The Vanishing Medicine Shows


Boosted "Reader" Fees and "Busted" Public Put Many in Barn


Only Those With Opry Cast of 20 or 30 Draw Big Crowd
 

By Robert Golden

Richmond Times-Dispatch
October 21, 1934

 

His hair was a shade greyer, his face not so ruddy and rotund, and the worn appearance of his tweeds was in strong contrast with the flashy sartorial garb he wore when I had last met him.

But the animated countenance, the shrewd grey eyes and his erect carriage were unmistakable. I recalled him as the owner and manager of the Herbs of Longevity Medicine Show, a six-people outfit--Old Doc Keister Wiglow.

It was getaway day at the State Fair, late in the afternoon. He stood behind a crudely constructed table, near the head of the midway, hands in his coat pockets, a rather dejected look on his face, making no effort to attract the attention of the few passers-by to his display of miniature trumpets. "One dime" the card on the table read:

"Hello Doc. What are you doing away from the med show?" I queried. "This isn't your line of work. Wonder if you remember me."

The veteran medicine man turned the piercing grey eyes upon me for a moment. He answered promptly, extending a hand and crushing mine painfully in his powerful grasp:

"Sure I do. You're the newspaper man that gave me and the little show a writeup in the Cincinnati paper when we were playing Covington, just across the river, in 1928. The dog got after you when you were trying to get to me in the office car on the lot."

He was accurate as to time, place, and circumstance. I had, myself, forgotten the date.

"Boy, I'm glad to see you again," he went on. "What's your racket here?"

"The same, Doc. But you seem to have changed yours."

"This isn't my joint," he explained. "I'm just helping out a young friend who has this concession. He's gone over there to the grease joint (eating booth) for a hamburger. That's him chinning with the greaseball (cook). Me, I'm doing nothing, just roaming around, hopscotching from one stand to another, sometimes working a concession where I can do a pitch. There is no opening for a pitch joint here. Your city ordinances have barred us with a prohibitive license."
 

*          *          *

 

"But where is the Herbs of Longevity Medicine Show?  Have you quit the med game?"

He grinned. "So you remember the name, eh? Not an easy one to remember, they used to tell me. Well, I'm out of med biz. There's nothing to it in the last few years. Mighty few of the old outfits still on the trail."

"I've noticed it, Doc. What's the answer?"

"Times and conditions have changed, boy. I guess the real answer is there ain't so much loose c o i n among the people. When things went smash in Wall Street in 1929 we med showmen went down with the Rockefellers and the Insulls and the rest of the easy m o n e y boys.

"Yowsir, I thought back yonder in 1929 that by this time I'd be living on the sunny side of Easy Street, the way the old bankroll was fattening. I thought by 1934 I'd be looking at the world go by and wouldn't have to care a hoot. Now look at me."

"But med shows are still rolling along."

"Just a few of them, boy, and they're the big ones. You've got to have a fat b. r. to put out a show these days. Twenty or thirty per-formers. You've got to give them a regular opry house show on the lot and give it to them free. No more four, five, six people shows. The med shows out this season that are getting by must have half a dozen c a r s and t r u c k s. The readers (licenses) are twice as big and then some. The cost of moving a show has gone up out of my sight. And customers are hard to draw to the lot. I'm out of med until F. D.'s recovery shows real recovery. But I'm not squawking, understand. I'm still sitting up and taking nourishment."
 

*          *          *

Doc Keister Wiglow's voice was plaintive as he proceeded with his story.

"Med sales since the depression hit the U. S. A. have gradually fallen off to almost nothing," he said. "Especially is it so in the hick burgs, where we used to get ours. Hard times have made the hicks in the sticks hungrier but they're healthier. It seems the less they have to cram into their stomachs the healthier they are. Yowsir. Except for a few big ones that give an opry house show and hand out free gifts like nobody's business, the med shows have all gone into the barn."

The Doc grew reminiscent. He told of the days preceding the depression era when his gross receipts ranged from $100 to $300 a day and his net profit was more than 50 per cent of the gross.

"All you needed back yonder in the old days," he said, "to assemble and put out a show was about 50 bucks. And you could put the outfit into the barn about November 1 and live easy until the next First of May on your summer's earnings."

"What has become of the rank and file of the medicine show boys?" I asked.
 

"What were they doing this past summer?"

"Well, you see me. Just hopscotching from one carnival to another, looking for a concession to work. Sometimes, like me this week, after you size up the stand you decide to lay off it. You can't sell med on a carnival lot or fairgrounds any more."

Doc Wiglow shook his head ruefully. "They won't let you do a high pitch in Richmond any more, not even on jewelry, watches, silverware, rugs, tapestries and other high class merchandise. The business men have got us classed as itinerant auctioneers and put over an ordinance that imposes a prohibitive license. It's the same in most of the towns this size, but all of the big cities are still open. The readers have been boosted on us even in the big burgs. I don't know what this country's coming to."


 

Reverting to the days of prosperity in the med game, the Doc recalled many picturesque characters that peopled the medicine show world and told amusing stories of the road experiences and adventures of such celebrities as Doc Jim Carson, Doc Harry De Forrest, Jim Ferdon, professionally known as Great Pizarro, Doc Bill Jackson, the Princess Iola, Indian George Vandervelt, Arizona Dolly, Doc C. L. Stumpf, Doc Noonan, Nevada Ned, Doc Lone Star, Chief Rolling Thunder and Medicine Bill Stewart. All of them are still in action, but several have abandoned the medicine show field, temporarily at least.
 

"Med show managers and lecturers are all men of courage and wits," old Keister said pridefully. "They've got to be or they don't travel very far." He cited instances of uncanny resourcefulness displayed by "health evangelists" when caught in a jam. For example:

Doc Stewart, with tonic, razor paste and soap, blew into Muskogee, Okla., some time ago. With him, as entertainer, was Van Van Buren. It was cotton market time. The Doc and Van, a two-man show, arrived just after sunup. They breakfasted in an all-night greasy spoon, looked over the town, located a good spot for an opening pitch, saw the clerk at the Courthouse, got the reader, which cost five bucks, and were about to open up when they met two Russians coming into town with several performing bears, one of which had been trained to draw a dog cart.

Stewart thought the bear and the cart would make a good ballyhoo for his business, so he bought them for $85. Then he made Van put on blackface and sent him out to bally the town.

Van Buren started the bear down the main stem. Many motor trucks and wagons piled high with cotton lined the streets. Several horses took fright at sight of the blackface comedian and the bear and ran away.

The ruckus stampeded the bear. The brute bolted around a corner, upsetting the cart. Van alighted on the ruins of his $125 banjo.

The bear shook off the harness and climbed an old abandoned telephone pole. The decayed pole collapsed and crashed down upon a picket fence, fragments of the rotten wood pelting an infant asleep on the lawn.

The police arrested Van and shot the bear. Doc Stewart had to pay the mother of the kid $25 to stop her from swearing out warrants and entering a civil suit. Doc was haled to court, where he paid a $10 fine, with $16.50 costs added. His license was revoked and the judge gave him 24 hours to leave town.

Did the Doc waste time in vain repining, tear his hair in the excess of a great grief or fill the circumambient air with lamentations? He did not. He sat down and figured out how he would retrieve his losses suffered in that man's town.

He hired the two Russians and the surviving bears and entered the next village with Stewart's Great International Medicine Show. The leader of the two churches in the village happened to be arranging for a lawn fete.

Doc saw the pastor and contracted with him to play the "great moral show," featuring native Russian dances and Van Buren the banjo king, on the church grounds, the church to take 25 per cent of the gate receipts.

Doc made a dozen pitches on his various items of stock between the acts and passed out some $300 worth of soap, tonic and razor paste. The total turnup for Stewart, the church receiving no cut on the sales, was $320. Stewart bought Van a new $125 banjo and was still $58.00 ahead of the Muskogee disaster.
 

Then there is the case of Corndope Cassidy, roving vendor of corn salve, as another instance of the resourcefulness, energy and enterprise of the medicine pitchman. Doc Wiglow produced from the inside pocket of his coat a billet-doux of recent writing, dated at Paris, Ill., from which the following is given verbatim:

"One of the most enjoyable experiences of my young life came to me in Toledo, Ohio, last week. Get an earful of this, Doc. I was sitting with some of the tripes-and-keister boys in a restaurant when a man who took Cleveland by storm a few years ago with his electrical outfit came in and spoke to us.

"This bozo was evidently under police surveillance, for we were all taken down to the hoosegow when one of our party admitted he had known the gentleman for 15 years. Of course, we didn't know what the dicks were hanging on him, and we don't yet.

"Anyhow, the flycops and the jugkeeper were nice to us. I'll say that for them. While I was in the jail house I saw the opportunity and I made a pitch on the corndope. There were five or six detectives in my tip. So help me, I sold six boxes of the salve to them, including one sale to the dick who had put me in the van. I carry good corndope, Doc."

Doc Wiglow replaced Mr. Cassidy's informative communication in his pocket and for a minute was lost in meditation. Presently he resumed:

"Yowsir. The next time you see my name on a med show banner, boy, I will be running a big one. The hick burgs in the summer season and a store show in New York, Chi or some other maney town in the winter. To do that, you've got to have the price. And me, just at present my affliction is I haven't got the dough-ray-me."

 

Images,

1 Edward C. Andrews and his partner, "Rusty Bill."

2 Princess Iola, owner and manager of her own medicine company

3 "Indian George" in the center with the big hat on.

4 "Arizona Dollie" In private life she is Dollie Forsyth

5 A typical medicine show outfit "on Location."  Here are the performers on their crudely constructed stage.  In the background may be seen one of the living tents and at the left the bus in which the troupe journeys from stop to stop.

 


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