In the American Snake Oil Stain

In his Journal of the Plague Year, 1664, De Foe tells us that “the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An universal remedy for the plague.’ ‘The only true plague water.’ ‘The royal antidote against all kinds of infection’…”

So we find that the classic Snake Oil Salesman has deep roots in the English Restoration, inevitably spreading across the pond to newly-captured (from the Dutch) New Amsterdam and newly-stolen New York (from the Haudenosaunee and Algonquian). But the heyday of American soothsayers and miracle-workers waited until the end of the 19th Century to truly arrive, in tandem with greater city expansion, Columbian exhibitions, and nascent mass advertising.

A supreme chronicler of the American brand of scammery, hoodwinking, and general marksmanship, Violet McNeal’s 1947 autobiography has just been republished by Feral House. Gloriously tiled Four White Horses and a Brass Band: True Confessions form the World of Medicine Shows, Pitchmen, Chumps, Suckers, Fixers, and Shillsfor once, the hype is real. Her confessions are a glittering, larcenous intruder into a present where cheating has become institutionalized, policy-laden and wholly unimaginative. The big takeaway here is that you needed skill once – or at least verve, and good enough to keep a grip on a live spectator.

The loopy conmen of the Violet’s time were also the American equivalents of Herodotus, Strabo, and Hesiod. They created our genuine, living Canon: an ahistorical agglomeration of soft-con forgery, slippery titles and vigorous electric junk. Any wandering element attaches itself to this critical mass, moving over a haunted colonial landscape with the deceptive clumsiness of calculated bohunk guile. Getting One Over, Dressing Up Garbage, and Looking for a Sucker… these are the authentic axioms of Gold Rush swindle and medicine show days, shill days, the days of the thousand-faced rip-off on the prowl. The ingenuity lies in simulated miracles whose origin is sentimental and whose target is everywhere.

From her escape from Dullsville to the crowds of yokels waiting to part with their cash, Violet covers the glory days with great élan. She meets and falls for the charming junkie Will, who teaches her everything there is to know about conning and pitching. Will is a classic double-edged character – at once the architect of her destruction and the mentor of her wildest days. He gives her opium addiction, pitch-perfect pitch, street smarts, beatings and the occasional attempt on her life as well as the ability to survive. Her story is littered with his ruin and her appropriated riches, his dependence and hers. She sees him as an essentially ghostly figure by the end of the narrative, but she allows herself even less pity and so acquires the most ironic carnival wisdom. Throughout, the ailing spiral pulls the travelling masters of fraud together for a while: occasional allies, momentary fascinations, clinquant regrets, wanderlust or the lam. Trips are First Class or they will be Nightmare. Opium modifies time like money. Holding the pitches and pedagogy together is Violet at her most Apuleius, trudging Canadian snow while sporting rubies – a bone fide outlaw of the marsh.

In one of the most memorable chapters of the book, she meets for the first time the fake ‘Princes’ (shades of the dreaded Nigerian digital conmen!), wizards, colorfully-dressed shamans and royalty of her new profession. This mad convention is a taxonomy of Pitches: ‘Indian’, Quaker and Oriental schools. The kinds are subdivided and detailed, which proves Violet a great scientist despite her ‘cures’ made of pepper and food dye. From town to town and from city to city, these salesmen moved relentlessly. Crowds gathered around them in the square or in the backstreet (city officials and law had to be paid off). There were stars and celebrities, old hands and vigorous new contenders. Almost everyone knew each other and news travelled fast. A hard, exhilarating life which cheated fools and dodged Death until the slack ran out. Rope and time vexed the pitchmen like rotten food.

Each sales pitch was a part of a vast oral history of Thievery, a carpet of wild tales and exotic discoveries of wonky products and the salesmen’s ornate adventures. I Con Therefore I Am – and therefore, Are You. These multiple voices of chicanery made a vivid, telegraphic impression in the metamorphoses of American Cant. Lying is taken as the base of all equivocal sentences; the adjective, despised by English professors, moves to the foreground if it rings well (the vaguer the better). Making it good meant making it preposterous, using a pathogenic reservoir of jungles, daring exploits, secret royalty and the gaudiest tropes imaginable. Like the Tao, ideas come into existence first by contemplating the surface. Most pitchmen adopted an earnest but commanding tone, setting themselves before ‘all you good people’ with unalloyed altruism. Primal Yanqui philanthropy: giving as cheap Puritanism, which hides debt collection in servile grace.

The secret disciplines of the olden conmen were many: muscle reading involved detecting the slightest tremor in hand or voice to perform some seemingly miraculous identification. Pitches were named so because of the height of the con man vis a vis the crowd, and required the memorization of endless cues and verbal-number charts which fooled the chumps into believing in clairvoyancy or telekinesis. Pickpocketing was an especially fine art. There are a number of ways of professional lifting, from simply removing loose bills to taking a wallet, emptying out the green, and returning it to the owner (who feels the weight in his coat and is none the wiser). Her careful descriptions recall the famous pedagogic sequence in Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket. As in the film, the colleges of larceny worked on a master-student basis but learning never stops.

We also find here a strange seam of American Orientalism, a carny Elsewhere of poetry and enlightenment expressed in bottles of ointment, salve, alien powders and labels with miniature gods. Asia is the splendid idol of all barkers (Violet’s husband was an ardent devotee of the Chinese classics – and also of opium, but that is quite British). This had much to do with the restlessness of their kind who felt, like Violet did, that home was a kind of exilic wasteland. For the true pitchman, the West was provincial and boring. To leave it, he had to rip-off its representative masses like a burglar in the Sultan’s trove. Nothing proved this more than the suckers and saps, unsophisticated rubes whose folksy façade collapsed before even the smallest glimpse of a glittering, eternal East. A wholly invented Asia of course, but America is an invention too.

American Orientalism has its darkest aspect in the contemporary thinktanks of neocon academics, just as its best was in the solitary obsessions of the khanmen and cultural detritus like Masonic Oriental Bands[i]. Like any import from Europe, the racist romanticism of a cartoonish Yellow Peril became a cockeyed, slant-drilled vision when it washed up stateside. If the Oriental Medicine Man typified it pretty harmlessly, death by railway work and the bloody pogroms, such as San Francisco’s in 1877, did not. Axe handles and shattered Chinatown glass, the earmarks of the same stupidity of Manzanar, mosque and synagogue attacks, or the current stabs in the liberal press and on the rightist streetcorner at anything they call Chinese.

The great enemy of Violet’s people was work. They had realized long ago that the worker created all the value of the product but was paid subsistence by the capitalist. This vampire expropriated not only labor but surplus value (in prices and rent), proving himself the first of all scam artists. After working all your life, you died old and alone or young with old black lungs. The words of the robber barons and public moralists were utter horseshit, as their own primitive accumulations and crimes attested. Few tropes are more downright evil than the supposed American Can-Do attitude. Old men’s cranky adages about ‘hard work’ only wear you down. And take the idiotic notion of trying. Which you are supposed to do until you succeed, no matter how long it takes – again and again and again, a moronic mirror chamber of failures. These are devious terroristic maxims that have done irreparable harm in the world. Do not try again – move on until you find someone who believes your spiel. The world is wide and populous. But it is there, however ironically, just for you.

Violet’s old man said it best: “You must be ready… to take opportunity wherever you find it. If you happen to be passing a streetcar which has just had a wreck, for example, lie down on the pavement beside it and begin to scream. One way or another, there will be money it.” Few sages have shone such light on American Graft with a more perfect pedestrian example.

Four White Horses has been superbly edited and annotated by Feral House’s own Christina Ward. She has thoughtfully removed the longer spiels to end appendices, perhaps for the aspiring con artist to consider and plagiarize. Her footnotes adroitly clarify terms and also offer tantalizing flashes of the period via character sketches of boxers, cheats and thugs, the IWW and class struggle, and underworld philology. Between expert and envy, which is exactly what a work like this demands.

Authorship for the ancients had a far different meaning – Barthes’ death of the author was a trendy Cold War update – closer to the anonymous stream of the conmen than modern notions of authenticity, which are bound to money and copyright. Schools and hierarchies have always existed in the world of folktale and scamlore, as they do in ancient Chinese literature. But the point is the presence of a certain way of being, what used to be called a culture, summed up in the name of a master whether cobbled together from many or not. There are no books more classical than ones like Violet’s, which always combine a Candide sense of life’s journey and the transmission of tricks needed along the way.

Not one medicine man ever ended wealthy or even well, as Ms. McNeal often reminds. Diamonds slip through the fingers, the preferred way of storing fortunes because of their easy size. Skid row, missionary hospitals, fading faces of the once-renowned startling in oily doors and pools of rain. It was a world off to the side. All a cracked Ramayana, full of forests of small dismal towns leading to the open Barbary Coast. Violet was a rose, appearing again like that rare Arabian oil which seemingly passes through the palm.


[i] The latter is a wholly distinct genre which sounds unlike any music ever done, played by marching bands with no talent and even less swing but with great brut inventiveness.  Liner notes on these rummage-sale LPs invoke Allah and His Prophet; the band photos resemble a casting call for a terrible Mummy movie made in Indiana.


Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.