Traveling Medicine Shows Were Exciting and Unapologetic Cons

Ad men. P.T. Barnum. Machine politicians. Telegraph spammers. Con artists. Yeggmen.

A recurring topic in this blog are profiles of people who swindle and deceive for a living. And they were very good at their trade.

Whether it was nation-wide fraudulent ad campaigns or a single unsuspecting traveler tricked out of the last coins in their pocket, Americans have dealt with unscrupulous folks who are out to get their money.

There are some underlying similarities between all of these tricksters’ techniques. They are showy and catch the attention of their marks out in the open. Their personalities are larger than life. They spend as much time entertaining as they do selling (or, rather, entertainment is part of the sales pitch). And they are unabashed by their methods.

Today I’ll be adding one more to this ignominious list: the traveling medicine show salesman.

Huntingdon Medicine Show 1
Medicine Show, Huntingdon Tennessee, 1935. Library of Congress.

You may also know them as snake oil salesmen. In the late 19th century patent medicines surged in popularity across America. Though these “medicines” usually contained little more than vegetable compounds laced with alcohol or opiates, patent medicines sold wildly thanks to “colorful names and even more colorful claims.”

Hamlins Wizard Oil
Hamlin’s Wizard Oil lithograph, c. 1890. Library of Congress.

Americans living in urban areas were bombarded with striking advertisements and could purchase these medicines in local pharmacies. But for those who lived in the backwoods and the out-of-the-way places, the traveling medicine show was their link to this world of questionable cure-alls.

Smaller patent medicine operations brought their wares out to their customers by way of the traveling medicine show. Part traveling circus and part sales pitch, the show was all about gathering an excited crowd and selling as much medicine as possible before shipping out to the next unsuspecting town.

Many medicine shows relied on vaudeville acts and black-face minstrel songs to attract an audience. Take a listen to this circa 1960 recording of medicine show veteran Pink Anderson singing one of the songs he first performed in 1914 with the Indian Remedy Company:

Many outfits chose to adopt a American Indian theme and explicitly tout their medicine as a secret tribal remedy previously unknown to white men.

One of the most well known “Indian” medicine shows was called the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. Likely founded in the 1880s in Philadelphia, it sold a variety of salves and oils purported to cure everything from rheumatism to indigestion, all with labels prominently featuring an Indian chief. Though their ingredients changed dramatically over the decades, Kickapoo medicines were sold up until the 1930s.

Ann Banks’ wonderful 1980 book “First Person America” contains an interview with William Naylor, a performer who worked on one of the traveling Kickapoo shows in the late 1800s. Reading his descriptions of the show and the charismatic personality of his boss, “Doc” Porter you can see how they were able to swindle so many. Naylor remembered Doc Porter “looked and could act like a combination Bishop, Senator, and Supreme Court Judge all rolled into one. The natives in those small backwoods towns never had a chance with him.”

One last thing before I let you dive into Porter’s recollections:

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how easy it is to romanticize the con men of the past and see their tricks as entertaining and fun to read about. And they are! But at the same time, we need to remember that medicine shows like this one swindled victims, gave false hope, discouraged people from getting legitimate treatment, and could lead to alcohol or drug dependency (or worse). Naylor seems to brush this off by saying that most people who bought Kickapoo medicine weren’t really sick anyways, or that the entertainment their show provided justified what they did…

But does it really? The traveling medicine show salesmen aren’t far removed from the cranks selling collodial silver or other “immunity boosters” as a cure for coronavirus today. And that isn’t funny at all.

I was born in New York City on the West Side, but when I was just a baby my people moved up to the Bronx. Our chief diversion on Sundays was to go to Coney Island and ride out bicycles out there. I suppose I always had a flair for the kind of entertainment Coney Island offered. There was a kind of fascination to me in the excitement and glamour of the carnival spirit.

Eventually, when I was about nineteen years old, I joined “Doc Porter’s Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show.” The show was then playing in the Bronx and every night I’d go over and listen, envying the performers who entertained the crowd before Doc Porter came out to give his lecture and sell his medicines.

I stayed with Doc Porter for six years, singing “Poor Mourner, You Shall be Free,” “Kansas,” and some of the popular songs like “Two Little Girls in Blue,” “Down Went M’Ginty,” and “After the Ball.” All my work was black-face, and I imagined I was just as good as most vaudeville performers on stage in theaters. We traveled in covered backs or spring wagons and all our shows were given out of doors. Our lights were gasoline flares on each side of the stage, which was a platform at the back end of the wagon. We traveled all over the small circuits of upper New York, part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and as far south as Virginia. In the days of the medicine show there were not so many laws regulating the practice of medicine or the sale of drugs and not so many licenses and restrictions as now. This was especially true in the backwoods towns we’d usually show in- often towns without railroads where other shows didn’t come.

Doc Porter
The Pittsburgh Press, February 10, 1981.

So Doc Porter didn’t have to do anything but drive into a town, pick out a vacant spot somewhere, and set up our pitch there. Everybody would know as soon as we got into a town, but Doc usually hunted up the newspaper office if there was a paper and gave the editor an ad telling where our show was located. That got him on the good side of the editor, and the editor in those backwoods places was an important person. He would call on the marshal, and if there was a mayor he would visit him too.

With his “dignity,” Prince Albert coat, silk hat, and double-breasted watch chain with a buck-eye set in gold bands- Doc believed the buck-eye kept him from having rheumatism- he looked and could act like a combination Bishop, Senator, and Supreme Court Judge all rolled into one. The natives in those small backwoods towns never had a chance with him.

Once we hit a place back in the hill country of Virginia called Rocky Comfort. It wasn’t really a town. There was a water-power grist mill, a store, a blacksmith shop, and about a quarter of a mile up the little valley there was a meeting house, where traveling preachers would sometimes hold revivals, which were called camp meetings.

Kickapoo Freeland
Freeland Tribune (Pennsylvania) July 23, 1891. Chronicling America.

Doc Porter stopped there to have the horses shod, and it happened there was a camp meeting going on. It looked like a pretty busy place. The natives from miles around had come, brought their families, their hound dogs, and their rifles and were camped out in the grove around the meeting house. Doc got the idea that out Medicine Show would add to the general entertainment and we could give shows between religious services. It worked. Doc was diplomatic and didn’t try to compete with the preaching but sort of helped it out and never gave the show while preaching was going on. Instead we’d all attend the services. That put us in solid with the brethren and we sold a lot of medicine.

Doc Porter’s medicines were all made up by himself, and he was jealous of the “ancient Kickapoo formulas” he used. They were all made “from roots and barks and the tender succulent foliage of healing, life-giving herbs the Great Manitou of Nature planted in the forests, on the hills, and in the valleys of Life and Health and Happiness, they were cherished and guarded with the very lives of their possessors! Then when my great-great grandfather saved the life of the Chief Medicine Man of the Kickapoo Tribe, the ‘Bounding Cougar,’ that great Chief showed his gratitude by giving my noble pioneer ancestor their marvelous formulas and he bade him go forth and give his White Brethren the blessings the Great Manitou had bestowed upon the Red Children.”

Kickapoo Reynoldsville
The Star (Reynoldsville, PA) May 27, 1896. Chronicling America.

Doc Porter sure had a great string of palaver, and though I heard it a thousand times I never got tired of listening to him lecture.

One of the tricks Doc Porter used to stimulate the sales of his Kickapoo Indian remedies was the psychology of suggestion. Doc had it down fine. He would always wind up his lecture with a detailed description of the symptoms of all the diseases the Kickapoo Indian medicines were supposed to cure. The way he described those diseases- how anybody would feel when they were getting them, or had them or were about to have them- was enough to make anybody shiver. By the time Doc got through describing symptoms, practically everybody in the neighborhood would be imagining they felt at least some of them. Why, I used to sit and listen to Doc’s horror stories of diseases till I’d get to feeling the symptoms myself! Doc was a foxy old bird and I guess he wasn’t far off base when he’d say: “Most diseases people get are just imagination anyhow!”

We ran across one queer get-whatever-they-imagine disease cases down in the backwoods hill country of Virginia. The people in that section were pretty poor and on most of the farms they used water from shallow open wells, natural springs, or creeks. Naturally the springs and creeks, and even the open wells were often infected with frogs, water skimmers, beetles, and things like that. One night at one of our shows a young fellow asked Doc if his Indian Medicine would cure an “inside frog.” “My Uncle Zeb Hurst took a drink of water down at our spring one night a couple of weeks ago and he swallowed a frog by mistake, at least he says he did. He also says it’s still in him and still alive and he can feel it, kicking and twitching around in his stomach. He’s getting mighty peaked and thin from worrying bout it. He’s afraid it will grow and get so big it will kill him.”

The young fellow took Doc and me out to see Uncle Zeb and we found the old fellow in pretty bad shape, just barely able to hobble around. He kept holding his hands over his stomach and swearing that every once in a while he could feel the cussed frog kicking and jerking inside of him! Doc put his hand on the old fellow’s stomach and kind of pressed down on it for a minute. “There, he kicked!” the old man said. “Didn’t you feel him?’

“Yeah, I sure as hell felt something jerking inside of you, but are you sure it’s a frog you swallowed?” Doc said.

“Course I am sure,” the old man replied. “I went down to the spring to tote a pail of water up to the cabin and I thought I’d take me a fresh drink while I was there. It was sort of dark and I didn’t notice much, and before I knowed it I’d sucked the danged frog in my mouth and felt him slip down my throat.”

Doc said he’d go down to the spring and look around a bit; it might be something else Uncle Zeb had swallowed. Anyhow, he’d want to see what sort of frogs there were in the spring so he could tell better which variety of Indian medicine would be best to use to make the frog come out.

Kickapoo Indian Sagwa
Kickapoo Indian Sagwa [medicine] bottle, c. 1984. Smithsonian Institution.

When Doc came back from the spring he was grinning with that grin he used to have when he’d get a big idea and he felt confident of what he was about to do. He told Uncle Zeb he’d found out the kind of frog he’d probably swallowed and that he had to work to get him out of Uncle Zeb’s stomach. He had Uncle Zeb lie down on the ground under a tee out in the yard, close his eyes, and open his mouth. Then Doc squatted down by him, put his silk hat over Uncle Zeb’s face, and told the rest of us to stand back, he had to have plenty of room. Then he said,: “Now, Uncle Zeb, keep your eyes shut tight and I’ll stick this medicine under the hat, slush a little of it in your mouth and when the frog smells it he’ll come out of your stomach in a hurry. He’ll come up so damn quick you won’t hardly feel him until he hits your mouth, then I’ll grab him and pull him out. Now hold still, I’m going to do it.”

Doc ran his hand under the hat and Uncle Zeb sort of grunted and gagged. Doc jerked his hand out and damned if he didn’t pull out a little green-black bull frog about an in and a half or two inches long! “Now you can open your eyes,” Doc told Uncle Zeb, “here’s your cussed frog. I knowed my Kickapoo Medicine would bring him up!”

Uncle Zeb opened his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief. “You sure got him, Doc. I feel relieved already! I’ll never take another drink of water out of that damn spring in the dark, you can depend on that!” He bought three bottles of Doc’s Kickapoo Rheumatism Rubbing Oil- which smelled like hell- so he’d have it on hand in case he did accidentally get another “inside frog.”

Huntingdon Medicine Show 2
Medicine Show, Huntingdon Tennessee, 1935. Library of Congress.

Doc Porter was versatile alright, and nothing ever seemed to stump him. He used to say: “it ain’t what anybody knows for certain , but what they¬†think they know for certain that counts, and if people buy Kickapoo Indian Medicine and think it’ll cure them, it’s darn near sure to cure them. And so they haven’t been cheated!”

Which shows that Doc was sincere in believing that the stuff he mixed up out of wild cherry bark, senna leaves, slippery elm bark, sassafras roots, and other “Indian herbs”- all of which he fortified with about sixty percent of good raw whiskey- were genuinely beneficial medicines and that he was a human benefactor. One thing I’m sure of is that out old Medicine Show gave a lot of people who otherwise didn’t have very much entertainment a chance to see and hear something different and be amused.

That’s the way a carnival man is. He don’t give them anything, yet he gives them¬†something– entertainment, experience, or amusement for the chicken feed he takes away from them at his rack or wheel or ring board. And if he has a run of “mud-luck,” he always finds a way to get out somehow, raise a stake, and climb back into the game. You don’t see any genuine old-time carnival birds working the street for a dime, or picking up crumbs from a kitchen back door. They’re independent; and even if they’re down to the last two bits, you’d never know it by looking at them, or hear it from their own lips. They might do a lot of cussing in private, but never a hard-luck story to outsiders. They’ve always got some kind of idea tucked back in their head that they can pull out and turn into ham-and-egg money somehow. Even if the show goes flat, they’ll raise tickets to the next burg someway. And they’ll raise it on the square, according to the ethics of the profession: “Give the suckers nothing for their money- but when you give them nothing, you give them something!”

Recorded by Earl Bowman of the Federal Writers Project, New York City, 1938

Traveling medicine shows: harmless fun that entertains at the expense of a few innocuous purchases or insidious industry and a scourge to every town it visited, what do you think?

Kickapoo Pills Advice
Excerpt from a Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company pamphlet, c. 1900. Smithsonian Institution.

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