"You're okay, baby. That stuff was just 90% water, 10% alcohol."
— Dr. Matthew Freeman
, to his wife Sarah, on the "miracle tonic" she drank to cure her morning sickness.
A specific type of itinerant Con Man
who makes his living by selling products which could not possibly work as advertised
. The classic version sells literal snake oil (i.e. a product with 'medicinal' properties and exotic, unknown ingredients.)
This shady dealer is 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
, frequently being extremely attractive to local women because he's "seen the world" (or at least can convincingly pretend that he has). He's often inexplicably sympathetic, given his career as a seller of fake medicine to legitimately sick persons.
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. A Snake Oil Salesman is also known as a "quack", short for "quacksalver", 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
Snake oil does
exist, and it is a traditional Chinese medicine drug. Snake oil is prepared from the fat of Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis), and in traditional Chinese medicine it is used on rheumatism, arthtitis and muscle and joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil brings relief. According to 1989 analysis on Chinese snake oil, published in the Western Journal of Medicine, Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. (Salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3's, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil). Research since the 1980s has demonstrated the necessity—and efficacy—of omega-3 fatty acids. These acids not only reduce inflammation, such as arthritis pain, but also improve cognitive function and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and even depression. The Chinese medicine does not claim snake oil was an all-curing panacea; rather that it works well in the functions where it is intended. In comparison, rattlesnake fats contain only 8.5 percent EPA, making it at best an inferior and at worst a fraudulent substitute. Of course, most 19th-century snake oil salesmen did not sell the genuine Chinese product. Even those hucksters who did sell actual snake oil would likely have sold the rattlesnake variety, nearly useless for any ache-relieving medicinal purpose. But the original Chinese purveyors of snake oil offered something that probably did exactly what they claimed it would do: help fellow workers relieve the pain of their labors. 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 and pain relieving agent.
Expect to find actual
Snake Oil Salesmen at the local Medicine Show
. The Beat Bag
is his hat.
NB: To count as an example, the Snake Oil Salesman has to be knowingly
hawking snake oil. Well-intentioned ignorance fits better under Worst Aid
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Anime & Manga
- Nuopu's grandmother in The Tibetan Dog
- Daphne, a Filler Villain from Fairy Tail, peddles "Metamo-chan", a kind of kabob she says helps weight loss. When the heroes meet her, she outright admits it's all bogus. Particularly because she's less interested in scamming them and more interested in catching Natsu to power her giant mechanical dragon.
- In Welcome to the N.H.K., Megumi Kobayashi ends up becoming one when she gets roped into a Ponzi scheme in order to support herself and her Hikkikomori brother. She ropes in her old classmate Tatsuhiro Sato, and when he tries to get out of the scheme, keeps him in (and ropes his friends in) with a dietary supplement which, according to her, is suited for helping hikkikomori overcome their condition.
- Dr. Doxey in the Lucky Luke comic series. He is portrayed more unsympathetic than it is usual for the trope.
- 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.
- Swindle is one of these in Transformers Ongoing. He sells custom Cybertronian guns to the human populace to protect against an invading Decepticons using artificial humans. The guns also allow Decepticons to take control of human buyers.
- According to the comic book adaptation of The Haunted Mansion, Hitchhiking Ghost Phineas was one of these, having died from taking a tumble off a cliff during one of his escapes from an angry mob. Trying to take his trade into the afterlife at the Mansion results in trouble with the resident ghosts, so he ends up futily hitchhiking to find better pastures.
- The Great Alicorn Hunt has a unicorn calling himself "Professor" Cottonmouth who sold a group of pregnant mares an elixir that caused severe birth defects, resulting in a number of stillbirths, and a few foals that died within a short time, and some maternal deaths as well. Ten odd years later only two foals that were exposed have survived, one of them by ascending to alicornhood in utero.
- 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. He was more the Lovable Rogue type, and after finding out Dorothy ran away, tricks her into going back home by using his fortunetelling act to make her think her aunt is ill.
- Doc Terminus from Pete's Dragon is a villainous version - and indeed, his song, "Passamaquaddy" is practically a Snake Oil Salesman theme song. 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.
- The Stooges in Snow White and the Three Stooges were this until they rescued Prince Charming from an assassination attempt.
- One of these serves as Bumbling Sidekick to The Outlaw Josey Wales.
- Tin Men is about shady aluminum siding salesmen.
- Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer is clearly a victim of charlatans like this, even though we never see who they are, buying quack remedies to give to Tom.
- 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. (A Running Gag in the book was that he was unsuccessful because "nobody wanted to oil any snakes."
- 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's 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.
- While no specific people fit this in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Arthur Weasely is put in charge of the newly created Office of the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects. Its sole directive is to weed out those trying to sell illegal counterfeit and faux protective items and spells.
- The only real mention of someone is a wizard who tries to sell Ginny a such a item, a necklace 'to protect her pretty neck'. Arthur threatens him, saying if he were only on duty.
- Judging by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, some of Hogwarts' sixth and seventh year students turn into these around O.W.L. exam time, selling dubious brain stimulants such as Baruffio's Brain Elixir and alleged powdered dragon claw (which was actually dried Doxy droppings; genuine dragon claw actually does help but a student would be unlikely to get it).
- C.M.O.T. Dibbler of Discworld fame might be best known for selling pig-sausages in a bun, but he'll turn to this if there's a profit to made. For example, when a dragon was rampaging the city, he was remarkably quick to procure and sell "dragon lotion".
- In the children's book "The Great American Elephant Chase", Michael Keenan makes a living running a traveling elephant show. However, he has a sideline selling bottles of "elephant tonic", proving its healing powers by publicly curing a crippled girl. Unbeknownst to the audience, the girl is his daughter and perfectly healthy.
- This is Zigzagged with Sylvester McMonkey McBean In the Dr. Seuss' book The Sneeches and Other Stories. Technically, he's no peddling "snake oil", seeing as the services he sells actually work and does exactly what he claims. However, he cleverly uses his Star-On Machine and Star-Off Machine to milk the Sneeches for everything they've got, playing on their obsession over those dumb stars.
- An episode of Kung Fu featured a woman named Theodora (played by Diana Muldaur) whose "magic elixir" was stream water mixed with leaves.
- 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):
: 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 everything 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.
- Invoked for a quick gag in Jim Henson's adaptation of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas , where Emmet's father is said to have been an unsuccessful snake oil salesman: "There just weren't that many people that wanted to oil a snake!"
- 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.
- Harry the Hat on Cheers. Usually he only appeared in the opening sequence to scam a few bucks out of the bar patrons or staff (usually, Sam was the only one who didn't fall for it) but the one episode where he played a central role, he was a Lovable Rogue type, helping Sam and the others outwit an even bigger crook.
- One named Zerbo was a recurring character on Cowboy G-Men, often using a Paper-Thin Disguise and running afoul of the hero's sidekick Stoney Crockett. He also tried other scams, but evaded prosecution by helping the heroes out of jams.
- In Muppets Fairy Tale Theater's adaptation of "The Emperor's New Clothes", Rizzo the rat gets arrested for selling "Rizzo's Miracle Elixir" as a cure-all. He talks his way out of trouble by distracting the emperor with the "new clothes" scam.
- In Copper, as per the page quote, Sarah Freeman is sold a "miracle cure" by a traveling salesman. It turns out to just be a mix of water and alcohol, and Sarah's physician husband, Matthew, proceeds to beat the shit out of said salesman in front of a crowd of potential scam victims.
- On Good Eats, Alton pretended to be one of these in the celery episode, selling a "tonic" made from celery seeds. Complete with a stooge in the audience claiming that it made his hair grow back.
- Referenced through flashbacks in Forever when Henry remembers the classic type of snake-oil dealers when investigating deaths connected with a modern-day snake-oil business. The modern-day outfit is selling a compound that, unbeknownst to its customers (and even its main spokesman/salesman), is made from human brains, resulting in fatal prion infections in people who use it.
- Paul McCartney plays a snake oil salesman in the "Say Say Say" music video while Michael Jackson plays his accomplice.
- "Tarred and Feathered" by Stormwitch is about the town-to-town salesmen of the wild west era.
- The subject of "Cosmik Debris' from Frank Zappa.
- The subject of Steve Earle's "Snake Oil", though the "salesmen" he sings about are crooked politicians.
- 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."
- 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!!.
- Adolfo Pirelli, a.k.a. Daniel Higgins in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who sold a "Miracle Elixir" that was primarily concocted of piss and ink. He becomes Sweeney's first kill after twigging to Sweeney's true identity as Benjamin Barker and attempting to blackmail him out of half his earnings.
- 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.
: Try it Gamal! It feels great until you realize you can't walk!