Dr. Lighthall's


"The Diamond King," Dr. J. I. Lighthall, the Indian Medicine-Man, and announcing that he Is at Richmond, Ind., Curing hundreds of people daily, at his Camp on Main St. Come Immediately and be Cured. Don't Delay. Printed by Cullaton & Co., Richmond, IN.

James Lighthall was a consumate showman, dressing in Liberace style, one night a full-length sealskin coat, the next, a red velvet Colonial-style suit, many glittering with "diamonds" to increase the spectacle. In his "last stand" in San Antonio, the Daily Express touted/advertised, in addition to free tooth extraction: "On Monday night he will appear on one of the plazas wearing $300,000 worth of diamonds, the largest collection in the possession of any one individual in the world" (Fowler 1993:30). Not all of his "diamonds" were verified as being genuine, though some certainly were. According to Lighthall's autobiography, he was born in 1856 in Illinois and left home at 11 to go West and make his fortune. His one-eighth Wyandot heritage, he claimed, helped him form attachments to the Indians, and watching native medicine men touched his "natural gift for botany" and fueled his interest in what today might be called "natural healing." He claimed to be impressed with the fact that native healers "never injured their patients with their innocent remedies," so he spent the next 13 years gathering knowledge and perfecting his remedies. He returned to the Midwest and apprenticed with a Dr. Neff who, the Diamond King claimed, encouraged him to take to the road and use his "gifts" to heal the masses.

By 1880 at age 24, Lighthall had done just that, making Peoria his home base and employing his mother and a couple of her husbands (at least numbers two and three) to mix up his "miracle elixirs" there. By the time he reached San Antonio in 1885, Lighthall's entourage numbered 40 tents with hucksters of many ilks: "chili queens" selling spicy food; sellers of clothing, trinkets and herbs; strolling troubadours added to the entertainment and attracted additional business, not unlike modern carnivals. And not unlike the Wild West shows that were peaking in popularity at the same time.

While in San Antonio, Lighthall contracted smallpox. All the herbs in his natural pharmacy could not cure the Diamond King and less than a week after his thirtieth birthday, he died of the disease. Stories swirled around this imposing figure of a salesman, many attesting to his humanity and charity, such as healing entire villages in Mexico stricken with epidemic disease, or giving his elixir free to those too poor to pay, with $10 or $20 bills wrapped around them. One story, maybe as apocryphal as legendary, has it that a young barbed wire salesman, John Gates, arriving in Texas in the late 1870s and having more success at poker than barbed wire sales, watched one of the Diamond King's performances. Figuring this was the "edge" he needed, Gates set up a "barbed wire show" and ended up fencing the West. The Indianapolis Journal probably summed up the Diamond King, and many other "medicine showmen," in his obituary: "He was anything but a fool, ... and was a good enough judge of human nature to profit at its expense. He was a man that might have been dangerous had his inclinations tended in the direction of lawlessness. As it was, he was an expensive man to the poor wherever he went" (Fowler 1993: 27-31).


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