Medicine show

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For the album, see Medicine Show (album).
A reenactment of a medicine show in Ringwood, Illinois

Medicine shows were traveling horse and wagon teams which peddled "miracle cure" medications and other products between various entertainment acts. Their precise origins unknown, medicine shows were common in the 19th century United States, especially in the Old West era, (though they continued up to World War II). They are most commonly associated with "miracle elixirs" (sometimes referred to as snake oil), which, it was claimed, had the ability to cure any disease, smooth wrinkles, remove stains, prolong life or cure any number of common ailments. Entertainment often included a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, jokes, or storytelling.



An advertisement for Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment.

While showmen pitching miraculous cures have been around since classical times,[1] the advent of mixed performance and medicine sales in western culture originated during the Dark Ages of Europe after circuses and theatres were banned and performers had only the marketplace or patrons for support.[1][vague]

Early America[edit]

Medicine shows flourished in the late 18th century, particularly in the Midwestern United States and the rural South. They had their origin in the patent medicine vendors who set up booths at local fairs in Colonial America.[2] As early as 1773 laws were being passed against their excesses.[n 1] Perhaps the most popular shows were produced by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, makers of a patent cure-all called Kickapoo Indian Sagwa.[4]

20th century[edit]

As reliable commercial pharmaceuticals became produced on an industrial level in the early 20th century, the reputation of and market for home remedies began to dwindle, and medicine shows came to rely ever more on their entertainment value. But as America's population became less rural and more urbanized, the availability of other forms of entertainment, such as motion pictures and Vaudeville, and later radio, led to the gradual disappearance of the traveling medicine show. By the 1930s, relatively few such companies continued to tour throughout the United States. Even fewer shows endured the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression and World War II. Those that survived into the 1950s found themselves competing against television, and came to be regarded as relics of an earlier, more innocent era. This novelty, far more than the availability of the remedies peddled, provided the chief support for the last of the traveling medicine shows.

The Hadacol Caravan[edit]

One of the most famous of the 20th century traveling shows was the Hadacol Caravan, sponsored by Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc and his LeBlanc Corporation, makers of the dubious patent medicine/vitamin tonic "Hadacol", known for both its alleged curative powers and its high alcohol content. The stage show, which ran throughout the Deep South in the 1940s with great publicity, featured a number of notable music acts and Hollywood celebrities, and was used to promote Hadacol (which was sold heavily during intermission and after the show). Admission to the show was paid in boxtops of the vitamin tonic, sold in stores throughout the southern United States. The Caravan came to a sudden halt in 1951, when the Hadacol enterprise fell apart in a financial scandal.

Chief Thundercloud and Peg Leg Sam[edit]

One of the last great medicine shows had its swan song in the summer of 1972, when the two-man show of Chief Thundercloud (pitchman Leo Kahdot, a Potawatomi from Oklahoma)[5] and Peg Leg Sam (harmonicist/singer/comedian Arthur Jackson) played at a carnival in Pittsboro, NC. It was the last show of the year for them; Kahdot/Thundercloud died that winter.[6]

'Doc' Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show[edit]

Perhaps the last of the medicine shows was run by Tommy Scott, who put on as many as three hundred shows per year until about 1990. As a teenager in the 1930s, Scott joined the 'Doc' Chambers Medicine Show, established by M.F. Chambers in the late 19th Century. Scott sang, played guitar, and performed ventriloquism and blackface acts, and pitched Chambers' Herb-O-Lac herbal laxative. When Chambers retired in the late 1930s, Scott took charge of the show, performing for many years with his wife, Mary, and sidekick, Gaines Blevins, known as "Old Bleb." Scott's daughter, Sandra, performed in the show as a singer, bass player, and acrobat, and beginning in the 1960s saw to the business end of the show. Herb-O-Lac eventually gave way to a mentholated skin liniment, which Scott dubbed Snake Oil. For decades, the show toured arenas and senior centers as 'Doc' Scott's Last Real Old Time Medicine Show. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the show also solicited donations for charitable organizations such as the Lions Club and Optimist Club.[7]

Use in popular culture[edit]

In the 1933 Krazy Kat cartoon The Medicine Show, Krazy runs a medicine show where he performs some acts and sells bottled liquids which have a variety of uses.

Several modern musical acts have named themselves after this old-time phenomenon, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, Blues, funk rock band Moondog Medicine Show, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, and MV & EE Medicine Show. It also lent its name to The Dream Syndicate's album Medicine Show, to Big Audio Dynamite's song "Medicine Show," and The Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show". Throughout 2010 and 2011, the hip hop artist Madlib released a 12-part mix series with the title "Madlib Medicine Show."

Science fiction author Orson Scott Card titled his online sci-fi journal "The Intergalactic Medicine Show".

British comedy trio The Goodies performed a scene as part of "The Goodies Traveling Medicine Show" in an episode of their series entitled Hospital For Hire. The scene included a plant from the audience (Tim) being pulled from the audience to 'prove' that the mystery elixir cured all ailments.

In Rockstar's video game Red Dead Redemption, one of the main characters plays the role of an early 20th-century hustler peddling what John Marston refers to as snake oil.

Your Song, by Elton John, also mentions a man who makes "potions in a traveling show".

On the album Everything You Know Is Wrong by the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, the recording's narrator plays a wire recording of a medicine show featuring a "Dr. Firesign" promoting "Chief Dancing Knockout's Pyramid Pushover Paste" and "Don Bruhaha's Inca Hell-Oil Tonic".

The song "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" performed by Cher is about a girl who was "born in the wagon of a traveling show". Her father would sell bottles of snake oil medicine called "Doctor Good".

The music video for the Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney song "Say, Say, Say" had Paul, his wife Linda and Michael performing a traditional medicine show.

In The Simpsons episode, "Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy," Homer and Grampa Simpson travel across country, giving medicine shows for their aphrodisiac, "Simpson and Son's Tonic."

Magician "Pop" Haydn models his magic shows after old-time medicine shows, complete with the selling of several products such as "Pop Haydn's Miracle Oil", which he claims to have received from "Placebo Indians."

The 1977 live-action/animated musical film Pete's Dragon features a medicine showman called Dr Terminus, and local townspeople being first sceptical, then duped, by his claimed healing abilities.


  1. ^ Connecticut passed an anti-mountebank law against those who ensnared people into buying "unwholesome and oftentimes dangerous drugs." [3]


  1. ^ a b Anderson, Ann (2000). Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 1. ISBN 0786408006. 
  2. ^ Young, James Harvey (1961). "Chapter 12: Medicine Show". The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America Before Federal Regulation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. OCLC 405144. Archived from the original on 2007-11-30. 
  3. ^ Wright, Richardson Little (1927). Hawkers & Walkers of Early America. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. pp. 199–200. OCLC 1348701.  Reprinted by Arno Press (1976) ISBN 0405080573
  4. ^ McNamara, Brooks (1971). "The Indian medicine show". Educational Theatre Journal (Johns Hopkins University Press) 23 (4): 431–45. Retrieved 2013-05-09. 
  5. ^ Kruesi, Margaret (Fall 2004). "Herbs! Roots! Bark! Leaves!". Folklife Center News 26 (4) (American Folklife Center, Library of Congress). pp. 5–7. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  6. ^ Ridley, Jim. "'Born for Hard Luck' (1976) Directed by Tom Davenport". Oxford American (Movie review). 13 More Essential Southern Documentaries (56). Archived from the original on 2007-06-21. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  7. ^ Yardley, William (2013-10-14). "Tommy Scott, country singer with a traveling medicine show, dies at 96". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-01-04.