Sunday, December 25, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Medicine Shows Part 3

The Old West was rife with troubles and no one liked to handle ‘em a treat better than the snake oil salesman. He had cures for every ailment, a salve for every scrape, an answer for every question. It was nonsense medicine, little more’n booze and dope but – notwithstanding the obvious effect of these curatives – folks couldn’t get enough. They bought ‘em by the passel and asked for more and well, if you think on it for two seconds, it makes a certain sense.
You’d have a rough go out on the frontier, if you made it past that first day. Gunshots required amputation if they didn’t out and out kill you. Broken bones, severed limbs, any serious wound would do you in. Rabies, tetanus, a cold could kill you. The flu could kill you. Food poisoning, vitamin deficiency, heart disease, stroke, all were waiting for you and wasn’t much a man could do about it.
Snake oilers didn’t exactly have their work cut out for them. There were problems enough for settlers so if the Professor said he could solve a few, who’d argue? Not like anyone else had a cure for whooping cough or scarlet fever or the ever-present ‘female complaints’. Shit, everyone was just tryin’ to keep all their fingers and toes on ‘til it was time for supper.
It was big business for the Professors out there on the trail, often mixing up their gimmicks right there in the wagon they rode on. But they were small outfits, independent entrepreneurs and, despite the market being wide open, had no chance of covering all that demand. More and more offshoots prevailed, local pharmacists concocting their own brands and newspaper ads ran far and wide to prevail upon the paying public.
It wasn’t long before concerns arose of course, all that money and all them loopy folks running around trying to cure their hangnails with heroin and cobra venom. Hell, some potions were outright deadly, alongside their addictive nature. Given the drug and alcohol content more than a few adults died, even kids, though the label might specifically mention its medicinal advantage on them or even infants.
Sure, some doctors and other scholars decried patent medicines from the get-go. Can’t be giving people cures for cancer, stomach and joint ailments, skin disease, what have you. The docs might not have the answer themselves but they felt they had alternative treatments that, if they didn’t cure the disease, might ameliorate its effects without the dangers inherent in the narcotic effects of the elixirs, not to mention their other suspect ingredients. Lead, mercury, dead spiders, what have you.
The money side of things wasn’t having anything approaching regulation though, and put their foot down on the grounds of ‘Fuck you, we’ll do what we want’. The potion manufacturers all grouped together under their own banner and fought right back. Calling themselves ‘The Proprietary Association’ they had the press on their side, them elixir ads meaning major dough for the local papers. Muckraking of the legitimate medical establishment ensued, the temperance movement put in their two cents, curatives and remedies flew off the shelves.
High times indeed and in 1881, they went right into orbit. Enter: Doc and Texas, a couple boys who decided to get into the patent business and see if they couldn’t give the field of drug and alcohol dependency a little of what it’d been missing: tacky spectacle and zero accountability. Thus, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company was born.
John Healy and Charles Bigelow (Doc and Texas Charley if you please) had nothing to do with the Kickapoo tribe and weren’t Injun by a long shot. They capitalized on the Native American mystique alone, though they did include Indians in their shows and even put a few authentic ingredients in their curatives. Alongside some dangerous, evil shit you wouldn’t poke with a stick.
See, what Doc and Texas wanted was to drown the frontier in snake oil and make a mint off the mass production of the Kickapoo brand. Oh, they had branding back then, believe it. They had marketing and advertising and product launches, damn straight. They had a Show like none other; a big, grand, hot-damn-the-gang’s-all-here type show and when they hit town, the town stayed hit.
The boys had upward of 25 shows traveling at a time, big ass shows like a three ring circus. Newspapers announced their arrival, as well as advertising their various products. Books were sold detailing their ‘age old mystical’ practices and pamphlets littered towns extolling their various products.
When showtime finally arrived they had costumed Indians flinging fire and chanting to the gods. Acrobats and animals and troupes of actors and magicians and crate after crate of curative. Their Professors were dandies all and strutted out in tuxedos and long tails, tipping their top hats while huge campfires blazed off their fine gold buttons. This was no single wagon show, ladies and gentlemen. This was an event.
Real life Indian Medicine Men charged out and shook their magic sticks and called down the wind and sky. Oohs and ahhs abounded amid plumes of colorful smoke and the drone of Kickapoo chants. Dr. John Johnson was central to many shows, a real Indian shaman who spoke of his people’s powerful medicine and how their tonics and syrups all held the strange, unknowable magic of his tribe.
And Doc Johnson believed it too, since he thought he was a real Injun. Johnson’s story is something else entirely, but suffice it to say, he’d been kidnapped by the Mikmaq Indians decades before and was brought up to believe he was indeed, a blood Indian. Lived his whole life with the tribe, learning shamanism and was considered by his adopted people as a tried and true Medicine Man. Actually got himself a name as a practicing physician among the whites later on. Just another level of Weird in the layered history of these surreal entertainments.
Doc and Texas kept it up long after the Mom and Pop wagon shows petered out, finally selling Kickapoo for a handsome sum in the 1920’s. They inspired others however and the medicine show did go on, up until World War II.
By then the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act gave ‘em all troubles with laws against false advertising. 1938 acts meant they had to test their products for safety. No more snake oil, ladies and gentlemen, no more fire and smoke, no more gold buttons.
The last of these shows, the Hadacol Caravan, survived until the early 50’s, touting Hollywood celebrities and all manner of hoorah with their hi-test Hadacol Tonic. In a shocking turn of events however, the entire enterprise erupted in scandal and the medicine show was no more.
Some products survive to this day, sure enough. Luden’s we mentioned, and well, everyone knows Listerine. Vick’s Vapo-Rub used to be called Richardson’s Croup Salve. Bayer Aspirin saw its start as a patent medicine, as did Doan’s Pills, Geritol (ask your grandparents about that one), regular old tonic water and as most already know, Coca Cola.
Dozens more remain and while their ingredients have changed and some no longer can claim medicinal properties, there they are, living testament to that wild and wonderful ineluctable elixir of horror and hilarity, the one dose that gives you the most, full of six guns and tons of fun, our ever lovin’ everlastin’ supersonic tonic like a kerosene high calonic, the one, the only, Weird, Weird West!
Buck a bottle, if you please. Thanks for comin’ out.

Monday, December 12, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Medicine Shows Part 2

So, the Snake Oil Salesman charms his way into town, a troupe of threadbare actors and cut-rate magicians behind him, brandishing brown bottles of purifying potion and enervating elixir. They were loved far and wide, these men of medicine and why not? They brought solace and comfort to millions and provided for the betterment of future generations.
Well, they didn’t actually do any of that, except the part about the magicians. They came with their traveling medicine shows true enough and hawked their suspect syrups and while they maybe weren’t loved, they were certainly held in high regard. For their expertise? Depends on how good of a salesman they were. They weren’t doctors, much as some claimed to be. Not Professors either, at least not from any accredited university.
No, they were held in esteem for their results.
And no, not from the curative properties of their medicines, much as most probably made folks feel real good. Hell, they were laced with cocaine or morphine or opium or were simply straight-up suspensions of those drugs in some sugary solution. They had alcohol contents that’d put you off the rails after more than a few sips.
They were things called Doc Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, Daffy’s Salutis for “colic and griping” (that is, ‘the grippe’ or the flu) and a thousand others. Whooping Cough curatives, ‘cures’ for asthma and ‘female complaints’, black lung, rickets, polio and whatever else. Even prairie madness. Oh, yes. Prairie Madness was an actual thing. I’ll need to do a post on it one of these days. That’s some good Weird West right there.
So “Step right up for your own personal portion of this perfect potion!” was the cry and up they came. The Professor stood in the middle of the street, extolling the virtues of his wares and if you can’t believe one teaspoon lets his strongman lift those thousand pound weights (which maybe were painted cardboard, but who can be sure?), then take the testimonial of that gentleman right there. A regular townie like you folks, “Sir! Try a taste and tell these good folks of the immediate and lasting effect of this superlative soporific, this magnificent mixture, this wonderful thunder of calmative curation.”
“Oh, he’s a plant!” they shouted.
“A plant!”
“Hell yes! He’s part of the show!”
“I am not!”
“Sir,” asks the Professor, “Have we met?”
The plant shakes his head.
“We have never met, no sir.”
“See? The Professor pronounces and the naysayer pounces, this is cents on the ounces son, you can’t possibly renounce it!”
“Folks this is a patent medicine! Pat-ent. United States Patent Office, full o’ folks smarter than you n’ me put together! Would they grant a patent to a huckster? No sir!”
“Hey, he’s got a point. ‘Patent’ sounds pretty official!”
“True enough. And his name is Professor Shyster McHonest!”
“I’ll take five cases!”
“Me too!”
It was all in good fun and well, it probably helped that anyone downing the stuff was immediately drunk or high. Did it cure their baldness? No, but it was hard caring while you stumbled back home, watching your hands melt.
Helped too, that ‘patent’ part of ‘patent medicine’. Did it have a thing to do with the Patent Office of the United States? Well, about as much as ‘butter’ in Ms. Butterworth or ‘fruit’ does in your average fruit juice. That is to say, not a thing.
‘Patent’ in this case ain’t the patent we take for granted, that is, some exclusive right granted to an inventor of a product designed to solve a specific problem. That is, the right to pursue his ‘unobvious’ design to a certain common problem and open the market to that product’s specific result in solving that problem.
No, in this case, ‘patent’ meant something manufactured under a grant, or, an amount of money given to someone by some other entity. For our purposes, the royal families of Europe. They granted to inventors ‘patents of royal favor’ or patent letters, which meant the inventor produced the thing in question (often medicine) and the favor, or, ‘patent’ meant that product could be licensed and sold with the royals’ official endorsement.
Real patents have to disclose their ingredients see, or moving parts or meaningful additions to an existing design, in this case, chemical structures and most medicine men were loathe to do so. Trademark the name they could do, but legally prove their product was useful? No. That was quite impossible under the standards of the time. And our own time, too.
Some of them medicines survive to this day, true enough. Luden’s Cough Drops and Angostura Bitters are two such examples. Now, they do what they say, no more, no less, but back then, it was, well, to coin a phrase: The Wild West. You could do damn near anything and get away with it.
And knowing that – and given there weren’t legal protections for the Professors, Colonels and Doctors prescribing these curatives to the ailed and infirm – nothing stopped your average citizen or pharmacist from proclaiming their own homebrewed tincture as the ‘affordable substitute’ or ‘absolute best alternative’ and the Professors sent word went out to the fans and followers of the original product to ‘Accept No Substitutes!’
So if the drinks didn’t work, how’d the industry manage to get along like it did? Well, it’s that placebo effect I spoke of last post. Folks believed and cured they became. Melting hands and all. And remember, there wasn’t much science on the frontier. They had docs and surgeons but these weren’t usually trained men. And if they were, well, they just didn’t know what we know today.
Not that we can bitch much these days that them folks were fools. As said, we are plenty foolish now. Moreso, not for what we know but what we claim to. And now, same as the Old West, if a thing makes money, no one’s much interested in the right or wrong of it.
And the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company knew that better than anyone.