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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75.3 (2001) 619-620

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Book Review

Snake Oil, Hustlers, and Hambones: The American Medicine Show

Ann Anderson. Snake Oil, Hustlers, and Hambones: The American Medicine Show. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. ix + 190 pp. Ill. $38.00 (0-7864-0800-6).

Ann Anderson, an actress, has written a sweeping history of the medicine show with a primary emphasis on the "show," although not neglecting "medicine." After a brief description of origins--introducing medieval Italian mountebanks and charlatans, and later English street healers--she turns to America and its early varied experience with traveling entertainment by Yankee peddlers, then expanding to the circus developed by P. T. Barnum who, early in his career, had sold a nostrum, Prolers Bear Grease, from a migratory wagon. Anderson credits the immature state of regular medicine in colonial and early independence days for the rise of patent medicine quackery, promoted in newspaper advertising and peddled by itinerant pitchmen (and occasional women) to village rubes attracted to mass entertainment borrowed from Wild West shows, minstrel shows, the circus, and vaudeville. The cast ranged from lone street-corner workers to large and complex crews presenting assorted acts in huge tents, peaking in the closing years of the nineteenth century.

Inasmuch as a surprising number of such showmen wrote autobiographical accounts, and their critics published condemnatory articles, Anderson is able to include numerous vivid case histories and to draw generalizations about both the entertainment and the pharmaceutical aspects of the medicine show. Examples include Violet MacNeal and her Vital Sparks, John Hamlin and his Wizard Oil, Thomas P. Kelley and his East India Tiger Fat, and Dudley J. LeBlanc and his Hadacol. By LeBlanc's day, and certainly by the early 1960s, the medicine show [End Page 619] was in decided decline. Several factors brought this about: the rise of alternative entertainment, especially the movies and radio and television; the pressure from regulatory agencies, especially the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and town officials; and the great increase in the effectiveness of modern scientific medicine. Yet Anderson, in giving some credit to the "Exit [of] the Rube" (p. 159), may be going too far, for susceptibility to health quackery is more likely now at an all-time high.

In addition to the showmen's autobiographical writings, Anderson relies on a rich commentary over the centuries by critics of the showmen's medical pretensions, and also on recent historical works devoted to her theme, especially Brooks McNamara's Step Right Up (1976). Her patterning is reasonable, her generalizations in the main persuasive, and her style, including direct quotations of showmen's spiels, will hold the attention of medical historians and of their graduate and undergraduate students.


James Harvey Young
Emory University



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