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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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