Hooked on Tonics

Snake Oils, Hangover Cures, and Other Questionable Medicine


Folk medicine in Ireland used to rely heavily on the belief that you could magically transfer an illness from a person to an animal (usually a pig or a donkey). These "transference cures" were especially popular for treating mumps and whooping cough, and it's no wonder that when Irish immigrants settled in America, they brought the practice of transference with them. Of course, understanding the origin gives a little insight into why some people in Appalachia used to swear that the surest cure for a crick in the neck was nuzzling up to a tree recently rubbed against by a hog. (Image credit: Flickr user Dave Morris)


Folk medicine wasn't just about faking cures; sometimes practitioners went that extra mile and invented entire diseases. Take "white liver", an ailment that supposedly caused white spots to appear on said organ, but whose external symptoms affected organs of a different kind. Sufferers of white liver, which were primarily women, were said to have insatiable sex drives. In the 19th-century American South, women who had survived more than one husband were sometimes known as "white livered widders." The proof being that they had, in fact, pleased their husbands into an early grave.


Hawkers of quack medicine were always in search of a fortune, but occasionally they lucked into fame as well. In the late 19th century, the seven daughters of former preacher Fletcher Sutherland found their ticket to stardom when they started selling a vegetable oil, alcohol, and water mixture marketed under the name Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower. With a collective hair length of 37 feet, the girls were their own best advertisement, and they knew it. The sisters toured the country as drug reps for 38 years, eventually becoming some of the best-known women in America and earning millions of dollars. Not even death could stop their public relations steamroller. When the youngest of the lot, Naomi, died in 1893, the others simply replaced her with a well-maned actress. But, as anyone who's watched "E! True Hollywood Story" knows, fame is a harsh mistress. By the 1920s, the sisters were broke. Promises of starring in a movie version of their lives brought them to Hollywood, but the deal fell through. Shortly thereafter, when another sister died, the five remaining girls (unable to afford a burial) were forced to leave her ashed in California.


Snakes -you just can't trust 'em. First they go around getting us humans kicked out of Paradise, then they trick us into believing their oil is going to cure what ails us. Turns out, the whole snake-oil scheme started in the late 19th century and took flight thanks to a cowboy named Clarke Stanley, known as "The Rattlesnake King". At the time, snake fat was believed to have curative powers, and no snake-fat solution was more curative than "Stanley's Snake Oil". The king made a name for himself hawking his wares at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, where he dressed in flamboyant Western togs and convinced thousands of customers that his oil could (and would) cure everything under the sun. We're talking mosquito bites to rheumatism! Despite snake oil's miraculous reputation, though, Stanley was careful to point out that it was for external use only. Good thing. When the U.S. government finally ran some tests on the stuff in 1917, they found out that our "oil" tycoon had slipped in a few ingredients you wouldn't want going down the hatch, including: mineral oil, used as a laxative; camphor oil, which is used primarily in perfume or as an embalming fluid; and turpentine, a key ingredient in paint stripper. As for the promised rattler nectar, good ole Stanley had used easier-to-acquire beef fat instead.


Hairballs aren't so pretty when they turn up on your rug, but during the Renaissance, these gross gastrointestinal phenomena were prized for their healing powers. And while we're familiar with the wet, stringy hairballs that kitty hacks up, the pharmaceutical version, called bezoars, were glassy masses formed in the stomachs of goats and other cud-chewing animals. People believed these compressed hair and food balls could suck poison or even rabies out of the body. In fact, members of the Medici family, who controlled much of Europe at that time, carried them around obsessively for protective purposes (though not without reason, as poisoning members of the Medici family was something of a continental sport). Bezoars live on in today's medical literature, but mostly in the psychiatry section. Doctors occasionally have to remove them from stomachs of people who obsessively chew on their hair.


The above article was reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the September-October 2004 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

Newest 1
Newest 1 Comment

Login to comment.
Email This Post to a Friend
"Hooked on Tonics"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More