History records the Chinese using oil from snakes to alleviate joint pain, but with the coming of the patent medicine man, snake oil took on a different connotation: fraud and fakery.
The traveling elixir peddlers sold their medicines with the promise of cures for practically everything that ails you.
Seventy-five years ago on April 3, 1938, The Oklahoman reported the story of rattlesnake hunter Herb Pinack of Medicine Park.
“He seeks out the dens of the rattlesnakes, kills them and collects the fat from the sides of the rattlesnakes. From this fat he renders an oil which has been known for years for its medical qualities.”
“From the time of the medicine shows when the wandering doctors went through the country selling their remedies, snake oil has been known as a healer of rheumatism, toothache, earache and other aches for which penetrating oil will give relief. Rattlesnake oil, according to Pinack, is one of the most penetrating oils that have ever been found and a small amount rubbed into a joint sore with rheumatism or dropped into an ear will give quick relief. He sells the oil for $20 an ounce, but a small amount will last the winter for an average family.”
On a sunny Sunday, reporter Helen Gilbert met Pinack and his wife in the Wichita Mountains to hunt rattlesnakes.
“I saw two people wandering among the rocks on a ledge above me and calling up to them I asked if they were hunting rabbits. They yelled back. “No we are looking for rattlesnake.” I had seen a posted sign on a fence that I had just crossed and when Pinack answered that he was looking for rattlesnake I thought he was trying to scare me.”
“Soon, I came closer to Pinack and his wife and they invited me to join them. Still thinking the snakes were a joke, I trailed along and fell into conversation. Pinack told me how he had killed thousands of rattlesnakes in the 36 years that he had lived in the mountains and how he decided to make a hobby of killing them and collecting their oil.”
Herb Pinack located a den and killed six rattlesnakes.
“With his penknife, Pinack slit their skins, his knife making a slight raking sound as it cut through the scales. With deft fingers he pulled the fat from their sides and dropped it into a fruit jar which he brought along.”
Rattlesnake oil may truly just be snake oil, but as media continues to bring stories of the next great cure, and who knows, but real snake oil might be worth another look from scientists.
If you want to get out there and hunt your own, consider attending the Waurika Rattlesnake Hunt, April 12-14; the Apache Rattlesnake Festival, April 18-21; and the 48th Annual Mangum Rattlesnake Derby, April 26-28.