The Snake Oil Salesman
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The expression “snake oil salesman” is often used to describe a person who is selling you something with fraudulent claims. Back in the 1800s throughout the West, traveling salesman crossed the land from town to town, promoting what they claimed were remedies for all manner of ailments. To sell their fake medicines, these charlatans would pose as professors of medicine or doctors with dubious credentials.
Originally, Chinese laborers on railroad gangs brought to America their own oil made from Chinese water snakes, which actually had healing properties for joint pain. Soon after, a Western version was being concocted from a plentiful snake at hand, the rattler. Unfortunately, rattlers do not produce any of the benefits of the Chinese water snake. But that didn’t stop salesmen like the fellow depicted here.
To help sell their elixirs, an accomplice, or “shill,” would be chosen from the crowd to come up on stage and test the magic cure. In this painting, the shill has come on stage with his cane to examine the bottle. Soon, after taking a spoonful, he will discard his cane and hop around the stage to the delight of the enthused crowd. The “doctor” will not hang around long, however. Soon he will pack it up and be out of town before his customers realize they have been fooled.