Medicine show

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For the Krazy Kat film, see The Medicine Show. For the Dream Syndicate album, see Medicine Show (album).
A reenactment of a medicine show in Ringwood, Illinois

Medicine shows were touring acts (traveling by truck, horse, or wagon teams) which peddled "miracle cure" nostrums and other products between various entertainments. They developed from European mountebank shows and were common in the United States in the nineteenth century, especially in the Old West (though some continued until World War II).[1] They usually promoted "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. Most shows had their own patent medicine (these medicines were for the most part unpatented but took the name to sound official). Entertainment often included a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, jokes, or storytelling. Each show was run by a man posing as a doctor who drew the crowd with a monologue. The entertainers, such as acrobats, musclemen, magicians, dancers, ventriloquists, exotic performers, and trick shots, kept the audience engaged until the salesman sold his medicine.



Advertisement for Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment

While showmen pitching miraculous cures have been around since classical times,[2] the advent of mixed performance and medicine sales in western culture originated during the Dark Ages in Europe after circuses and theatres were banned and performers had only the marketplace or patrons for support.[2][vague]. Mountebanks, or fake doctors, traveled through small towns and large cities, selling miraculous elixirs by offering small street shows and miraculous cures.[1]

Early America[edit]

The American medicine show evolved from European mountebanks, or quack doctors, who attracted city audiences with performing zanni and then performed rudimentary dentistry or sold elixirs.[citation needed] Such traveling performer salesmen appeared in the American colonies before 1772, as colonies legislated against them in that year.[citation needed] Because of America’s lack of large urban centers, quack doctors relied heavily on traveling shows and eventually developed full-fledged medicine shows.[citation needed]

Nineteenth century[edit]

Medicine shows combined various forms of popular entertainment with sales pitches from a fake doctor selling an astounding cure-all medicine or device. Pitchmen made grandiose claims about their product’s efficacy, sometimes planting testimonials in the audience. The speaker would create a need or fear and then offer his unique medicine as the only cure. Alternating entertainment and sales pitches wore down audience resistance until the crowd was saturated with the product. The show would continue to run as many days as possible and then move on to the next target city. A show could stay in a town between one night and six weeks, depending on how the troupe behaved itself. Circuits covered the entire United States, though shows usually focused on the Midwest and south, as pitchmen believed the rural inhabitants to be gullible. Shows played either outdoors from a wagon, platform or tent, or indoors in a theatre or opera hall. Admission was usually free or nominal. By the end of the 1800s, the patent medicine industry was an $80 million business[citation needed]. The nineteenth century offered a unique time for the development of traveling mountebanks into more polished medicine shows. The patent medicine industry exploded, affording enterprising drifters a specific product to sell. By 1858, at least 1,500 patent medicines were recorded.[2] The medicine that was being sold was usually not real medicine but rather just a small concoction involving drugs like cocaine, opium, and alcohol. Because most medicines were laced with especially addictive drugs, the consumers would continue purchasing the medicine to feed their addiction.[citation needed] The advertising industry also expanded in the 1800s, offering medicine show companies posters, fliers, handbills, and other merchandising to promote their products.[1] Advertising largely took the form of memorable jingles and songs, sensational testimonials, and scare techniques. Companies could spend up to $100,000 per year on advertising. Such large sums made advertising an extremely lucrative business, so magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Woman’s Home Companion were started specifically to sell advertising. Furthermore, medicine shows brought entertainment to rural communities that might not have any other shows for years at a time. Whatever the quality of the medical advice, spectators got their money’s worth from the extravagant free entertainment.

Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company and Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company[edit]

The two largest, most successful American medicine shows were Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company, founded in Chicago by John and Lysander Hamlin, and the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, founded in 1881 by Charles Bigelow and John Healey.[3] Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company troupes travelled in specially designed wagons with built-in organs and space for musical performers. Their appeal was clean, moral, musical entertainment for the whole family. Part of their advertising included songsters, or small booklets of song lyrics and Wizard Oil advertising.[1] The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company created traveling shows based around sham Indian presentational ceremonies, such as war dances and marriages. "Representatives" of the Kickapoo tribe translated for the Indians and sold Sagwa, the most famous patent medicine. The company also presented other forms of entertainment, such as vaudeville shows, trained dog acts, dances, and acrobatics.

20th century[edit]

As reliable commercial pharmaceuticals were 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, vaudeville and, later, radio, led to the gradual disappearance of the traveling medicine show. By the 1930s, few such companies continued to tour in 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 with 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 promoted Hadacol, which was sold 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)[4] and Peg Leg Sam (harmonicist-singer-comedian Arthur Jackson) played at a carnival in Pittsboro, North Carolina. It was the last show of the year for them; Kahdot died that winter.[5]

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

Perhaps the last of the medicine shows was run by Tommy Scott, who staged 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 nineteenth century. Scott sang, played guitar, performed ventriloquism and blackface acts, and pitched Chambers's 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 the Optimist Club.[6]

Use in popular culture[edit]

[citation needed]

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.

James Thurber's eponymous Doc Marlowe, published 1937 in Let Your Mind Alone! is a retired snake oil salesman in a traveling show, later selling the product as Blackhawk Liniment. In a typical Thurber twist, Marlowe cheats in a small way at cards and in other games of chance, but his massages with snake-oil (a harmless but expensive preparation) are in fact highly effective.

In the 1949 The Inspector General film, character played by Danny Kaye works for a medicine show, selling "Yakov's Golden Elixir".

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, 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".

In 1970, two original members of The Open Theater, Barbara Vann and James Barbosa, founded Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble also in New York. It's considered to be one of the first and one of the longest running experimental theaters in New York City. It moved around a number of times in its early years, having permanent performing spaces in 14 different locations until finally settling on West 52nd Street where it remains today. Its work has consisted of new plays, original adaptations of classic books, reconstructions of classic musicals (especially those by Cole Porter) which were thought to have been lost, and clever adaptations of famous works, like inserting Cole Porter songs into Shakespeare plays and turning them into musical comedies.

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d McNamara, Brooks (1976). Step Right Up. 
  2. ^ a b c Anderson, Ann (2000). Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 1. ISBN 0786408006. 
  3. ^ Kemp, Bill (2016-03-20). "'Indian' medicine shows once popular entertainment". The Pantagraph. Retrieved 2016-04-11. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Yardley, William (2013-10-14). "Tommy Scott, Country Singer with a Traveling Medicine Show, Dies at 96". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-01-04. 


  • Agnew, Jeremy. Entertainment in the Old West: Theater, Music, Circuses, Medicine Shows, Prizefighting and Other Popular Amusements. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011. Print.
  • Anderson, Ann. Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2000. Print.
  • McNamara, Brooks. Step Right up. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1976. Print.