Snake Oil Salesman

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A specific type of itinerant Con Man, somewhat similar to the Hustler in being both less financially stable and having a poorer group of victims as well, and also has some overlap with the Honest John as being a purveyor of shoddy goods, not always phony medicine.

The character is often played as a Loveable Rogue type, frequently being extremely attractive to local women, having "seen the world" (or at least is good at pretending to have done so). Somewhat inexplicably sympathetic, given the obvious result of a sick person being given medicine which doesn't actually work.

Definitely Truth in Television, hearkening back to the late-19th/early-20th century, when there were no standards for practicing medicine or selling goods and "caveat emptor" was the rule. The rise of "alternative medicine" and other forms of All-Natural Snake Oil provides lots of modern examples as well. Snake Oil Salesmen are also known as "quacks," though the term "quack" also covers fraudulent doctors who are nowhere near as skilled as they claim to be, such as the worst Back Alley Doctors.

In an interesting subversion, actual snake oil contains plenty of Omega-3, so it can be beneficial to the health. However, in a Double Subversion, the actual benefits of Omega-3 are so mysterious-to-laymen-but-vaguely-positive that the modern version of this could be the Fish Oil or Omega-3 Salesman. Also, oil from the Chinese Water Snake has been used for a very long time in Chinese medicine, though not as the extreme panacea advertised by this sort of character (indeed, this connotation is largely unknown in China). Rather, it's merely used as an ordinary anti-inflammatory agent.

Expect to find actual Snake Oil Salesmen at the local Medicine Show. The Beat Bag is his hat.

Examples of Snake Oil Salesman include:


Comic Books[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Dr. Doxey in the Lucky Luke comic series.
    • In "Sarah Bernhardt", the theatre company breaks out in hives after eating whale meat for too long. They encounter a traveling salesman that can cure everything ("Ehm... and especially hives!")... with his whale oil elixir.
  • Jose Carioca once helped his cousin Joe sell candy to his neighbours, knowing full well that the candy was too impossibly hard for anyone to actually eat. Despite his attempts to put as much responsibility for the candy on his cousin, they both get beaten up by an angry mob.
  • One issue of The Muppet Show Comic Book reinvents Dr Bob of Veterinarian's Hospital as a frontier medicine man. At one point he asks Nurse Piggy if they can get any more "medicinal compound" out of the cat.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Glengarry Glen Ross follows the lives of shady real estate salesmen.
  • Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz movie, played by the same actor as the wizard himself.
  • Doc Terminus from Pete's Dragon is a villainous version. He's also comically incompetent; he's been run out of every town he's ever visited, and he anticipates—and gets—an unfriendly reception when he winds up in one of those towns a second time. Oddly enough, the primary character who believes his products aren't useless quack remedies is... Doc Terminus himself. At the very least, he trusts his recipe book's claims about the merits of dragon parts.
  • Danny Kaye's character Georgi in The Inspector General (1949) starts the film as the assistant of Snake Oil Salesman Yakov, but turns out to be too honest for the job.
  • Mr. Merriweather, in Little Big Man. Protagonist Jack Crabb also becomes one of these as his assistant.
  • In The Kid Brother, Harold Lloyd as the son of the sheriff is supposed to run off the Medicine Show but falls for the Snake Oil Salesman's lovely daughter instead.
  • Lilah encounters a snake oil salesman on a stagecoach in a deleted scene from Jonah Hex.
  • In Seraphim Falls, the leading characters meet Madam Louise C. Fair.
  • Priest. Honest John is trying to sell a potion that wards off vampires when the sheriff shoots the bottle out of his hand.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • In the children's Christmas book Emmett Otter and the Jug-Band Christmas, Emmett's late father was literally a snake oil salesman. He boated up and down the river selling snake oil.
    • According to the Jim Henson adaptation "There just aren't enough people who want to oil a snake."
  • The title character in The Good Soldier Švejk sells dogs; as the book describes, they're "ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged." He once talked a woman, who wanted to buy a parrot, into buying a bulldog.
  • Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry is a religious version, although his occasional moments of sincere belief in what he's preaching (especially in the film version) cross him over somewhat into more complicated Hypocrite territory.
  • In Time Scout, a number of these guys infest the time terminal commons. Skeeter Jackson gets a start on this scam, but gets interrupted by an angry gladiator.
  • In Winds of Fury Firesong's cover when sneaking into Hardorn was as a stage magician/snake oil salesman. His magical cure-all was brandy mixed with some medicinal herbs, which made it theoretically healthy and of considerably higher quality than most things sold by such people.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Dr. Stringfellow in the Night Gallery episode "Dr. Stringfellow's Rejuvenator", who is a rare example of a phony doctor being treated as unsympathetically as deserved.
  • In one episode of Quantum Leap, Sam leaps into a "rainmaker" who claims to be able to end droughts.
  • The Twilight Zone episode "Mr. Garrity and the Graves" concerns a man who cons a town by claiming he can raise the dead. The problem is that all the graves but one in the town cemetery are populated by victims of violence (and that one died of a heart attack...after breaking her husband's arm for the sixth time), and nobody wants the dead to rise. So they pay the man not to raise the dead. He leaves town, we learn how his scheme worked... but it turns out that, without knowing it, the man did raise the dead, and they're pretty eager to get back to town.
  • "Miss Jeanette" from True Blood does exorcisms in the woods for people who are "demon possessed". She really works in a drugstore.
    • There's a bit of evidence she may have had legitimate abilities as an exorcist, with the dress up just being for show. After all, so far only the supernatural have had their hearts devoured by Maryann.
      • This was confirmed in the episode "Frenzy". Maryann explains to Tara that "ritual is a powerful thing," and that Miss Jeanette was able to, unwittingly, tap into supernatural forces. In fact, was Tara's "fake" exorcism that summoned Maryann to Bon Temps in the first place.
    • Bonus for that the lady was a trained pharmacist and knew what drugs would both induce a proper hallucinatory state and probably have beneficial effects to the problem at hand.
  • The Goodies in "Hospital for Hire" (especially Graeme):

Graeme: My friends, this here bottle contains a guaranteed all-purpose remedy for prostration, inflation and frustration! Pneumonia and old monia! Distemper, dat temper and bad temper! Sunburn, heartburn, and Tony Blackburn!

  • Doctors Dean and Dana Deville in Hustle, who sell bottles and tins of garbage as cures for everthing from arthritis to swine flu, are decidedly unsympathetic Smug Snakes. Their latest scheme, when the Hustle gang target them, is "Eat Yourself Slender", which puts a friend of the gang into hospital.
  • Parodied on The Chaser's War on Everything, with Chas peddling such products as Oil of Snake, Bollocks and Feng Shite. If you believe their audio commentary, the scene was not a case of Selective Stupidity - everyone they talked to fell for it.

Music[edit | hide]

Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • In the Hurricane of Puns comic strip Sir Bagby, there was a story arc where Sir Bagby encountered a snake oil salesman; his first reaction was a bemused "I hadn't realised so many people had squeaky snakes."

Radio[edit | hide]

  • Gunsmoke had Professor Lute Bone, whose "Miracle Tonic's" active ingredient was opium. As a twist on the usual, he was firmly against alcohol abuse.

Theater[edit | hide]

  • Dr. Dulcamara from the opera L'elisir d'amore.
  • Harold Hill from The Music Man.
    • Parodied in an episode of The Simpsons where a nearly identical character selling defective monorails convinces Springfield to buy one, and it is revealed that these monorails have had accidents killing several people in the past. At the end, his flight out of town is forced to stop over in one of those towns, and he gets lynched by an angry mob.
    • The most famous player of that character, Robert Preston, played an alien variant of the character as a shady military recruiter in The Last Starfighter.
  • Ali Hakim from the musical Oklahoma!!.
  • Pirelli in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
  • Bill Starbuck from The Rainmaker and its musical adaptation 110 in the Shade.
  • Eustace P. McGargle, from the 1923 musical comedy Poppy. W.C. Fields originated the character on stage and later played him in two film adaptations, the silent Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and the "talkie" Poppy (1936).
  • In Men in Hats, Sam goes into business selling a miracle cure which is rebottled laundry detergent.

Beriah: Try it Gamal! It feels great until you realize you can't walk!

Videogames[edit | hide]

  • The Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 features "The Amazing Aqua Cura" sidequest, in which you investigate a ghoul's snake oil operation. You end up being able to expose, blackmail, or force him to go legit if you uncover his secret.
  • Funnily enough, in Path of Radiance, a conversation between Shinon and Gatrie actually reveals the latter to have bought snake oil after being conned into thinking it was a speed potion.
  • There's a Planet of Hats of these in Star Control 2.

In the future, Captain, I would be careful what I bought from the Druuge.

  • Red Dead Redemption has one of these in the form of Nigel West Dickens, a major character, even mentioning the trope by name. He handily provides the page image.
    • Subverted, however, in that snake oil is actually beneficial in this game—namely, drinking it refills your Dead Eye meter. Also, that shit Marston drank in the cutscene for Dickens' scam levels up the Dead Eye meter, so if it can increase John Marston's already keen eyesight and reaction timing then there must be some validity to the medicine.
      • While this upgrade does allow Marston to paint multiple targets with his Dead Eye ability, it does so by whoever and wherever you aim your crosshair, but this does not exclude innocents. Unless you're damned careful and know where you're going to aim, it's not unlikely that you will glance a civilian, or your own horse, in a heavy firefight. Until you get the upgrade that lets you choose what targets you want to hit, you can thank Dickens' lovely tonic for any "accidents".[1]
      • According to Marston himself it also gave him the runs mere hours after drinking it (thankfully the player is spared from having to actually watch that scene).
    • Played straight as it is mentioned within the game's newspapers and showcased in the mission set in the area Plainview where an army of Dicken's "satisfied" customers try to gun the man down only for John to save him, that while West Dicken's elixir has certain benefits it also has severe side effects, much as you would expect from high powered medications we have today. Naturally these side effects leave a lot of Mr. Dickens' customers quite unhappy his business scandal eventually leads to him being arrested in Blackwater only to have John Marston come to the rescue.
    • Even better, in the Undead Nightmare DLC storyline, it turns out that his "vitality elixir" actually attracts the undead ("It's like catnip to them!", the protagonist observes). Of course, this becomes a good thing, since you can throw bottles of the stuff to lure the zombies away, and later you even "upgrade" it by stuffing a stick of dynamite into the bottle, making it a time bomb that actually attracts enemies before it explodes.
  • Mystia Lorelei of the Touhou series. As revealed in Bohemian Archive in Japanese Red, she's started a business of selling grilled lamprey, which is rumored to cure night-blindness. Business is booming since her area has an inexplicably high amount of people suffering from night-blindness, and when people eat the food she serves, they find themselves miraculously cured! Of course, the fact that Mystia has the ability to induce night-blindness on others and can cancel it at anytime she wants may have something to do with it as well.
  • In Skyrim, the Thieves Guild has fallen on such hard times that their recruiter, Brynjolf, is forced to run a sideline of business selling 'Falmerblood Elixir' to the citizens of Riften.

Webcomics[edit | hide]

Web Original[edit | hide]

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The aptly named Flim Flam from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo.
    • Though, to be fair, his "Lotsa Luck Joy Juice" does work as a cure for lycanthropy, making him a tidy profit in the pilot episode.
  • Whoever made and sold to Dr. Zoidberg "Dr. Flimflam's Miracle Cream" probably qualifies, though they're never seen.
  • Betty, Koko, and Bimbo in Betty Boop, M.D. sell bottles of "Jippo" (we see the bottles getting filled from a fire hydrant).
  • A huckster sells weakling Daffy Duck a bottle of muscle tonic (ingredients: 10% tap water, 90% hot mustard).
  • Dr. Charlatan, whom The Smurfs dealt with in "The Miracle Smurfer".
  • In Jackie Chan Adventures, Uncle's Identical Grandfather sells bottles of "Chun Gai Surprise" in The Wild West. Near the end of the episode he uses it's contents to melt down a rifle.

Uncle: Chun Gai Surprise: good for digestion, bad for everything else.

  • They're actually honest about how good their cider-making invention is is, but everything else? He's Flim, he's Flam, perfect examples nonpareliii!
  • An episode of Fievel's American Tails features Dr. Travis T. Hippocrates, who commissions an unknowing Fievel to pass out candy to everyone in town that gives them hiccups so that the doctor can sell them a placebo cure.
  1. There's some Fridge Brilliance here: Most frontier medicines were basically hard liquor for all intents and purposes.