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Patent Medicine & the Medicine Show - Page 2



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Between entertainment acts, the “Professor” would lecture the crowd about his miraculous elixir, mixing grandiose claims with interesting anecdotes and stories. Often the audience was encouraged to join in with singing entertainers. "Muscle man" acts were especially popular in these shows, in order to impress the crowd with the strength and vigor he obtained from a particular potion. During these presentations, the “Professor,” frequently employed shills, who would step forward from the crowd and offer "unsolicited" testimonials about the benefits of the medicine for sale. Other “plants” within the audience, who had an obvious affliction, such as a limp, would shuffle forward and challenge the “Medicine Man” and his claims. Amazingly, after the “Professor” gave the individual a teaspoon of his “magical elixir,” the rube was suddenly cured. Though many, no doubt, knew that these antics were a bit unbelievable, they wanted to believe that this particular cure really worked.


Medicine Show Wagon

A medicine wagon was often utilized by small operations, within which  were made the elixirs and tonics.



Sig Molitamo, Cuban Wonder Fire Eater, Kickapoo Medicine CoIn a addition to the “Mom and Pop” operations that wound their way through small towns and rural areas with their “Medicine Wagons,” there were several large manufacturers, that presented “Medicine Shows” in a big manner. The most well known of these was the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. Headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut, far away from the Kickapoo tribe, who primarily lived on a reservation in Oklahoma at the time. Founded by non-Native Americans, John E. "Doc" Healy and Charles H. "Texas Charley" Bigelow, the pair called their large headquarters building "The Principal Wigwam." This building served as both a factory and living quarters for employees, as well as housing offices for the two owners. In 1881, Doc Healy, who owned a brokerage house in Boston, got the idea of promoting medical elixirs using Indian names and the following year, took on his partner, Charles Bigelow. Healy was in charge of hiring the performers – both Indians and white performers that included jugglers, acrobats, dancers, musicians, fire-eaters, and more. Texas Charley managed the medicine side of the business; as well as the "Doctors" or "Professors" who gave "Medical Lectures."


Kickapoo Indian MedicineThese two partners would send as many as 25 shows at a time across the country. During the shows, all the entertainers were in flamboyant costume, the Native Americans covered in feathers, colored beads, and often carrying crude weapons. The “Professors” often wore tuxedo style jackets, high silk hats, and clothing that displayed gold studded buttons, glitter, silk, fringe and more.


According to the advertisements and the “professors,” the medicines sold were “compounded according to secret ancient Kickapoo Indian tribal formulas.” In fact, ingredients often did include herbs that were used by Native Americans, including blood root, feverwort, poke, slippery elm, oak bark, and other natural products. Selling for 50 cents to a dollar per bottle, these medicines guaranteed to cure all manner of ailments.


Company shows featured Native American style entertainment including horseback riding, Pow Wows, dances, and invocations to various spirits in darkened tents. One popular product was Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, which was touted as a Blood, Liver, and Stomach Regulator. This was said to have been based on a Native American Herbal Remedy; but, in actuality, it was a was a mixture of alcohol, stale beer, and a strong laxative such as aloe. The Kickapoo Indian Sagwa would serve as the inspiration for Al Capp's "Kickapoo Joy Juice," featured in the comic strip, "Li'l Abner." The company also sold several other patent medicines such as Kickapoo Indian Oil, Kickapoo Cough Cure, and Kickapoo Worm Remedy, claiming their basis in Indian herbal medicine. The benefit of claiming traditional native origins was that it was nearly impossible to disprove.


Encyclopedia of Valuable Information, 32 page pamphlet, Kickapoo Indian Medicine Co., 1894

Encyclopedia of Valuable Information, 32 page pamphlet, Kickapoo

 Indian Medicine Co., 1894


One of the most popular performers in the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show was a man named Dr. John Johnson. Though he looked, acted, and had the knowledge of an Indian Medicine Man, he was not of Indian heritage. However, for more than 20 years, he believed that he was.


In actuality, he had been kidnapped from from Saco, Maine's Factory Island by Mi’kmaq Indians from Nova Scotia in 1834, when he was just five years. Brought up to believe he was a member of the tribe, he learned traditional Indian medical practices, and was regarded among the Indians as a Medicine Man. Later, he was reunited with his family and studied with several American doctors, and was also regarded as a physician by the white people. Dr. Johnson would appear in many of the company's shows.


Along with the company's many shows and performers, they also published a variety of books and pamphlets to promote their products independently. With subjects of Indian life and lore, these publications included such titles as Encyclopedia of Valuable Information, a 32 page pamphlet published in 1894, Life and Scenes among the Kickapoo Indians, a 176 page illustrated book in 1900, The Kickapoo Doctor, a 32 page pamphlet in 1890, and others.


Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show continued into the 1920's when its white owners sold out for almost a half million dollars. However, other medicine shows continued for the next two decades.


The last of these traveling shows was the Hadacol Caravan, which marketed a tonic called "Hadacol", known for both its alleged curative powers and its high alcohol content. Primarily making appearances in the south, the show was known for its notable music acts and Hollywood celebrities. The Caravan came to a sudden halt in 1951, when the Hadacol enterprise fell apart in a scandal.


Today, many medicines from the patent medicine era still survive including Anacin/Anadin, Bayer Aspirin, Bromo-SeltzerCarter's Little Pills, Doan's Pills, Fletcher's Castoria, Geritol, and others. There are also a number of products that once made medicinal claims and were once marketed as patent medicines. Though their ingredients have changed, they are still on the market. These include such products as 7-Up, Angostura Bitters, Coca-Cola, Tonic water and others.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May, 2012.


Also See:


Herbal Balms (Legends' General Store)

Herbal Insect Repellant (Legends' General Store)

Herbal Teas (Legends' General Store)

Herbal Remedies

Herbs, Plants & Healing Properties

Native American Medicine 

Cherokee Medicine


Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show

Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show


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