Clark Stanley, the self-styled “Rattlesnake King”, was born in 1854 in Abilene, Texas. After spending years working as a cowboy during the 1870s, Stanley claimed that he took up with the Hopi Indians, who were famous for their annual snake dance. It was supposedly during this time that he learned the “secrets of snake oil”, a product that he alleged could cure everything from chronic pain and inflammation to arthritis, animal bites, and scratches.
Stanley was a performer. He conducted shows that brought the masses flocking. Standing up on stage dressed in his cowboy carb, Stanley would reach into a sack and pull out a live rattlesnake, which to the horror (and delight!) of the crowd, he would slit open before plunging it into boiling water. The snake’s fat would rise to the top of the pot, which he would then scoop up and pour into bottles which he peddled as ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil’. The crowds snapped up his product at 50 cents a pop.
[Left] Photo of Clark Stanley. [Right] The cover for Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment. It features a description of the product's uses, and a man wearing a hat with two snakes surrounding him. 1905 (Public Domain)
In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed and strict new standards for the production of food and medicine came into effect and by 1916, inspectors had become aware of Clark Stanley. They seized a shipment of his Snake Oil to conduct a thorough analysis of its contents.
As it turns out, Stanley’s concoction contained no traces of snake whatsoever. Instead, they found a combination of mineral oil, animal fat (most likely from beef), camphor, cayenne pepper, and turpentine.
It was the end of the road for Stanley’s lucrative business and the beginning of a new term that had become synonymous with the peddling of fraudulent products – the ‘snake oil salesman’.