“Snake oil” has long been shorthand for flimflam, and “snake oil salesman” has been a nickname for someone who is a trader in lies and false cures. The origin of the term dates back to the California Gold Rush. Chinese immigrants arrived to seek their fortune, and, later, more were brought to California as indentured labor for the Transcontinental Railroad. Among the medicinal traditions they brought was snake oil made from the mildly venomous Chinese water snake. The oil is rich in omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation. Snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work. The story goes that the Chinese workers began sharing the oil with some American counterparts, who marveled at the effects.
Soon, the sleazy patent medicine industry seized on a hot marketing term. Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was popular at the end of the 1800s. Stanley slit open snakes and boiled them at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago. He told the story of an ancient Hopi remedy learned by cowboys as he skimmed fat from the roiling water. But there were two problems with Stanley’s claim about his oil: Rattlesnakes are a far less potent form of snake oil with fewer omega-3 acids, and sometimes the closest thing to a snake ingredient was the picture on the bottle. Secondly, Stanley was prosecuted and fined in 1917 under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 for selling patent medicine that contained zero snake oil, but mineral oil, probably beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. He was fined $20….