Snake oil

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Clark Stanley's Snake Oil

Snake oil is a term used to describe deceptive marketing, health care fraud, or a scam. Similarly, snake oil salesman is a common label used to describe someone who sells, promotes, or is a general proponent of some valueless or fraudulent cure, remedy, or solution.[1] The term comes from the "snake oil" that used to be sold as a cure-all elixir for many kinds of physiological problems. Many 19th-century United States and 18th-century European entrepreneurs advertised and sold mineral oil (often mixed with various active and inactive household herbs, spices, drugs, and compounds, but containing no snake-derived substances whatsoever) as "snake oil liniment", making claims about its efficacy as a panacea. Patent medicines that claimed to be a panacea were extremely common from the 18th century until the 20th, particularly among vendors masking addictive drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol, and opium-based concoctions or elixirs, to be sold at medicine shows as medication or products promoting health.


Oil from Chinese water snakes has for centuries been used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat joint pain such as arthritis and bursitis. It has been suggested that the use of snake oil in the United States may have originated with Chinese railway laborers in the mid-19th century, who worked long days of physical toil. Chinese snake oil may have had real benefits due to its high concentration of the omega−3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—more than that of salmon; the rattlesnake oil later sold by charlatans did not contain a significant amount of omega−3.[2] In a modern study, erabu sea-snake oil was found to significantly improve the ability of mice to learn mazes, and their swimming endurance, over mice fed lard.[2][3]

A snake oil recipe from 1719/1751 (Juan de Loeches, Tyrocinium Pharmaceticum), printed in Spain: "The viper oil of Mesues. Take 2 pounds of live snakes and 2 pounds 3 ounces of sesame oil. Cook slowly, covered in a glazed pot, until meat pulls away from the bone. Strain and store. Uses: Cleans the skin, removes pimples, impetigo, and other defects."

Patent medicines originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's elixir in 1712.[4] There were no federal regulations in the United States concerning the safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.[5] Thus, the widespread marketing and availability of dubiously advertised patent medicines without known properties or origin persisted in the US for a much greater number of years than in Europe.

In 18th-century Europe, especially in the UK, viper oil had been commonly recommended for many afflictions, including the ones for which oil from the rattlesnake (pit viper), a type of viper native to America, was subsequently favored to treat rheumatism and skin diseases.[6] Though there are accounts of oil obtained from the fat of various vipers in the Western world, the claims of its effectiveness as a medicine have never been thoroughly examined, and its efficacy is unknown. It is also likely that much of the snake oil sold by Western entrepreneurs was illegitimate, and did not contain ingredients derived from any kind of snake. Snake oil in the United Kingdom and the United States probably contained modified mineral oil. William Rockefeller Sr., the father of John D. Rockefeller, peddled literal snake oil.[7]

A historical reenactor representing a travelling snake-oil salesman from the United States in 2014.

A popular trope in Western films, selling snake oil is portrayed as a confidence trick: a traveling salesman purports to be a doctor (with false credentials), selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, and supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill or a "toadie") will often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" will leave town before his customers realize they have been cheated. This trope is associated with the American Old West. However, the famous judgment that sparked the most controversy happened in 1917, when Stanley's Snake Oil was discovered to contain no actual snake oil, creating the notion that bottles of snake oil (and their salesmen) were essentially a fraud.[8] That case took place in Rhode Island, and involved snake oil manufactured in Massachusetts, long after and far away from the Old West.[9][better source needed]

From cure-all to quackery[edit]

A report of the 1917 decision of the United States District Court for Rhode Island, fining Clark Stanley $20 for "misbranding" its "Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment".

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment – produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King" – was tested by the United States government's Bureau of Chemistry, the precursor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1916.[9] It was found to contain: mineral oil, 1% fatty oil (assumed to be tallow), capsaicin from chili peppers, turpentine, and camphor.[4]

In 1916, subsequent to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment was examined by the Bureau of Chemistry, and found to be drastically overpriced and of limited value. As a result, Stanley faced federal prosecution for peddling mineral oil in a fraudulent manner as snake oil. In his 1916 civil hearing instigated by federal prosecutors in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, Stanley pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to the allegations against him, giving no admission of guilt.[9] His plea was accepted, and as a result, he was fined $20[9] (about $560 in 2023).[10]

The term snake oil has since been established in popular culture as a reference to any worthless concoction sold as medicine, and has been extended to describe a wide-ranging degree of fraudulent goods, services, ideas, and activities such as worthless rhetoric in politics. By further extension, a snake oil salesman is commonly used in English to describe a quack, huckster, or charlatan.

Modern implications[edit]

False health products described by medical experts as "snake oil" continue to be marketed during the 21st century, including herbal medicines, dietary supplements, products such as Tibetan singing bowls (when used for healing) and treatments such as vaginal steaming. The company Goop has been accused of "selling snake oil" in some of its health products and recommendations.[11][12]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Xinhua News Agency claimed that the herbal product Shuanghuanglian can prevent or treat infections from coronaviruses, stimulating sales across the United States, Russia, and China. However, the clinical studies on its effectiveness have been inconclusive.[13][14] Su et al. published a report that the herbal substance has been shown in vitro to be cytotoxic "against a clinical isolate of SARS-CoV-2".[15] However, another government media outlet, People’s Daily, published a contrasting report urging citizens not to purchase the herbal remedy as it had not been recommended for coronavirus antiviral treatment and treatment measures had not passed clinical trials.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "snake oil salesman". The Free Dictionary.
  2. ^ a b Graber, Cynthia (1 November 2007). "Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something". Scientific American.
  3. ^ Zhang, Guihua; Higuchi, Tomoyuki; Shirai, Nobuya; Suzuki, Hiramitsu; Shimizu, Eiji (2007). "Effect of Erabu Sea Snake (Laticauda semifasciata) Lipids on the Swimming Endurance of Mice". Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 51 (3): 281–287. doi:10.1159/000105450. ISSN 0250-6807. PMID 17622788. S2CID 39274963.
  4. ^ a b Nickell, J (1 December 1998). "Peddling Snake Oil; Investigative Files". Skeptical Inquirer. 8 (4). Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  5. ^ "The Long Struggle for the Law". Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  6. ^ Klauber, Laurence M. (1997). Rattlesnakes, vol II. University of California Press. p. 1050.
  7. ^ Olsen, Brad (14 January 2021). Beyond Esoteric: Escaping Prison Planet. CCC Publishing (published 2021). p. 117. ISBN 9781888729757. Retrieved 16 July 2022. [...] William Rockefeller, father to the first billionaire John D. [...] was a literal snake oil salesman and con artist who sold 'cancer cures' to women door-to-door.
  8. ^ A History Of 'Snake Oil Salesmen', August 26, 2013, Lakshmi Gandhi
  9. ^ a b c d Chemistry, United States Bureau of (1917). Service and Regulatory Announcements. U.S. Government Printing Office.
  10. ^ 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved 29 February 2024.
  11. ^ Berman, Michele R.; Boguski, Mark S. (31 January 2019). "Gwyneth Paltrow's Snake Oil". Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  12. ^ Belluz, Julia (23 June 2017). "NASA just debunked Gwyneth Paltrow's latest snake oil". Vox. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  13. ^ Palmer, James. "Chinese Media Is Selling Snake Oil to Fight the Wuhan Virus". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 5 February 2020. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  14. ^ Phillips, James; Selzer, Jordan; Noll, Samantha; Alptunaer, Timur (31 March 2020). "Opinion : Covid-19 Has Closed Stores, but Snake Oil Is Still for Sale". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 1 April 2020.
  15. ^ Su, Hai-xia; Yao, Sheng; Zhao, Wen-Feng; Li, Min-jun; Liu, Jia; Shang, Wei-Juan; Xie, Hang; Ke, Chang-Qiang; Hu, Hang-Chen; Gao, Mei-na; Yu, Kun-Qian; Liu, Hong; Shen, Jing-Shan; Tang, Wei; Zhang, Lei-ke; Xiao, Geng-fu; Ni, Li; Wang, Dao-wen; Zuo, Jian-Ping; Jiang, Hua-Liang; Bai, Fang; Wu, Yan; Ye, Yang; Xu, Ye-Chun (2020). "Anti-SARS-CoV-2 activities in vitro of Shuanghuanglian preparations and bioactive ingredients". Acta Pharmacologica Sinica. 41 (9): 1167–1177. doi:10.1038/s41401-020-0483-6. PMC 7393338. PMID 32737471.
  16. ^ Nectar Gan (1 February 2020). "A traditional Chinese remedy said to help fight Wuhan coronavirus sparks skepticism -- and panic buying". CNN.

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