Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Snake Oil Cures Turbulent Instinct

By Jesse Sublett

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  I just spent two hours waiting to see my doctor, who just happens to be a very busy, popular orthopedic surgeon. Having already perused every magazine in his waiting room on our last visit (only 90 minutes that time), I decided to bring along some reading material of my own. I decided, what the heck, might as well make it something appropriate, so I brought along Mystic Healers & Medicine Shows: Blazing Trails to Wellness in the Old West and Beyond, edited by Gene Fowler (Ancient City Press, $27.95 hard). Good choice; it beat the hell out of six-month-old issues of Time and Newsweek. This 206-page collection of previously published articles by various authors, edited by and with an introduction from Gene Fowler, is pretty fair reading just about any time or place. But when you're waiting your turn for an X-ray or MRI scan, this book does make it seem as if getting healed could have been more entertaining a hundred years or so ago. Of course, the prospect of going under the knife without anesthesia or sterilization might have also helped steer sick people toward "alternative" medicine.

The treatments described here run the gamut from pure (and counterfeit) snake oil to genuinely effective, scientifically proven herbal remedies, and a good dollop of pure shuck and jive. There is, however, a consistent theme running through this odd period in American history, which extended roughly from the 1880s through the 1920s. That theme is showmanship. A cool name and long hair were assets in this racket (which means, yes, it was dominated by men, but not exclusively), whether you emulated the Jesus look (Francis Schlatter, aka The New Mexico Messiah, The Healer, and El Gran Hombre) or the Buffalo Bill Cody look (far more popular, adopted by J.I. Lighthall, aka The Diamond King and The Great Indian Medicine Man; also Dr. Frank Powell, aka White Beaver; and many others). You get the feeling that, any genuine talent and knowledge in the medicinal field aside, many of these characters possessed the kind of natural gifts that would have brought them success in politics, religion, rock & roll, talk shows, or any other type of endeavor that thrives on hype, charisma, and a need to believe.

Dr. Frank "White Beaver" Powell, in fact, didn't just emulate the look and Western-style showmanship of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the two men were actually good friends and performed together frequently. They also appeared in the same dime novels, some of which they wrote, and many of which were written by others. According to author Eric V. Sorg (an unabashed fan and impersonator of Buffalo Bill), Powell was harassed by the conventional medical community because, unlike most doctors of the era, he used both herbs and Indian homeopathy. He also employed a great deal of bluster. He paid (twelve to fifty cents per line) for newspaper articles about himself, first concentrating on his incredible skills at healing, but later focusing on his awesome prowess with a firearm. Editor and contributor Gene Fowler introduces the book with a quick fly-over of the subject that provides some background and perspective and shows off his facility for recording off-beat historical factoids and those wonderfully evocative 19th-century turns of phrase. For example, on the Texas border, rattlesnake oil was applied to the hair of "frivolous, coquettish young ladies," in order to "pacify their turbulent instincts." However, "this can be done only when the moon is on the wane, otherwise the result will be quite the opposite." Hmmm....

illustration by Tom King

There's a bevy of interesting characters here, and their stories provide a unique glimpse into the mindset and language of the culture that produced them, including Don Pedrito, Dr. Mud, Indian John, the Milling Brothers (Texas' "outlaw" medicine men), George Halleck Center, and William Kroeger, the "Priest-Healer" of Epiphany, South Dakota. The quality of writing, however, is widely varied, and the reader may tend to lose interest between the peaks and valleys. The article on Teresa Urrea, the "Saint of Cabora," in particular, is a tantalizing appetizer of a story about a potentially very fascinating figure, but author Frank Bishop Putman makes numerous fantastic statements without offering any supporting evidence or qualification, which made this reader skeptical of the whole story. At least there's a bibliographic essay after each chapter.

Then there are the gems. "Daring Dr. Sofie," by Cindi Myers, is one of them, a well-written story about a fascinating lady down in the Brazos bottomlands. I also enjoyed the writ wit of Fowler's account of the controversial and trouble-prone Mills brothers, who employed a technique known as "magnetic healing." The younger of the two Mills brothers was eventually murdered in Glen Rose, Texas. Local historians only know that the murder, committed by a man, "had something to do with a woman." Fowler writes: "Remembering that `magnetic healers' were sometimes called `rubbing doctors' might suggest a number of scenarios."

You might even pick up some practical knowledge here. George Halleck Center prescribed two ounces of laudanum, plus camphor, capsicum, and peppermint for "belly ache" (I feel better just thinking about this one). Excerpts from J.I. Lighthall's medical guide include an "antidote for tobacco" (four ounces of white oak bark, pulverized, and four grains capsicum), "How to Quit Opium" (substituting water, quinine, whiskey and wine in increasing doses as your daily dosage of opium is decreased), and a poem advertising Lighthall's Corn Extractor that pretty much sums up the spirit of the book:

Never causing any sore,
Causing blood to run or pour,
A bottle costs you fifty cents,
Saving pain and great expense.

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