The snake oil salesman and the charlatan

2nd September 2020. Reading Time: 10 minutes General. 2020 page views. 0 comments.

Snake oil salesman and charlatan are often words that some people use to describe certain people or certain activities of those within the paranormal field.  Let's look into the history of these phrases and discuss their use within the paranormal field. Is this a fair representation of what we do? I don't think it is and this is why.

A snake oil salesman and a charlatan walk into a bar ....... it sounds like the start of a joke.  In some ways it is a joke, but not as it may seem.  Snake oil salesman and charlatan are often words that many skeptics or even cynical people sometimes use to describe certain people or certain activities of those within the paranormal field.  Is this really a fair representation of the work that goes on in the field?  No of course it isn't, however, we cannot deny the fact that while the majority of the people within the field have good and genuine intentions, it does not take away from the fact that there is unethical and fraudulent activity going on.  It all starts with the term Snakeoil Salesman.

Who is the snake oil salesman?

Snake oil has long been used as a term to describe mystical 'cures' that people feel are a placebo.  The term represents lies and deception.  If we go back to the 1800s, thousands of Chinese workers arrived in the United States to work on the Transcontinental Railroad.  With them, they brought many of their medicinal remedies.  One of these was snake oil.  This was made from the oil of the Chinese Water-Snake.  It was a remedy that could aid inflammation by reducing it thanks to it being rich in mega-3 acids.  It was a great remedy for arthritis, bursitis, and sore muscles, something which many workers would be experiencing.

By the end of the 1800s, this became commercialized by the patent medicine industry, most famously by Clarke Stanley.  At the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, he slit open rattlesnakes and then boiled them.  He claimed that he had learned about the healing power of the snake's oil from Hopi medicine men.  

Image Source: The Tribune

There was however a problem.  The oil from a rattlesnake did not contain the same amount of healing properties.  In fact, the oil from the Chinese water snake is three times more potent than that of a rattlesnake.  In 1917, Federal investigators seized a shipment of the snake oil and had it tested.  Much to their surprise, there was no evidence of any snake oil in the bottle.  What there was however was traces of mineral oil, turpentine, beef fat, and red pepper.  It was this revelation that cemented the term 'snake oil' into history.  The oil which had been advertised in newspapers citing it as a cure for cancer and blood disease was nothing more than smelly water.

For many years, different persons living in the mountains of Sullivan and Ulster counties have made very snug sums every year in the sale of rattlesnake oil, which is believed to possess wonderful curative powers by a large proportion of the inhabitants of not only those, but adjoining counties.

Many snakes are killed during the summer season, but the grand gathering of the crop is in the fall, when they have returned to their dens and wintering places. These retreats are well known to the snake hunters, and they choose sunny days in October and November for raiding them.

On such days, the reptiles crawl out of their dens in the rocks and huddle together by the score, different varieties frequently being found massed together. The snakes are dull and sluggish at that time of year and come out to bask in the sun.

The hunters arm themselves with old-fashioned flails, and when they come upon a pile of the snakes proceed at once to thrash the life out of them. But few escape. The rattlesnakes are assorted from the other species and carried home, where the oil is tried out as lard is from pork.

No treatment of the oil is necessary. It is bottled up and is ready for the market.

As high as $1 an ounce has been paid for it by believers in its value as a liniment for rheumatism and all kindred ills.

The snake hunters of the Shawangunk mountains receive many orders from the showmen for live rattlesnakes, for which they receive from 50 cents to $2 each, according to size and condition; but during the past summer an industry in snakes sprung up which is entirely new and novel and bids fair to become the most profitable of any of the branches of the trade, for it has its foundation in a new fashion in female adornment.

This industry is the supplying of rattlesnake skins for ladies’ belts.

The Freeman in Kingston, New York, Reprinted in The Daily Evening Tribune January 31st 1884

The Charlatan

The term charlatan was around long before that of the snake oil salesman.  It seems it appeared in the English language in the 17th century.  Back in Medieval times, there were many people who claimed they had medical skills and would sell medicine throughout Italy.  Much like the snake oil, however, there was nothing special about what they were selling.  They were indeed selling the hope of a cure with nothing more than a placebo that was fake.  Many of these people came from a village called Cerreto.  The term 'Cerrentano' was used to describe these so-called medical experts selling their own version of snake oil.  They would use someone to attract customers much like a person at a sideshow yelling "Step right up and see the show".  The Italian word for chatter is 'ciarlare'.  Because it became so synonymous with the 'cerrentanos' of the village, the spelling changed to 'ciarlatano'.  It wasn't long before it was adopted by the English language as Charlatan.

It soon became a term to describe many of the fraudulent psychic mediums during the Victorian Era.  It again represents people offering a form of false hope through fraudulent means.  Some took money from people claiming to contact the other side but would use fake devices or crack their knuckles as an example to 'rap' on the table as a sign they were communicating from spirit.  

Harry Houdini from his book 'A magician among the spirits'

The Snake oil Salesman and the Charlatan in the modern paranormal field

Commonly you will find different discussions about the paranormal field on social media and there is always someone who will chime in and say something like "This person is nothing but a charlatan".  A lot of different mystical items which are sold are also often referred to as 'snake oil'.  Now we know where these terms come from so it is easier to understand what the intention behind them is.  The question becomes "Are these terms a fair representation of the paranormal field?"

I would disagree here and I think most of you will too, however, I can certainly understand why this perception is still out there.  While the majority of the people in the paranormal field have genuine intentions and are really just plodding along searching for their own answers, there are those that purposely exploit the vulnerable and who purposely fake paranormal phenomena to make it seem like they are genuine.  Nothing makes a paranormal investigator angrier than when a person is exposed for fraud.  Many of us feel that it reflects on the paranormal field as a whole.  I mean how can we be taken seriously when there are people knowingly deceiving people for a few likes?  What about those who manipulate the vulnerable into handing over money for what is a snake oil cure when they know full well that what they are offering is nothing but a placebo?  Whether they find a way to justify it to themselves or not, it is a self-serving methodology and these terms are fitting for those people.  The thing is though, this does not represent the majority of the paranormal field.  The sad thing is that genuine paranormal research doesn't get quite the same exposure as sensationalism does.  If someone wants their 15 minutes of fame, you only have to make a video and there will be enough people that believe it.  Suddenly it goes viral and the news outlets pick it up because they know people will read it.  They don't care about the validity of the video, they just want the clicks.  A well-researched and evidence-based academic paper doesn't have quite the same mainstream appeal so it will never get the attention it deserves. 

So while the majority of the paranormal field is out there being genuine, you have that very small proportion that is 'selling snake oil' for likes and sometimes money.  This sensationalism is what gets the media attention so to many, this is all the casual observer sees.  They don't see the real work that goes on out in the field.  They only see what their news feed shows them and often it is this sensationalism.  I do find that your average paranormal investigator gets quite annoyed with this fact too and there are many in the paranormal field that often throws around the term charlatan probably more out of frustration and anger.  They feel they have seen it all before.  Too many times they have seen people duped by the snake oil salesman so have become disgruntled and understandably quite skeptical about the new claim.  I don't know how many times I have heard people say they have had to go and 'clean up the mess' left behind by a paranormal group who has charged a ridiculous amount of money to 'clear a house'.  I myself have had people reach out and often they have already paid someone to help them and of course, they were just given a bit of snake oil, had their money taken and the problem remains. The paranormal field remains unregulated and this is something that many people complain about.  Of course, if it were to be regulated how exactly would you prove who was genuine and who wasn't when the phenomena itself isn't even proven?  There are so many what-ifs here but at the end of the day, a person decides how they want to spend their money.  While I don't agree with a lot of the things people charge for if there is someone that wants to pay for that service, in some ways that it is on them.  Let's look at equipment as another example.

Years ago, paranormal investigators didn't use equipment (at least not electrical equipment in the way it used today).  Now anyone with a soldering iron can make a piece of equipment and sell it.  You can buy a cheap digital recorder from Target but if you add the term EVP Recorder at the front of it, suddenly the asking price doubles.  You can hack a radio into a spirit box yet you pay hundreds for one someone else has done for you.  If you hire out a venue for an afternoon brunch with friends it is one price.  If you hire out the same venue for a paranormal investigation, the price triples.  If someone wants to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a device, that is really up to them.  The people who sell these devices however are very careful not to guarantee that someone will talk to a ghost because no one can make that guarantee.  To cover themselves, a lot of the manufacturers put 'for entertainment purposes' on the packaging to avoid legal problems.  I mean a person can easily say "mine didn't find me a ghost I want a refund" and technically they would then have to be given a refund under commercial law that says a product must do what it is advertised to do.  The 'for entertainment purposes' is the disclaimer that avoids that regulation. 

So is this how we should see the paranormal field as a whole?  For entertainment purposes only?

I take my research pretty seriously as do many people in the field.  In a lot of ways, the commercialism of the paranormal field is seen as 'snake oil' by the mainstream.  The question is, how do we change that perception?  Will sensationalism always win?


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