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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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.