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Art of the Medicine Show Pitch

Dressed in black velvet, his hair falling in ringlets about his face, and his beard hanging to his waist, Doc Lamereux, renowned Indian fighter, scout, and medicine showman, took the stage. As David Edstrom recalled:

Every button on his coat was a 20-dollar gold piece; around his splendid sombrero was wound a delicately woven lariat like a coiled snake. When he chose to demonstrate his skill the snake became alive, whirling in flashing arcs about his magnificently clothed body.

Many medicine show pitchmen wore frock coats, top hats, and, like Lamereux, displayed their affluence on their vests. Through sartorial splendor, they tried to impress audiences with their worldliness, wealth, and high estate. In the world of showmen, the med show doc was in fact known as a high pitchman, both because he stepped up to deliver his “lecture” from a raised platform, and because he enjoyed high status among his fellows, most of whom worked from a street corner, a box, or a storefront and were known as low pitchmen. He presented whole evenings of folk music, comedy, ventriloquism, contests, and dance-an entire variety show “free, gratis, and for nothing,” all paid for with the dollars his sales pitch drew from the crowd; his, sometimes her, performance had to be the best of the show.

The docs also tried to impress their audiences with rich language. Medicine show doc T.P. Kelley claimed to have read Webster’s dictionary twice and to have coined some of his lecture vocabulary. Words were chosen not only for their poetic value, but also for their obscurity, and long strings of synonyms were used for emphasis. “A cardinal rule,” says Fred Foster Bloodgood, a pitchman in the 1920’s and 1930’s, “was never, never use one word when four will suffice.”

A powerful form of folk oratory, the doc’s pitch combined folk science with traditional selling techniques, figurative language, and storytelling. Tow kinds of pitch stories were popular.

The first was an account of how the doc had obtained the secret formula for his medicine. In her autobiography, Four Whit Horses and a Brass Band, Violet McNeal, a famous medicine show talker, described her husband’s instructions on how to pitch their Tiger Fat salve:

“Your pitch…will go on something like this: A visiting prince came to go on a tiger hunt with your family…Mauled, no medicine available, the prince’s life was despaired of. On of my relative, you will say, had the tiger skinned and cut up. He took the backbone, chopped it up, put it in a pat, and rendered the fat and marrow. With this substance he anointed the injured prince, who made a miraculous and rapid recovery. Further investigation of…this Tiger Fat discovered it to be of great value for cuts, bruises, burns, rheumatism, backache, and other ailments.”

A second story concerned the tragic and painful death suffered by one who had not heeded the doc’s advice or whom he and his medicine, despite heroic effort, could not reach in time. Country singer Roy Acuff recalled such a story used by Doc Hauer on his show. With goose bumps on his arms, the doc would tell about an old man who attended his show with a small child. When they did not appear one evening, the doc found his way to their cabin.

The old man took the doctor to one of the old eating tables that was six or eight feet long and covered with a sheet, and he said, “Doctor, here’s the reason I haven’t come back.” And he raised the sheet and there lay this young boy—he had died. And tears came to Doc’s eye…because he saw worms crawling out of the boy’s mouth, and this boy had strangled to death with worms…. The old man said he didn’t have the money to buy the doctor’s medicine. And the doctor said he would have given the old man a case of it if he had known….

To counter any suspicion that he was a quack or con man, the medicine show doc tried to gain the confidence of his audiences by showering them with compliments and making frequent use of disclaimers (“Now I am not a doctor, nor do I claim to be such”) and guarantees (“And if you are not completely cured within three weeks’ time, just return the bottle and we’ll gladly refund your money”).

Another ploy was the testimonial from a satisfied customer. Frequently a shill would emerge from the audience, take the medicine, and instantly be “cured,” or at least date the “cure” from the last time the doctor was in town. More often, the doctor would incorporate such testimonials in his pitch and display evidence of the cure, such as a tapeworm in a jar.

Med show docs drew on folk medical beliefs, often using diagrams of the human anatomy to illustrate their lectures. While disclaiming possession of a cure-all, their lectures were designed to convince audiences that most human ailment derived from disorders in one or two organs and could thus be cured by one product. Again, a good example comes from Violet McNeal:

Now the first thing that this mineral water salt does in any case, man, woman, or child-I care not what you suffer from-is to correct the acidity of your stomach and start it to action. For the stomach is the beginning of the foundation, or starting point, of all your troubles. It must be the foundation or starting point of all cures.

Such medical and anatomical references lent credibility to a doctor’s claims for his or her medicine and the stories about its origins.

For small town and rural audiences, the doctor conveyed exotic pictures of faraway people and places. Recalling the visits of medicine shows to his small town, Thomas LeBlanc wrote: “The medicine show was the one breath of romance, the one touch of lands across the sea that invaded the isolation of our remote little town.”

Combining folk beliefs about medicine and the human body with tales, legends, mythology, and Biblical references, the doc often emerged a larger-than-life character. He seemed a sophisticated world traveler who brought to town not only entertainment, but also the promise of good health and a long life. In the words of T.P. Kelley:

You are dying, every man, woman, and child is dying; from the instant you are born you begin to die and the calendar is your executioner. That no man can change or hope to change. It is nature’s law that there is no escape from the individual great finale on the mighty stage of life where each of you is destined to play his farewell performance. Ponder well my words, then ask yourselves the questions: Is there a logical course to pursue? Is there some way you can delay, and perhaps for years, that final moment before your name is written down by a bony hand in the cold diary of death? Of course there is, ladies and gentlemen, and that is shy I am here. That is why I have traveled over great wastes of stormy seas, to ask that you let me help you to good health, vigor, and a long life, with the aid of the remarkable carton I now hold in my hand.

*****

Dargan, Amanda. 1983. Free, Gratis, and For Nothing: The Medicine Show Pitch. The Vi-Ton-Ka Medicine Show program book, American Place Theatre: 20-23.

Acknowledgements to: Amanda Dargan

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