle Ages, when around the 15th Century ‘quacking’ meant to shout.  As in, shout ‘em over and get their dough.
So, it’d been going on for some time and by the 1850’s ol’ Doc Colonel Professor simply stepped in as the latest incarnation. Some version of him’s still around today, in fact. Pharma Pitchmen talking about Restless Leg, idiot celebrities claiming kids get autism from vaccinations, this or that doctor saying this or that herbal remedy is the only safeguard against cancer. Plenty of fools are out there to convince folks reason has no place in a world with some simple fix they’re pleased to provide. Coffee beans build muscle, say. Blueberries cure arthritis. Salmon makes your skin tight.
But this ain’t about now, it’s about then. And then, as the frontier expanded (and with it, anxieties about the unknown: plants, animals, various new ailments) this quack medicine or ‘patent medicine’ took off like a shot.
Because see, them French charlatans back when weren’t just grifters coming in for a quick take and then move on fast before they got caught. No, they were salesmen, first and foremost. They wanted to build confidence not just in their product or service, but also themselves. They wanted to come back time and again to the same folks time and again, if they could. The Professor wasn’t any different and he didn’t stray much from the standard model of the charlatan’s pitch.
The charlatans put on shows with comedy acts and juggling and all kinds of freak shows or mysterious performers. It was like a little circus come to town and hell, who don’t love the circus? So the Professor and folks of his stripe put on their medicine shows and much the same way as the charlatans, trotted out dancing horses and musical acts and had magicians and all kinds of people wowing the crowds while just beneath, they hawked their miracle cures.
So when did they get chased out of town to that plucky banjo music? They didn’t. Hell, patent medicine was a major industry through the Second World War. Folks couldn’t get enough and with names like Loasby’s Wahoo and Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, who could blame ‘em?
Now ‘why’, you ask? Well, step right up my friends and read on about the fantastic and elastic curative and purative all-purpose restorative calorative sure to entertain and delight that’s right: The Old West Weirder than the Rest Hot to Trot Dollar a Shot Act Now for that Taste of Wow Medicine Show.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


   Ain’t nobody really knows ol’ Queho. Who he was or what he was truly about. He lived, that’s all anyone’s for sure on. But was he the psycho Indian savage they say? Or just some mysterious hermit or bank robber or rampaging fugitive from justice?
   All of ‘em or none, the Weird West doesn’t care. It takes ‘em as they come and they rarely come stranger'n Queho.
   He was born around 1880 and by the time he died, he had the title of first mass murderer in Nevada. Called him 'The Mad Indian.' There’s no iron-clad evidence for any murders, but why split hairs? Man was a half-breed, and folks all knew what them was like. White folks, anyway.
   His pa was a miner maybe or coulda been a soldier. Brave from a rival tribe? Maybe that, too. His ma, most are sure on, was a member of the Cocopah tribe.
   Maybe. It’s all gonna be maybes, here. A thing like Queho, I’m not sure we want to know for sure the world had him around. If he did exist like they say, well, give him time. Being dead’s not like to inconvenience him for long.
   He was raised up like any lad, in the beginning. Lived on a reservation out Vegas Way. Did a little ranch work, some house labor. Moody little cuss, they say. Real pissy. Made himself an easy target with a temper like that.
   It’s said he killed his own half-brother in a spat and that started off the whole legend. Some day otherwise. Killed a policeman, a town elder, they say it all. Records we have don’t show any trouble with the law, for sure, until 1910. Got in a scrape with fellow tribal and did him in. Killed two more making his escape.
   So they say.
   They say too, he headed for the El Dorado Mountains. Stopped for supplies on the way, busted up a shopkeeper while robbing his store. Beat him near to death with an axe handle. Some say pick handle. Some say bare handed. Got himself a woodchopper after that. Killed him with a piece of his own timber. Some say shot. Some say stabbed a hundred times and one.
   Posse went after the sumbitch, tracked him to a gold mine. Dead watchman, shot in the back. Maybe stabbed. Maybe hung with his own guts. His badge was gone, they’re sure of that. No. 896. Posse ranged out for 200 miles in search, but came up empty. Spent months on his trail, but by February 1911, called it quits.
   It didn’t stop folks from talkin'. Things went lips to ear to pen to paper and slow and sure, a Weird West legend was born. He was insane, he was possessed, he was wronged, he was smoke and mirrors. Police couldn’t solve their crimes, sure as hell no Indian crimes, so they’d cooked up a patsy.
   They say.
   Patsy nothin’, come the reply. Who else could possibly be responsible for all them cattle thefts, kidnappings and unsolved murders out here? No man could do all that by himself! Not unless he was the Devil come to life!
   And it just so happened, that’s what Queho was. So they say.
   In the years to come there was the blind man, the miners, the schoolteacher, all dead. The lawman, the rancher and Indian after Indian. All dead. All Queho. Children by the passel. Ate up, mutilated, shot up and stabbed. Parents'd tell their kids: “Straighten up, or Queho’s comin’ for ya!”.
   Years would go between sightings, but soon as a body showed up and no one standing over it covered in blood, it was Queho. Maude Douglas was found outside her cabin in 1919, blasted through with a shotgun. Young boy in her care said the husband did it, but that wasn’t quite possible, what with the Mad Indian’s ‘distinctive footprints’ all over the scene.
   Had a club foot, they say. Made him real easy to track. Strange how they never found him as a result, but that was likely due to his special powers. Mystical powers, they say. Queho would curse the land in his wake and made it treacherous for bounty killers to follow. For anyone to follow. 'The  Curse of Queho' was real enough, even if it was only words. Folks believed, and that was enough.
   Believed too, his life was worth a $3,000 reward. Up from a grand not long before, but after Mrs. Douglas, enough was enough. Police put down some dough, some private citizens, anything that’d help bring that monster to justice.
   A new posse come together then and set out to bring him in. Tracked Queho from the Douglas place into the Muddy Mountains. Through freezing rain and snow, they rode on for two hard months. Found two more bodies, too. Freshly mutilated. The work of Queho. Then two more, but gone down to bones. A pair of miners, lost years before. The work of Queho again.
   On they rode, but no Queho. They rode home, the glowing red eyes of Queho blazing into their backs from his mountain hideaway. Most likely.
   Last time anyone saw the man he was strolling down Fremont Street in Vegas in 1930. By the time police arrived, he was gone.
   Did they find him at last in 1940, digging up some old mine near the Colorado River? They seemed to think so, as the bones had a badge No. 896 right beside ‘em. Shotgun shells too, very same used on Maude Douglas. Of course, couldn’t bury the man right away. Brutal creature like that, no. So he was carted around like Elmer McCurdy himself and ended up in the Vegas Elks’ Club.
   Ol' Queho became the main attraction at the Elks 'Helldorado' celebrations for years after. Even rode in a convertible once, for one of the parades. Times went and changed though and come January 1962, the club wouldn’t have their reputation tarnished by such a garish display. So, off ol’ Queho went, into the local landfill.
   After that he ended up in some private collections, then the museum at the University of Nevada. 1975, a lawyer named Wiley stuck his nose in and got the man dug in proper. He’s at Cathedral Canyon now, out in his home state.
   So they say.
   Might be worth a look if you’re ever out that way.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Elmer McCurdy, the Bionic Mummy

It’s said the Old West ended in 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became states. No more West to be had. Well, still plenty of unexplored ground to cover, but the ‘frontier’ was conquered. No more swaggering ranchers, fierce miners, vicious robbers and bold lawmen blazing our path through a great wilderness. It was over.
For everyone that is, except Elmer McCurdy. He didn't intend to, but he saved a piece of the Old West and dragged it with him right on into the present day. Along with a hell of a lot of weird.
Elmer was born in 1880 and had a hard life that, coupled with his own nature, kept him from getting out in front of anything. He liked to make trouble and vex folks and pretty much kept that up to the day he was finally buried in 1979.
Maybe Elmer saw the West ending in 1911 when he took up robbing banks and trains. Maybe he thought himself one of those hard types that could make a name for himself. Maybe he was just greedy. He certainly wasn’t bright so I doubt he gave either much thought. Elmer liked explosives so that was his calling card when he worked a job. A little nitroglycerine, some terrible luck and a career was born.
He blew up more than he ever took, that is, when he was even in the right place. Last job he did he was on the wrong damn train altogether. October 4, 1911 he wasn’t on a Katy holding 400 grand, he was on a passenger deal with about 46 bucks. Elmer snatched it up though, along with 2 jugs of hooch and off he went, the law on his tail.
Most folks, that’d be the end of it. Hands up and come quietly.
Not for Elmer. Like I said, he liked to make trouble.
Two days later he got himself killed in a shootout and even then, wouldn’t let up. The man who embalmed him used a concoction full of arsenic that turned him into a mummy. Such a fine job it was, the man charged folks a nickel a gander, as they say. His own kids put Elmer on roller skates and chased each other around. Why not? No one ever came to claim ol’ Elmer, he might as well serve a purpose.
That is, until 1916, when two gents showed up with a wad of cash and stuck Elmer in their carnival. Elmer ended up in a tent as “The Outlaw Who Would Not Be Captured Alive.” From there, it was carnival to carnival, sideshow to sideshow. He sat in someone’s “Museum of Crime” alongside wax mannequins of Jesse James and Bill Doolin. He was the “Thousand Year Old Man” in a spookhouse, hanging there to give you a jolt as your little cart went by. “Dead Dope Fiend” was another honorific, sitting out in movie theater lobbies to accompany the run of an exploitation film.
Elmer saw one of the first cross-country marathons in the U.S., the set of the movie She Freaks, Mount Rushmore and ever more sideshows and carnivals as a zombie, ghoul or “Real Egyptian Mummy” until he wound up covered in a gloss of bright orange paint, hanging in another spookhouse in The Pikes, a Long Beach, CA amusement park.
It was 1976 by then and Elmer had so many titles on his roster, they’d forgotten who he was. Or even that he was. Far as anyone knew - he’d been so traveled and traded - he was just another wax mannequin. But he had two more titles to rack up. One was "Guest Star on an Episode of the Six Million Dollar Man" that was shooting at the park, and the other was "The Body of Former Outlaw and Nitroglycerine Enthusiast Elmer McCurdy".
The first would've gone off fine if a crewman on the shoot hadn't knocked poor Elmer's arm off between scenes. This led to the second. Because the crew saw bone there in that broken dummy and this led to cops, forensics and a whole big shebang about who he'd been and how in holy hell he'd wound up hanging in some fun park.
They worked it out, finding carnival ticket stubs and old coins in Elmer's mouth, then got on with the science and gave the ol' boy a ride back to Oklahoma. There, they held a nice procession with a few hundred folks in attendance and, just to be sure Elmer didn't get up to his old ways, dropped two feet of concrete on his grave. He's there still.
Or should be.