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A Nundle medicine show

14 Jul

Some time ago now I decided to turn oral historian with my grandmother, pumping her for facts about medicine shows. I didn’t get the chance to begin until the week I spent in Sydney recently (just got back to Brisbane actually, after a week also in Melbourne), grabbing the chance for a late-afternoon session. We talked nineteen to the dozen, if I’ve remembered that expression rightly, and I hope for many sessions more.


My grandmother was born in 1933 in Hanging Rock, in rugged country just out of tiny Nundle, north-west New South Wales, Australia. Nundle was a town which had seen thronging crowds during the nineteenth-century gold rushes, but had well and truly dwindled by the time of the Depression in her youth.


Nundle valley from the Hanging Rock look-out

As a small kid, at the end of the 1930s and very early 1940s, my grandmother remembers husband-and-wife teams coming to Nundle and setting up on a platform or the back or a cart on vacant land near the Town Hall. The wife would draw clusters of kids by hanging toffee apples from strings and arranging contests to eat them, or inviting people to seize a sixpence with their mouths in a bucket of flour, hands bound behind their backs. Once a crowd had gathered, the husband would shout out a sing-song spiel about the wonders of the panacea they were peddling. It cured gout, he would say; it healed this, it salved that. ‘And people would buy it’, my grandmother said. ‘There wasn’t a doctor in Nundle then – there’d been quacks before that, but no doctor. Everyone had medicines they’d bought some way or another’.

My grandmother also remembers door-to-door peddlers coming all the way out to their place at Hanging Rock, perhaps hitching a ride with the mail run, and otherwise getting about on foot. (Such a huge amount of effort for what must surely have been a paltry return). The peddlars would string a box-shaped case around their necks which snapped open to reveal serried rows of bottles and ointments. On top of that, everyone in the district had a medicine box of their own, bought from the Red Cross and full of bandages and books with anatomical information from which she learned a risqué thing or two.

During my grandmother’s childhood, there was also a travelling dentist who took rooms in the hotel at Nundle (the Peel Inn, I think it was called) and pulled teeth for a couple of weeks at a time. He was a drunk, and scary because of it. But people like my grandmother’s stepmother went to him anyway. They would wait their turn in the hotel foyer, listening, perhaps, to the groans of other people inside his room. And afterwards, they would return home ruefully, balled handkerchief in fist, their gums full of blood and air.

Laced with eucalyptus oil

9 Jan

So I’ve heard plenty of people say that sometimes you can spend your whole time searching for something when there are answers right in front of you. But as a 19thC historian, I’ve never really thought about that applying to my own research.  

Last night my grandparents were over for dinner and I said casually, “so were there ever medicine shows when you were young?” “Oh yes”, my grandmother answered serenely. Turns out in Nundle in the 1930s and 1940s, before she moved to Sydney during the war, there were always medicine-sellers who pulled up in town. They sold lineaments and proprietary medicines – Watkin’s was a big one, she said – plenty of bottles laced with eucalyptus oil. Before their song-and-conjuring acts, the medicine showmen would string up toffee-apples for the children, inviting them to an eating-contest with their hands tied behind their backs, drawing a crowd.

Turns out, too, that my grandfather’s father was actually a door-to-door salesman of his own medicines during the Depression (!). He gave them the profoundly unromantic name of Rulecko (his surname was Rule) – nothing so glamorous as Dr Wistan’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, or as exotic as Wa-Hoo Bitters – so perhaps he didn’t do so well out of them. Apparently there are still some bottles of the stuff at their home. On Friday, then, I am going to begin a little oral history, turning interviewer for a change.

Ouch. (The American tooth show).

7 Jan

In the city market at Baltimore, one day around the turn of the twentieth century, Madame du Bois and her husband, Dr Andrew Dupré “pulled teeth and sold liniment to the accompaniment of a small brass band. Dupré was an extraordinary character who dressed in the uniform of a French chasseur, complete with doeskin breeches and a tall horsehair helmet. The hilt of his sword contained a forceps which he used to draw teeth as the band played ‘tooth-pulling music’ to drown the screams of his customers”.

A riff on the tooth-show theme was provided by Professor Seguar, an American showman who toured England in the same period. “Dressed in an eccentric Western outfit with a broad-brimmed sombrero, the Professor would pitch his Seguar’s Oil and Prairy Flower Mixture, then proceed to open his ‘dental clinic’ in a tiny cabin built on the back of his carriage. As he moved into the cabin with each victim, Professor Seguar lit a miner’s lamp on his giant headpiece and his band struck up the Negro spiritual ‘Who’s dat callin’s so sweet?'”. And then of course there was the inimitable Dr “Painless” Parker, the only dentist to have extracted 357 teeth from a vaudeville stage, who went about in a top hat and dental adornments. He posted advertisements four storeys high on assorted New York buildings, proclaiming: “Painless Parker – I am positively IT in painless dentistry!”.

(This material comes from Brook McNamara’s Step Right Up (1976), p. 33, a treat of a book on American medicine shows, and from the Pierre Fauchard’s dental academy website. For brief references to Australian tooth-shows on this blog thus far, see here and here).

Chasing the rainbow

6 Jan


One of the sweetest little tidbits of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time is Lisa Lang’s E. W. Cole: Chasing the Rainbow (2007). It comes as a tiny, slim-line volume, just a little bigger than the purse-size rectangular tins of lollies I used to raid at my grandparents’ as a child. Reading it is like eating sherbet: the prose fairly fizzes along. This is partly because Lang has such an eye for evocative detail: her descriptions of the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s and boom-time Melbourne in the 1870-80s so exactly fit what I’ve been reading and dreaming about lately, they took me by surprise. And the other reason the prose is so lively is because of the extraordinary, charming kookiness of E. W. Cole himself.

Here was a bookseller who acquired a Tasmanian wife in the 1870s by post, and who afterwards lived with her and a handful of marmosets on the upper balcony of his Bourke-street Book Arcade. Here, too, was a prominent man who opposed the White Australia Policy when it was instituted in 1901, and who wrote wistful tracts about the federation of religions and the abolition of the nation-state. How not to be seduced by Lang’s description of the way Cole reinvented the Eastern Market, taking over the lease after it had fallen into disuse? He restored it to the happy chaos it had once enjoyed, hiring brass bands in the afternoon, and cramming it full of stalls, offbeat acts, and sideshows. “There was a live dental show performed by the Great American Painless Dentist”, Lang writes (aha! another tooth-show!). “There were Madame Xena’s Shilling Shocks from Scientifically Controlled Electricity – Guaranteed to Double Male Vitality”, Madame Zinga Lee’s tarot-readings, lady wrestlers, phrenologists, “and for the young toughs, Charlie the Tattoo Man”.

My only misgiving about this book is that it wasn’t long enough. It was such a bite-size publication that I had finished it in barely more than the tram-ride to Richmond. So much of the material felt to me too condensed – but perhaps that it is only because I was enjoying it so much that I wanted more. Will definitely be interested in reading anything else Lang has written, having now whet my appetite.

e. e. cummings’ medicine show

4 Dec

Step right up – here you are! You may not have cinderella but if you haven’t it’s a cinch and you’ve got something else and no matter what it is this little box will save your life one dose alone irrevocably guaranteed to instantaneously eliminate permanently prevent and otherwise completely cure toothache sleeplessness clubfeet mumps stuttering varicoseveins youthful errors tonsillitis rheumatism lockjaw pyorrhea stomachache hernia tuberculosis nervous debility impotence halitosis and falling down stairs or your money back.

e. e. cummings, Him

Any text on the medicine show which begins with an e. e. cummings poem on the same has my interest whet. Brooks McNamara’s book Step Right Up arrived via abebooks yesterday and I am in already.

Professor Hartley’s tooth-show

14 Nov

Coincidence. I want straight from the dentist to the library, and started reading the Bulletin‘s theatrical pages from 1886. And there was a review of a ‘tooth-show’, a particular variant of the medicine show, performed by ‘Professor’ W H Hartley in an oversized tent at Sydney’s Belmore Park.

‘We have seen as many shows as most people, from dog-shows to barmaid exhibitions, but we confess to having but a limited experience in tooth-shows’, wrote the Bulletin‘s redoubtable reviewer. The show began in a blare of music and ‘some really good singing’, he added sarcastically – after all, how much music does a man want, who has the jaw-ache? The good professor then took his stand on the plank, ‘and having fixed an electric-light on his forehead, declared he was ready to remove all teeth of every make, shape, and state of decay’.

Now, it seems, a great line of men, women, and children appeared, queueing to take part in ‘the tooth-drawing procession’ on stage. Each patients’ treatment was over in twenty seconds: ‘the Professor cast his light down upon the cavity, gave a nod, smiled, touched something, and the tooth was out. Any attempt at an encore was sternly repressed by the patient, but there was no end to his satisfaction’.

This frightening review brings to mind an account of the career of Edward Irham Cole, an Englishman who ended up performing travelling Wild West Shows in Australia after the turn of the 20thC. Cole, ‘the Australian Barnum’, began his theatrical life as a cheapjack, lecturer, and medicine-cum-dental-treatment showman. He would discourse upon scientific wonders &c., perhaps deliver a song and dance, and then offer to relieve his audience of a tooth or two.

(On Cole, see Barbara Garlick, ‘Australian Travelling Theatre, 1890-1935’, PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 1994).

Magnolia balm meets Scientific Ozone Inhaler

8 Aug

So I mentioned another time about my friend Cath, who collects odd lists. One of her latest was a list of West Australian invertebrates, whose names are sticky with poetic possibilities – each almost a haiku on its own. (Here’s a few: Aggregating sea cucumber / Alaska falsejingle / Eccentric sand dollar / Ubiquitous brittle star).

The names of the patent medicines sold in the late nineteenth century are almost as resinous. They combine a mix of romantic herbal titles with those adopting a professional, clinical air. (This is still true of cosmetic-cum-pharmaceutical offerings, of course – but how telling it is as an insight into the catholic possibilities of medical invention as it appeared at the time. There, on the pharmacist’s shelves, was a happy gaggle of homeopathic and ‘scientific’ remedies, from which one could choose according to whim or proclivity). Here’s a list of American patent medicines imported by the Alabama opportunist Frank Weston, and sold in Australia alongside his own Wizard Oil:

Dr Merritt’s Scientific Ozone Inhaler
Dr Wistan’s Balsam of Wild Cherry
Dr Pierce’s Purgative Pellets
Hagan’s Magnolia Balm
Ozone or Active Oxygen
Pond’s Extract
Glen’s Sulphur Soap
American Bay Rum
Patey’s Cold Cream
Laid’s Bloom of Youth.

The intermingling of the herbarium and the laboratory in Weston’s advertising for medical remedies brings to mind what Fred Nadis has said about a ‘popular modernism’ at work in nineteenth-century America. Popular modernism, he says, was the stance many people took towards the scientific and technological advancements associated with modernisation: a sense of wonder at these things which preserved a belief in the possibility of fantastic happenings and miracle folk cures.

Weston advertised this list in Melbourne’s Lorngnette (28 August 1878), a theatrical program. I’m not sure whether he blanket-issued his advertisements in a range of colonial newspapers, or whether he only targeted theatrical offerings, believing that theatregoers were unusally susceptible to his panaceas and charms. Given his whole marketing style was theatrical, conducted via the medium of the medicine show, I am assuming the latter.

A Melbourne medicine show

19 Jul

In his charming memoir, An Actor Abroad (1880), the American actor Edmund Leathes describes a Melbourne medicine show. Sometime during the 1860s, a snake charmer came to Melbourne, he writes, ‘who advertised a wonderful cure for snake-bites’. Picture him in the nineteenth-century equivalent of a fake tan, kohl beneath the eyes, colourful tat tied turbanlike at the forehead, fingers gaudy with rings. This charmer rented one of the halls in town, and set out a Medusa’s array of venomous snakes in his nightly show. Before those assembled he would regularly induce a cobra to bite a dog or a rabbit, Leathes tells us. He would then apply his miraculous cure to the insensible animal, and in a short time it would revive. One night the snake charmer asked if a member of the audience wanted to be practised on in the same way. Extraordinarily, someone volunteered.  (Could this be true?). The punter was fresh-off-the-boat, Leathes says, as if this was enough to explain his credulity. He came onto the stage and was duly bitten and soon after died.

Medicine Shows, or, the Promiscuity of Popular Theatrical Forms

18 Jul

Before encountering the Wizard Oil Prince in the archives, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a medicine show. Now I’ve got hold of a copy of Ann Anderson’s Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2000) and know vaguely more. The general gist: a bloke rocks up on a street corner with a cartload of bottles labelled ‘Panacea’ or ‘Miracle Cure’ or something like it. He commences to treat the passers-by to a show. Perhaps he sings to a small guitar, tells jokes, has a monkey with an accordion, a parrot screeching at his ear. At the end of his performance, he extols the virtues of his product and sells them to those gathered round. (Or not as the case may be: Augustus Baker Peirce said he tried his own medicine show after witnessing Weston do his thing on the Victorian goldfields. He hired a theatre, treated the crowd to his antics, but no one wanted to fork out cash for his cure).

What interests me about the medicine show is what it shows about the promiscuity of popular theatrical forms. As Anderson says, ‘medicine showfolk borrowed from any and all popular entertainment forms’ : banjo-picking, mesmerist displays, magic tricks, ventriloquism, comedy, melodrama, and more (pp. 11-12). That promiscuity makes this historical field both fascinating and difficult to think about clearly. So far I have this idea of writing about ‘mystic theatre’ as a catch-all term for the kinds of shows I’m interested in: mental telepathy displays, mesmerist exhibitions, levitation stunts, public seances, lectures on spiritualism, etc. But those shows all overlap profusely with a range of other performances. Fred Nadis has written about the American ‘wonder show’, for example, a sort of gee-whiz exhibition of popular scientific phenomena. Variations of so-called wonder shows were performed by ‘medicine showfolk’ , by impresarios doing stupid things with electricity, by the entrepreneurs of exhibition venues,  and also by exactly the people I’m interested in: the practitioners of mystic phenomena on stage. The same sorts of performances also appeared in the second acts of minstrel shows and the variety/vaudeville formats which eventually overtook them. And they also appeared in circuses and related freak shows. Coming up with a definition to cope with all that incorrigible overlapping of forms is proving a tricksy thing.

Other books from Anderson’s bibliography:

David Armstrong and E M Armstrong, The Great American Medicine Show (NY: Prentice Hall, 1991).

David Cohen and Ben Greenwood, The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment (North Pomfret, Vermont: David and Charles, 1981).

Grete de Francesco, The Power of the Charlatan (New Haven: Yale UP, 1939).

Brooks McNamara, Step Right Up (NY: Doubleday, 1976).

Roy Porter, Health for Sale: Quackery in England, 1660-1850 (Manchester, Manchester UP, 1989).

Owen Stratton, Medicine Man (Norman: Uni of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

C J S Thompson, The Quacks of Old London (London: Bretano’s Ltd, 1928).

Bim Mason, Street Theatre and Other Outdoor Performances (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Frank Weston, the Wizard Oil Prince

18 Jul

The figure of Frank Weston is everywhere in those 1860-80s papers I was reading in Mitchell: Weston, ‘the Wizard Oil Prince’ from America, as he dubbed himself. He advertised his Wizard Oil and Magic Pill panaceas everywhere in the theatrical journals, and ended up with his own theatrical company in Melbourne. Everything he did was infused with a Yankee genius for self-promotion. Augustus Baker Peirce even worked for Weston for a while, spruiking his cure-all Wizard Oil, before unsuccessfully trying to replicate Weston’s success by promoting a panacea of his own.

Weston claims to have been the first to bring the travelling medicine show from America to Australia: wonder how true that is?


From a pamphlet held by the State Library of Victoria, entitled:

Frank Weston’s Australian companion : a selection of valuable recipes for cooking, &c., with much information about horses, cattle, social, witty, and other important subjects.