You’ve heard of snake oil, right? It’s one of those phrases I heard and read for years without giving much thought. Snake oil means fake, fraudulent, bad – I took it in without really taking it in. I mean, what is snake oil exactly? And why snakes? Why not pig or frog oil? Fish oil? Now that’s a good oil. But snakes? That’s just bad medicine.
Popular lore equates patent medicines with snake oil. Most patent medicines did not literally contain this reptilian liquid. But some did.
Clark Stanley, better known as “The Rattlesnake King,” likely inspired the association with his “Snake Oil Liniment,” which cured everything from rheumatism and sciatica to lumbago, frostbite, and sore throat. Stanley claimed to have learned of snake oil’s healing powers from his years as a cowboy out west with the Hopi Indians in the 1870s and 1880s. He shared his discovery with the public at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he pulled live snakes out of a sack, slit them open, and plunged their bodies into boiling water. As the fat from the snakes rose to the top of the pot, Stanley skimmed it off, mixed it with his previously prepared oils, and sold his liniment freshly prepared to the crowd that gathered to watch the spectacle.
A few years later, in 1897, he published The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: True Life in the Far West by Clark Stanley, Better Known as the Rattlesnake King, which explained cowboy life, contained lyrics to cowboy songs, and of course, promoted the healing wonders of his snake oil liniment. Stanley’s liniment became so successful that a reporter who visited his office in Beverly, Massachusetts, found it filled with snakes, some more than seven feet long. He claimed to have killed 3,000 snakes in 1901 alone to meet demand for his product.
Stanley’s was not the only snake oil remedy on the market. Consumers could also find Tex Bailey’s Rattle Snake Oil, Tex Allen’s Rattlesnake Essential Oil Compound, and Monster Brand Snake Oil, among others, that capitalized on American fascination with cowboys, the Wild West, and Indians.
Snake oil itself had an even longer history in Chinese medicine where people had rubbed the fat of the Erabu sea snake, not rattlesnakes, on aching joints for centuries. Stanley may actually have learned about snake oil from Chinese laborers in the West rather than the Indians as he professed. 
Either way, Stanley (and others like him) made snake oil a popular fixture in both the pharmacy and our language.
 James Frank Dobie, Rattlesnakes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 75-76; Dan Hurley, Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 1-2; Gene Fowler, Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 97-100; Joe Schwarcz, “Why are snake-oil remedies so-called?” The Gazette [Montreal] (23 February 2008), http://tinyurl.com/d7tcfbc