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The Archivist: Oklahoma rattlesnake oil once sold as all-purpose cure

Mary Phillips: Early-day rattlesnake hunts in Oklahoma used to secure the ingredients needed to make an elixir.
BY MARY PHILLIPS mphillips@opubco.com Published: April 8, 2013
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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.”

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