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They sold the gullible public a mixture of alcohol, ballyhoo and unabashed hokum.  They were the pioneer hucksters, and it was the bonanza age of the Kickapoo medicine shows.

 

Dr. Ray Black selected the empty lot carefully - it was in a business section of the city, and a good deal of foot and horse traffic passed it.  He set up his tripes (tripod), paced his keister (suitcase) on it, then rummaged inside for three special items, a human skull, a big black Bible, and a short length of rope.

 

He spent nearly a half hour rearranging these three items, then stepped back to inspect his work with a nod of satisfaction.  He stepped back a few more feet and muttered a sincere apology when he bumped into two men who were  watching him carefully.

 

Actually, Dr. Black would have been greatly surprised if he hadn't bumped into anyone.  He was one of the great pitchmen in a long history of medicine shows and itinerant nostrum salesmen who reaped great financial reward between the years of 1865 and 1910, selling the willing and gullible public a mixture of alcohol, showmanship, fancy packaging, and unabashed hokum.

 

Black's claim to being a doctor was no less fanciful than the medicine he sold or the pitch he used on his tip (audience), once the skull, Bible, and length of rope had inevitably attracted a crowd of the curious.  His spiel or pitch could, and often did, hold a crowd spell-bound for hours, "until their backs are aching and they's certain they have lumbago or kidney trouble which my medicine will cure."

 

If Black's medicine did not cure, it often contained specific elements which produced some strong result such as drunkenness, drug stupor, upset stomach, discolored tongue, or, at the very least, a dreadful taste-something to take the user's mind off his original complaint and give his another.

 

He was typical of the pitchmen who traveled the country, either alone, or with elaborate companies of actors and shills, selling patent medicines that were short on content and long on price, and doing so in a manner that is not terrible different from the more sophisticated advertising pitches of today.

 

The medicine show had its counterpart in Europe and, like its European forbearers, was roundly damned by ministers, doctors, and lawmen; loved by the people it was intended to fleece.

 

As early as 1773, the Colonial Assembly had decided that medicine shows put forth entertainments which had harmful social results, leading to "the corruption of manners, promoting of idleness, and the detriment of good order and religion."  There was also talk that the medicines and nostrums sold contained "unwholesome and oftentimes dangerous drugs."

 

Nevertheless, medicine shows continued, flourished, and never did die out completely, that is if we are willing to make the simple adjustment that today's variety show on TV, or the late movie, sponsored by various remedies and balms, is merely a mass-market extension.

 

The medicine show was to the young America what TV is to a more mature one, entertainment of every form, a mixture of razzle-dazzle, and the hope of some kind of cure for some kind of ailment.

 

Although many of the names in medicine show history are only colorful in sound or evocative in memory, no less distinguished a name than Rockefeller had a more than casual stumped the backwoods and the Midwest, assembling crowds with his feats of ventriloquism, hypnotism, marksmanship, and song.

 

Article excerpt from Shelly Lowenkopf - Medicine Men on Wheels

 


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