Now and Then: Snake Oil Cures and Telephone Scams

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Now:  One day after numerous phone calls from the telephone marketers, which has been going on for years. I had a thought about snake oil salesmen of days gone past.  I did some reading about snake oil on-line. Found this definition on Wikipedia.

The term snake oil has since been established in popular culture as a reference to any worthless concoction sold as medicine and has been extended to describe a widely ranging degree of fraudulent goods, services, ideas and activities such as worthless rhetoric in politics.  By further extension a snake oil salesman or sales women, is commonly used in English to describe a quack, huckster or charlatan…  

I was impressed by how encompassed this term became by the extensions as time passed and still fits in popular culture today.  That’s when the idea of comparative science is used when dealing with past and present. With the assistance from my fellow museum volunteer Ron Taylor and micro-film searching local newspapers the following are some examples of ads.

Canon City Times: April 9,1874

Dr. Crook’s Wine of Tar

Ten years of public testing has proved Dr. Crook’s Wine of Tar to have more merit than any similar preparations ever offered to the public. It is rich in the medicinal qualities of Tar, and unequal for diseases of Throat and Lungs performing the most remarkable cures. It effectible cures all coughs and colds. It has cured many cases of Asthma and Bronchitis that it has been pronounced a specific for these complaints.  For pains in the Chest or Back, Gravel or Kidney Diseases of the Urinary Organs, Jaundice, or any Liver Complaints it has no equal.

It is also a superior tonic.  It restores appetite, strengths the systems, Restores the Weak and Debilitated, Causes the Food to Digest, Removes Diazepane and Indigestion, Prevents Malaria’s Fevers, Gives Tone to Young Systems.  


Canon City Times: August 5, 1875

Condurango Bitters

A Purely Vegetable Substitute for Calomel Contains no Alcohol

            No danger from exposure after taking.  Relieves and cures diseases of the liver, blood, kidneys and stomach.  Such as dyspepsia, constipation, ague cake, or enlarged spleen, pains in the back, side and chest, pleurisy, lassitude, Bright’s diseases, diabetes, depression after dissipation, enlargement and inflammation of the liver, Jaundice, dropsy, heart disease, piles, impaired circulation, tendency to miscarriage, suppressed menstruation, rush of blood to the head, fainting spells, change of life in young and old.  For the complexation, its action upon the blood, liver kidneys and secretions are specific. It dissipates jaundice, tints and freckles, brings a continual glow to the cheek, brightness to the eye, corrects all deranged functions, purges the bowels and produces perfect woman hood.

            SUCCESSFUL THIRTY YEARS, MAGUIRE’S BENNE PLANT.  The sovereign specific for diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, morphs, flux and summer complaint, etc., and great preventative of Asiatic cholera.  Send for circular and see testimonials. J.& C. Maguire, Sole Propriety St. Louise, Mo.


Canon City Avalanche…2-17-1875

OPIUM Habit Cured

Dr. S.B. Collins, La Porte, Ind.

            A certain and sure cure without inconvenience and at home. An antidote that stands purely on its own merits.  Send for my quarterly magazine (it cost you nothing) containing certificates of hundreds that have been permanently cured.  I claim to have discovered and produced the FIRST, ORIGINAL AND ONLY CURE FOR OPIUM EATING.


Canon City Times: January 18, 1877

Hale’s Honey of Horehound & Tar

For the Cure of Coughs, colds, Influenza, Hoarseness, Difficult Breathing and all Ailments of the Throat, Bronchial Tubes and Lungs Leading to Consumption.

            This infallible remedy is composed of the Honey of the plant Horehound, in chemical union with Tar-Balm of Gilead.

            This infallible remedy is composed of the Honey of the plant Horehound, in chemical union with Tar-Balm, extracted from the Life Principle of the forest tree Abies Balsaka, or Balm of Gilead.

            The Honey of Horehound Soothes and Scatters all irritations and inflammations and the Tar-Balm Cleanses and Heals the throat and air-passages leading to the lungs.  Five additional ingredients keep the organs cool, moist and in healthful action.  Let no prejudice keep you from trying this great medicine of a famous Doctor, who has saved thousands of lives by it in his large private practice.

            N.B.—The Tar Balm has no bad taste or smell.  Prices 50 cents and $1 per bottle.  Great saving to buy a large size.

Pike’s Toothache Drops” Cure in 1 Minute.  Sold by all druggists.



Canon City Times: February 22, 1877


            Eradicates All Local Skin Diseases, Permanently and Remedies Rheumatism and Gout.  Heals Sores and Injuries of the Cuticle and a Reliable Disinfectant.

            This popular and inexpensive remedy accomplishes the same result as costly Sulphur Baths, since it permanently removes eruptions and irritations of the skin.

            Complexional blemishes are always obviated by its use and it renders the cuticle wondrously fair and smooth.

            Sores, sprains, bruises, scalds, burns and cuts are speedily healed by it and prevents and remedies Gout and Rheumatism.

            It rids dandruff, strengthens the roots of the hair and preserves it youthful color.  As a disinfectant of clothing and linen used in the sick room and as a protection against contagious diseases it is unequaled.  Physicians emphatically endorse it.

Prices-25 and 50 cents per Cake; Per Box (8 cakes) 60c. and $1.20. 

N.B. Sent by mail prepaid upon receipt and 5cents extra for each cake.

“Hill’s Hair and Whisker Dye.” Black or Brown 50 cents.

C.J. Crittenton, Prop’r 7 Sixth Av. N.Y.


Canon City Clipper: December 24, 1897


They overcome weakness, irregularity and omissions. Increase vigor and banish “pains of menstruation.”  They are “Life Savers” to girls at womanhood, aiding development of organs and body.  No known remedy for women equals them.   Cannot do harm—life becomes a pleasure.  $1 per box by mail.  Sold by druggists.

Mott Chemical Company, Cleveland, Ohio

For Sale at Beecher’s Corner Drug Store…Canon City, Colorado


Canon City Clipper: May 31, 1898


For Liver Complaint, Nervousness, Biliousness, Constipation, Blood and Skin Diseases.

No complaints are more common than the above.  Anyone of them maybe the result or forerunner of the other.  You feel dull and depressed.  Your bowels move irregularly and you feel clumsy and sluggish both body and mind.  Maybe you have treated with physicians or tried some recommended medicine without benefit.  That is no argument against the wonderful Remedy.  This medicine is superior to other preparations and prescriptions, because it is prepared by an eminent physician whose writings on medical questions are recognized authority.  If not satisfied after using one bottle your money will be refunded by:



Now:  I went to the Thesaurus and typed in scams. Here are some samples of alternative words for describing a scam:


Here are just a very few of the phone messages.  I wrote these in jest.  However, these calls can be very misleading, confusing and threats of all kinds that are terrifying. Many sad stories of people being conned out of their money.

Hello, (A stern low female voice)

This is a notification that was recently sent to us involving a purchase that you have made from for $1, 499 order number 7073.  If you have not made this purchase then simply hang up the phone.  If you have made this purchase press 1 to speak with our Confirmation Executive.  Thank You.

Hi there! (A young female voice)

This is Cindy from AT&T TV Direct TV.  How are you today? (Pause) I am glad to hear that.  Well, Direct TV is offering a 50% discount to all their customers.  Do you have a minute to speak so I can go ahead and apply this to your account?

Hello, (A young male speaking in broken English)

Are you there Lorita?  Hello, Hello. Lorita, are you there? (Voices in the background).

(A mature female serious sounding voice)

This call is to advise you that your automobile warranty is about to expire. You need to Press 1 to speak with our representative now. (I had gotten this type of message for the past three or four years.  Just in case I may have missed their phone calls I get their messages in my junk mail.)

(A female with an urgent sounding voice)

This call is to inform you that a charge has been made against your Amazon current account of $599.  If you did not make this charge you can press 1 or call 213-999-2849 to speak with a live representative.

(A male with a deep voice)

This call is to inform you that your Social Security Number has been compromised.  You need to press 1 to speak with a Social Security Agent immediately to correct this matter.


There has always been this dark side to human beings. How to protect yourself is extremely difficult now.  Technology is seemingly being used for all the wrong reasons.

I take solace in knowing there are more honest people than dishonest ones.  Those truly honest folks seem to be the people that don’t make it in all the media hype that’s available at the touch of a finger.


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