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Fake or Real?

Currently, we are surrounded by the word, fake: fake news, fake cures, fake this, fake that. When it comes to medical treatments, ‘fake remedies’ have been with us for a long time. With the current pandemic, I can certainly understand why. I want a medical remedy that will put this disease and all of its consequences in my rear view mirror.

Thus, I can understand why my pioneer ancestors may have fallen victim to sellers of snake oil. Until today, I was not aware that the term ‘snake oil’ referred to an actual remedy that worked. The Asian Americans used oil from the water snake to treat inflammation. Unfortunately, others tried to profit off of the sale of this treatment, but they lacked access to the Chinese water snake. Instead they skimmed off the oil from boiling rattlesnakes, or substituted other types of oil and marketed it as a cure all. The Pharmaceutical Journal article, The History of Snake Oil has this to say about this oil and the selling of it.

The term “snake oil” is used to describe any worthless pseudo-medical remedy promoted as a cure for various illnesses. By extension, snake oil salesmen are charlatans who sell such fraudulent goods.

So, when I see the occupation, ‘magnetic healer’ listed as the occupation of my great-grandfather, Hiram Currey on the 1900 census, my first thought was of ‘snake oil.’

I recently came across an ad in the newspaper that reminded me of this census entry.

from The Lansing News, 8 June 1900

Since my ancestor moved to western Kansas to farm in 1908 and later census records do not include ‘magenetic healer’ as an occupation, I’m assuming that his career as a magnetic healer did not last long.

As I was thinking about his career, I remembered that we use magnets in the machines that are used in the diagnostic MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). I also remembered that some people wear bracelets containing magnets. Curious as to whether these bracelets actually work, I found an article on WebMD that confirmed that Magnetic Field Therapy is a valid field of medicine.

Thus, it seems that my ancestor, Hiram Currey, wasn’t a ‘snake oil salesman,’ but promoting a treatment that is in use today.

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