MEDICINE SHOW: Conning People and Making Them Like It by Mary Calhoun

MEDICINE SHOW: Conning People and Making Them Like It

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The razzle-dazzle of the pitch doctor selling Kickapoo Indian Sagwa or Hamlin Wizard Oil has been replaced by the TV aspirin commercial, and Calhcun--along with Cliff Mann, a survivor of one of the last, motorized shows of the Thirties, whom she quotes extensively--makes you positively nostalgic for their return. Some of the patent medicines contained cocaine, opium and/or as much as 40% alcohol and there are reported cases of widows bilked of thousands of dollars and whole towns tricked by one pitchman, The Diamond King, who ""died"" at every stop leaving a heartrendingly penniless widow. But Calhoun shows that most practitioners regarded conning as an art, gave good value in entertainment and excitement, and considered their products harmless. Princess Lotus Blossom, later Madame V. Pasteur, made and lost fortunes selling ""Tiger Fat"" which she manufactured in hotel bathrooms, and the doctors' exotic pitches for such ""remedies"" were almost always accompanied by musicians, comic vaudeville routines, buck and wing dances, acrobats and magic tricks--the only entertainment some small towns ever saw. Perhaps it's only in retrospect that the ballyhoo takes on a glittering innocence; McNamara's Step Right Up (adult, 1975) struck the same chord. This simpler, more personalized saga duplicates much of McNamara's spiel, but with a charm of its own.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Harper & Row