Thursday, September 3, 2020

Available NOW on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited!: On the Track of Vengeance

 
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DG8RC2B

The runaway action never stops in On the Track of Vengeance, the fourth book in An Adventure of the Old West series.
 
When outlaw gangs sabotage railroads, resulting in the deaths of innocent passengers and crew members, the president of the United States becomes directly involved, appointing Bane Messenger a U.S. marshal answerable to him alone.
 
Teamed with trustworthy deputies, Bane takes on the desperate men, who care only for vengeance and are willing to do anything to strike back at the railroads and the government they blame for their misfortunes.
 
But the stakes soar when Bane learns that the outlaws plan to sabotage a train carrying his wife and father. With their lives hanging in the balance and no way to warn them, Bane races to the scene. Can he stop the outlaws in time or will Pamela and Bradford become the latest victims of the cruel men who care for nothing but vengeance?

Humorous Columns of Frontier Newspapers: Part 4

 Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

As we mentioned in a previous post, Wild West newspapers seem to have been fond of philosophizing about the causes and effects of humor. As the titles of these articles and columns indicate, there were divergent opinions and theories concerning the topic.

“What is Humor?” asks an article in the Saline County Journal (August 28, 1879). Of course, the anonymous author answers his own question straightaway, or, rather, offers various responses of experts on the matter.

For Melville De Lancey Landon, who went by the nom de plume Eli Perkins, humor derived from the exaggeration to be found in “telling a big yarn” and the 'ability to tell a funny thing in a funny manner.”

The Internet Archives website features several specimens of his funny stuff. Among others, his Off to Saratoga parades horse-racers, whose research enables them to foretell the future behavior of the thoroughbreds they investigate (“When the race comes off, they know every horse—his pedigree, what he has done, what he can do, and what he will do); gamblers, “a handsome set of rascals” whose ability to make money at their sport perplexes their observers until, at last, one discovers their secret (“They bring others to play, and when they have lost fortunes they get their receive a percentage as their commission from the owner of the bank”); and clergymen, who are nothing if not creative in their theology (Sunday is the “strongest day in the week” due to the fact that 'all the other days are week days”). 

 
“[James Montgomery] Bailey of the Danbury News, our columnist suspects is himself devoid of a sense of wit, but has a prodigious sense of humor, as is clear from his ability to “scrawl off a laughable column” concerning the most ordinary of inanimate objects, including “a stove pipe, chair leg, [or a] chicken or cucumber.” Samples of his work also appear on the Internet Archives website. The story of the stove pipe (“Putting Up a Stove Pipe”) isn't really a tale of an inanimate object as much as it's a humorous account of a the stress evident in a married couple's everyday lives. Here is the opening paragraph:

Putting up a stove is not so difficult in itself. It is the pipe that raises four-fifths of the mischief and all the dust. You may take down a stove with all the care in the world, and yet that pipe won’t come together again as it was before. You find this out when you are standing on a chair with your arms full of pipe, and your mouth full of soot. Your wife is standing on the floor in a position that enables her to see you, the pipe and the chair, and here she gives utterance to those remarks that are calculated to hasten a man into the extremes of insanity. Her apron is pinned over her waist, and her hands rest on her hips. She has got one of your hats on her head, and your linen coat on her back, and a pair of galoshes on her feet. There is about five cents’ worth of pot-black on her nose and a lot of flour on her chin, and altogether she is a spectacle that would inspire a dead man with distrust. And while you are up there trying to circumvent the awful contrariness of the pipe, and telling that you know some fool has been mixing it, she stands safely on the floor, and bombards you with such domestic mottoes as, “What’s the use of swearing so?” “You know no one has touched that pipe.” “You ain’t got any more patience than a child.” “Do be careful of that chair.” And then she goes off, and reappears with an armful more of pipe, and before you are aware of it she has got that pipe so horribly mixed up that it does seem no two pieces are alike.

 

Our columnist also mentions the names of better-known such humorists as Bret Harte, Artemus Ward, and, of course, the great humorist Mark Twain.

Most of “What Is Humor?” is about what humor is not or what it may be, in part. Answers to this question, of course, have long defied any authoritative answer and tend to elicit suggestions, rather than unified or even generally accepted, theories as to the nature and origin of humor itself, nor do these partial answers, to the extent that they are “answers” at all, much explain how and why humor “works.” The best we can hope for, our guide suggests, are glimpses of humor itself.

Paradoxically, our expert says, the humorist is quite often not amusing under ordinary circumstances or everyday conversations. At best, perhaps, he suggests, we can remark that humorists seem to possess the ability to combine “comicalities” in creative and amusing ways, a feat that can be accomplished on occasion, if not on a regular basis even by folks who are not known to be funny (and maybe do not intend to be so).

Ward witnessed this very phenomenon firsthand after one of his performances, when he “was outdone by one of his hearers who came up to him after the lecture was over.” Ward had performed before an “audience [that] had been [so] unusually dull [that] only a man over in one corner, now and then, encouraged the funny man.” After the lecture, this man approached the humorist:

. . . Said he to Ward:

“I say, you do not know me?”

“I do not,” said Ward.

“What, you don't know me,” the man shrieked in surprise, “why I was the man that laughed!” Ward shook himself out of town, convinced that he had met a funny man at last.”—Bart L. Bonsall, the “Postal Pellet,” Man of the Camden (N. J.) Post


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Humorous Columns of Frontier Newspapers: Part 3

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman
 
Wild West newspapers, it seems, were fond of philosophizing about the causes and effects of humor, but they also offered samples of the merchandise.

Sometimes, the samples themselves rely upon reasoning—or, rather, errors in the exercise of that faculty. The January 19, 1900, edition of The Daily Morning Alaskan column “Humor of the Hour” offers its readers these choice morsels, borrowed form their original sources.




The first anecdote is based upon jumping to a conclusion; the second involves a mistaken inference; and the third relies upon the fallacy of begging the question (and early twentieth-century sexism).

Untitled

Of course she was indignant when it dawned on her that some one was trying to flirt with her. Yet there was no denying the man behind her had kept steadily after her since she had left the street car.

And old enough to be in better business,” she said to herself indignantly. “I'll cross the street just to make sure whether he is really following.”

She crossed the street, and so did he. Then she turned on him.

Sir,” she said, “why do you persist in following me?”

He started, as if disturbed in the midst of some abstruse mental calculation, and for a minute seemed to be bewildered. Then he bowed courteously and said:

Madam, why do you persist in preceding me?”

Two doors farther on, he turned in, producing a latchkey as he did so and showing in other ways that he had reached his destination. She turned back and went around the block rather than pass that house, and her face was still red when she reached home. —Chicago Post


Making It Right

Madam,” said the leader of The Best Citizens' league, I have come to inform you that we just lynched your husband by mistake.

The bereaved woman covered her face with her hands and began to moan.

There, there,” the best citizen went on, “don't cry. We expect to get the right man before night.” —Chicago News



Couldn't Believe It

Do you see that girl with the fluffy brown hair over there?”

The one with the pink roses in her bodice?”

Yes. She knows French, German, Latin and Greek, besides English, and she graduated a few weeks ago.”

Pshaw, that can't be right! There must be some mistake. Why, that girl is actually beautiful!” (Title of source is illegible.)


Monday, August 31, 2020

Humorous Columns of Frontier Newspapers: Part 2

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

In the April 11, 1895, supplement to the Barton County Democrat, which was published in Great Bend, Kansas, the anonymous author of a “Good Humor” column concerning “The Philosophy of Happiness Under All Occasions” treats his readers to a treatise on the topic of humor's frequent origin in unpleasant experiences.



Burke and Goldsmith

The article starts the ball rolling by recalling that Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) once observed that it was "the unhappy lot" of [Edmund] Burke (1729-1797) 'to eat mutton cold and cut blocks with a razor.'” (Like most Western newspaper articles, this one seeks to enrich its readers' vocabulary, offering them such rarely employed words as “anteprandial,” meaning “prior to eating a meal”; “prandial,” which means “of or pertaining to a meal”; and “haec fabula docet,” meaning “this fable teaches us.” Whether the journalist's purpose is pedantic or pedagogical is, perhaps, like the madness of many an Edgar Allan Poe protagonist, insusceptible to analysis.)


We are to learn, however, from Burke's “unhappy lot” that experiences which seem bitter during their occurrence can later prove to be fodder for amusement—that of others, if not our own. The “cold mutton” and the “blocks,” although unpleasant in the eating and in the cutting, respectively, nevertheless may later occasion humorous treatment. (Many stand-up comics echo this observation, declaring that calamity and catastrophe, especially of the personal variety, often bear the fruit of laughter.)


We are next advised that Joseph Addison (1672-1719)—the “Good Humor” columnist, either because of space limits or to impress his readers (or himself) concerning his intimacy with the authors whose names he bandies about, frequently uses only their surnames—divides humor into two classifications: “true” humor and “false humor.” The former involves “truth,” “good sense,” “wit” and “mirth.” (The columnist does not indicate whether it is truth, good sense, or wit and mirth that makes “true humor” true, but seems to suggest that true humor is derived from, or based upon, all these ingredients.) False humor is predicated upon “nonsense,” “frenzy,” and “laughter.”

Irving

Next, the writer references “two other great humorists,” this time, perhaps to reveal the fact that he is not on as intimate terms with them as he is with the others whose names he has dropped with abandon, naming their full names: Washington Irving (1783-1859) and John Bunyan (1628-1688).


Bunyan

Neither of these “other great humorists” is very helpful, as the comments of both are so general as to be vacuous, Irving defining “honest good humor” as “the oil and wine of a merry meeting,” adding, with no more clarity, that “no jovial companionship [is] equal to that where the jokes are rather small and the laughter abundant,” despite his own earlier comparison of “honest good humor” with “ the oil and wine of a merry meeting.” Bunyan prefers poetry to prose, offering this obscure couplet: “Some things are of that nature as to make/ One's fancy chuckle while his heart doth ache.”

The article ends where it began: nowhere. Despite the aid of Goldsmith, Burke, Addison, Irving, and Bunyan, we learn virtually nothing about humor and less about wit, although our guide has insisted that “good humor is a great constituent in happiness in life,” while warning us that “wit, unless it is of the kindly sort” (in which case, it is not wit, after all, but a species of “good humor”) “may be valuable in giving a sense of intellectual supremacy” to those of us, presumably, who are troubled by poor self-esteem or who imagine ourselves as being intellectually inferior to others. Since wit “never makes friends,” the journalist assures us, we are “better off without it,” if we want to live a happy life. (Why, then, does the writer bring it up at all? To reach the allotted word count for his column, I suspect.)


The whole point of the column is to explain how we can, through the exercise of humor, live happily ever after, but the column does almost nothing to help us understand what humor is or how to employ it to this (or any other) purpose. However, in reading the column, we might have been entertained, if not amused, for a few minutes, and we might suppose that we had learned something worthwhile. We might even believe that we now have the secret of happiness for which humanity has longed since the days of our primeval parents.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Humorous Columns of Frontier Newspapers: Part I

Copyright 2020 by Gary L.Pullman


In a time such as our own, when newspapers are quickly becoming a thing of the past, it is difficult, perhaps, to imagine how readers, in the past, looked forward to the delivery of their daily chronicles.

The newspaper brought the world into their homes, where the news of the day—stories of election fraud, of gunfights, or stagecoach and train robberies, of hangings, of gold strikescould be read in armchairs by the fireside or over bacon and eggs at breakfast tables.

Stories of travel and adventure, of newfangled inventions, of battle and of war in the planet's far-flung countries could be read and debated in pool halls and barbershops and saloons.

The newspaper opened parochial, small-town life on the frontier to the world at large. The stories, often reported in a dramatic tone, were calculated to provoke, to excite, to anger, and to amaze.

Journalism was emotional; unless a newspaper article did as good a job at arousing its readers' passions as it did in relating the facts, a story hadn't successfully performed its task. (In truth, sensationalism was often more important than objectivity, just as feeling was more significant than facts.)


In their efforts to amuse and to be many, if not all, things to all readers, frontier newspapers also often contained humorous columns. Indeed, these periodicals included even analyses of the nature and methodology of humor, as in the “Wit and Humor” article published in the November 2, 1889, edition of Elko, Nevada's Daily Independent, which states that, although “laughter may be either genial or malignant, . . . it is allied rather to egoism and contempt than to affection and devotedness, the chief source of the ludicrous being the degradation of some person or thing which we have been accustomed to associate with power, dignity, or gravity.”

Although this is but one of several competing theories of what tickles the funny bone and why, it certainly prescribes, for reader and humorist alike, the main types of humor, their common wellsprings and method, and even the typical targets of the humorist. But our author, who prefers the protection provided by anonymity, further enlightens his readers as to the differences between wit and humor.


Sydney Smith

Originally, the writer instructs, “wit” referred to “intelligence,” but has since itself “become so degraded that paronomasia [the newspaper writers of yore were often intimately familiar with the lexicon] it is considered a species of wit.” The rest of the column continues to differentiate between humor and wit, backing its claims with allusions to the English wit Sydney Smith, the essayist William Hazlitt, the lexicographer Noah Webster, and the satirist Thomas Carlyle and ending with an example of each category.


As an instance of humor, the author cites Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote: the would-be knight  exemplifies humor, the columnist says, when he explains to his page, “The reason, Sancho, why thou feelest that pain all down thy back is that the stick which gave it thee was of length to that extent.”

As an exhibit of wit, the writer repeats the anecdote of a mute whose master reproached him for laughing at a funeral” by observing, “You rascal, you, I have been raising your wages for these two years past on condition that you should appear more sorrowful, and the higher wages you receive the happier you look.”

The article, both educational and amusing, is a good mix, and a good example, of the humor and wit its author defines, in all places, on the page of a newspaper published in one of the towns of the American Wild West!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Charles M. Russell's Portrait of the American West

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman



Born in Oak Hill, Missouri, near St. Louis, a year before the end of the American Civil War, Charles M. Russell became an early devotee of the American West, working first as a shepherd and then as a cowboy on Montana ranches. After marrying Nancy Cooper, in 1896, Russell began his career as a full-time artist, “painting and sculpting” inside his “log cabin studio next to their home” in Great Falls, where he died in 1926, leaving a legacy of work chronicling and commemorating the time and place he'd loved all the days of his life.


In over two thousand paintings, Russell captures the spirit and adventure of the Wild West. His work depicts roundups, bronco busting, the fording of rivers, cowboys' encounters with wild animals, buffalo hunts, camping, gambling, scouting, gold mining, hunting, and much more.


Many of his paintings are also devoted to the nomadic life of Native Americans, as they hunt buffalo, fight cavalry soldiers, attack frontiersmen, travel from campsite to campsite, grieve fallen warriors, greet the famous explorers Lewis and Clark, encounter other tribes, worship, communicate by smoke signals, and perform other tasks of daily life.


Several tribes are portrayed, including the Piegan, Crow, Sioux, Blackfoot, Chinook, Navajo, Shoshone, Cree, Mandan, and Kootenai. By today's standards, Russell's portraits of Native Americans are, at times, politically incorrect. In his art, which depicts its subjects' encounters with both other tribes than their own and with white men, whom they see variously as traders, fighters, settlers, and invaders, battles, bloodletting, and death are likely to follow.


More than a few of the paintings are dedicated to displays of Native Americans at war, both with each other and with whites. as the works' titles suggest: Scouting the Enemy, On the Warpath, The Battle Between the Blackfeet and the Piegans, War Council, The Making of a Warrior, Planning the Attack, The Attack, Indian War Party, Sun River War Party, Battle of Belly River, Mandan Warrior, Return of the Warriors, Cree War Party, The War Party, and WAR.


When Native Americans are not waging war, they are often engaged in other hostile acts, against other tribes or against white men, as they are in such paintings as Sioux Torturing a Blackfoot Brave, Planning the Attack on the Wagon Train, The Horse Thieves, Blackfeet Burning Crow Buffalo Range, and Crow Sheep Stealer.


Not all of Russell's paintings depict Native Americans as uncivilized, battle-driven killers, thieves, and arsonists, of course. A couple show individuals as “noble” and “romantic” figures. In a number of works, Russell's Native American subjects are even portrayed in a seemingly lighthearted or humorous fashion (A Piegan Flirtation, Indian Beauty Parlor, Waiting and Mad), a reverent manner (Invocation to the Sun, Sun Worship in Montana), or a diplomatic pose (Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole, Lewis and Clark Reach Shoshone Camp Led by Sacajawea the Bird Woman, Indians Discovering Lewis and Clark, Lewis and Clark Meeting the Mandan Indians).


One can't help but to notice, however, that in the diplomatic series involving the meetings between Lewis and Clark and various tribes, the white explorers receive top billing in the titles, and it is usually they, not the Native Americans, who are assigned the active role; it is they who meet; even when Sacajawea leads, her name appears after theirs, and they are assigned the primary active role: they “reach” the Shoshone's camp. It is almost as an afterthought that their guide's action, in leading them, is mentioned. Clearly, in Russell's view of the American West, whites are the protagonists. His Native Americans are the villains or supporting characters or, in some cases, even window dressing.


Russell's work tends to show Native Americans as treacherous and militant or, in the comparatively rare moments in which they are not burning a field, torturing an enemy, plotting battles, or waging war, as comical, paganistic (animistic), or helpful to the active, purposeful white men they serve. There is only one other major category of Native American on display in the artist's gallery of “Indians”: the stereotypical representative, usually in portraiture, of Indian Brave, Indian Buck, Indian Squaw, and [Portrait of an] Indian.


Although Russell is largely positive in his portrayal of white men as the heroic tamers of the Wild West, he also lampoons them on occasion and shows them in a bad light at times. In one painting, a cowboy tries to “bargain” with a Native Indian “for an Indian girl.”


In another work, Whooping It Up, a band of cowboys, apparently drunk, gallop down the main street, past a saloon, shooting their revolvers at the sky and frightening a Chinese pedestrian, who drops a basket of laundry, scattering chickens, while a dog runs in the opposite direction and, across the street, men look on from the boardwalk in front of a saloon, while Asian women in front of Hop Lee's Laundry stare in fear. The white men's behavior is reckless and dangerous, but no one seems ready to intercept or challenge them.


In the ironically titled Peaceful Valley Saloon, gamblers are about to duel at their table, possibly to settle a charge of cheating at cards; one hold his extended weapon, while his adversary begins to draw his own six-shooter from his holster. None of the other patrons of the saloon, including the bartender, appears concerned, suggesting they have seen such behavior before. Adding to the irony is the Native American who looks on, rifle in hand, a stoic expression on his face, since, often, in Russell's' work, Native Americans are depicted as hostile and violent.


In The Tenderfoot, a cowboy makes a new arrival to the West, who is still dressed in the fashion of the East, “dance” by shooting his pistol at the dude's feet, much to the amusement of the other frontiersmen gathered outside the saloon before which the spectacle takes place and to the consternation of a fleeing dog. Even the token Indian in the group looks amused by the potentially dangerous shenanigans.


Outlaws, as such, are fairly rarely represented in Russell's work. However, a pair of highway robbers appears in Fleecing the Priest, and, as the painting's title indicates, their victim is a man of the cloth. As one of the robbers holds a gun on the clergyman, who stands between the two outlaws, his hands overhead, looking frightened, the other reaches deep into the left pocket of the unfortunate soul's trousers. The lining protruding from the other pocket suggests that it has already been searched. Four lines of partially rhyming verse explain the villains' attitude toward the man they are robbing:

If coin is the root of all evil
Your reverence is going to weed;
It's the work of a saint, not a sinner,
To shake your clothes out for seed.


When Russell's depictions of the Wild West depart from the heroic white Westerner to the criminal element, the deviation is also one from the sublime to the ridiculous, for the painter almost always depicts the cowboy or the sheriff or the soldier as an exalted hero, while he portrays the outlaw as an absurd buffoon. The True West, he implies, is about the men who tamed the wilderness and civilized the frontier; it is not about those who, like robbers, attempted to subvert law and order, nor is it about those who, like Native Americans, fought against or stood in the way of progress.


Russell's paintings show rugged Western terrain, its plains and mountains, canyons and gorges, deserts and snowy highlands, rivers and lakes, pines and cacti. The landscapes also depict the wildlife of the West: buffalo, mustangs, wolves, bears, big horn sheep, elk, and deer. Such paintings reflect the reality, in the untamed West, of the need to “kill or be killed.” The frontier is a land “red in tooth and claw,” in which “only the strong survive” in a constant contest in which “the survival of the fittest” is enacted every day, whether among plants, animals, or men.


Signs of stable, established civilization—white civilization, that is—are few and far between in Russell's oeuvre: an occasional cabin, a trading post, a saloon, a fort, storefronts along a boardwalk adjacent to false-fronted buildings built mostly of wood. Only rarely is there a brick or stone edifice suggesting commitment and permanence. Most of the signs of white civilization, the foil of which, in Russell's art, is the nomadic culture of the Native American, as represented by temporary camps of tepees and clothing of blankets, loincloths, beads, moccasins, robes, and headdresses, buckskin dresses or skirts, and coarse blouses, are transient: chuck wagons, buckboards, stagecoaches, trains.


Russell's vision of the West is flawed. Stereotypical at best, it borders upon racism at times in its depiction of white men as the rowdy, uncouth bringers of civilization to the untamed West and of Native Americans as typically (that is, stereotypically) savage and militant, uncivilized and hostile, wild and brutal. White men have come to tame the West, and that includes the savage, uncivilized Native Americans who attack the newcomers' camps, settlers' cabins, wagon trains, and railroad cars. For the West to be tamed, the Native American must be defeated, killed, banished, and otherwise controlled. These ideas are implicit in Russell's art. It is politically incorrect.


There is, however, truth in his depictions of Native Americans as well as implicit falsehoods or misrepresentations. The cowboy, the farmer, the rancher, the sheriff, the railroad worker, the miner, the soldier, and the other white figures of the West did bring civilization—their civilization—to the West. They built towns. Schools. Churches. Telegraph lines. Railroads. Stockyards. Gold and silver mines.


Russell's heroes built cabins and houses and towns on plains. They laid rails so that trains could travel over mountains, bridge canyons and gorges, and cross miles of desert wasteland. Their boats journeyed up and down rivers and across lakes. They built houses from oaks and pines and quenched their thirst on the juices of cacti. They hunted buffalo, elk, and deer. They captured and domesticated mustangs. They killed dangerous wolves and bears. They made the West habitable and safe—or safer, at least, than it had ever been.


Eventually, they, or their children, also built newspaper offices, libraries, museums, art galleries, department stores, and a host of other pedagogical, religious, commercial, technological, journalistic, and artistic institutions; they spread Western culture throughout the New World. In that sense, the Western heroes Russell's art depicts were heroic, indeed; they were larger than life; they were knights in Stetsons and gun belts and boots.


Despite Russell's lopsided and oversimplified view of Nature and Civilization and their respective human masters, the Native American and the mostly white Westerner, the painter constructed a vast, panoramic vision of this conquest of the Wild West that continues to have a powerful effect on the imagination and the emotions. It is a vision which, although in need of correction and further development, is one that can still be considered inspirational to a significant degree.


Friday, July 17, 2020

The A. B. Seelye Company: A Story of Notions, Lotions, Potions, and Riches

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman


As Ann Anderson points out in Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The Anerican Medical Show, the entertainment that these carnival-style performances provided (between snake oil salesmen's product pitches) was “perfectly suited to isolated rural audiences” who enjoyed simple amusements (163). Performers included “blackface” comedians, musicians, mind readers, ventriloquists, magicians, and others (82).


Both comedies, such as the movie Poppy (1937), starring W. C. Fields, and a Walt Disney production, Alice's Medicine Show (1927). starring Lois Hardwick, and Westerns, including Little Big Man (1970), starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) starring Clint Eastwood.


Some members of show audiences were easily convinced, or duped into believing, that the salesmen offered the elixirs of life. Others were skeptical (as were the physicians of the day). In Western films, though, medicine shows, as might be expected, were usually played strictly for laughs.
The very phrase “snake oil” suggests chicanery. In Europe during the 1800s, rattlesnake “oil” was regarded as a cure for arthritis and rheumatism. Whether or not this is true hasn't been proved, but the question, with regard to the “medicines” said to have been derived from vipers, including rattlesnakes, is moot, since, as Laurence M. Klauber points out, in volume two, of his Rattlesnakes, it's unlikely that snake oil ever actually contained snake oil (or any parts of these vipers).

Snake oil products are also known as “patent medicines.” The National Museum of American History explains why:


Patent medicines are named after the “letters patent” granted by the English crown. The first “letters patent” given to an inventor of a secret remedy was issued during the late 17th century. The patent granted the medicine maker a monopoly over his particular formula. The term “patent medicine” came to describe all pre-packaged medicines sold “over-the-counter” without a doctor’s prescription. In the United States very few preparations were ever actually patented.


The label on the front of a bottle of Seelye's Wasa-Tusa, a medicine “For Man and Beast, Internal and External,” lists its ingredients as “63% non-beverage alcohol, 10 minims [of] sulphuric ether and 7 minims of chloroform per ounce [of] alcohol derivative.”

Like most patent medicines, it's touted as effective in the treatment of a host of maladies: “Muscular Soreness, Bruises, Strains, Sprains, Simple Headache, Simple Neuralgias, Toothache, Simple Earaches, minor Irritations of the Throat, and where a counter-irritant would be used.”

A few drops taken “internally,” with water or milk, likewise remedies “Colic and Cramps due to Gas.” The product is also “Useful for Wire Cuts, Swellings, Etc., and on Animals” and works as effectively to alleviate “Colic in Horses” as it does to relieve the same malady in humans.

Wasa-Tusa cures so many conditions and diseases that it's hard to see why anyone would ever need to buy another medicine after purchasing The A. B. Seelye Company's nostrum. Considering all the ailments from which the product provides relief, if not, indeed, a cure, it is certainly worth its $1.25 retail price.



One of the most interesting facts about Alfred Barns Seelye (December 20, 1870 - February 14, 1948) is that he took the theatrics out of snake oil sales, treating the production, marketing, and distribution of his patent medicines as a business. In addition, as we shall see, he found innovative ways to entertain his customers and potential customers. If, after the passing of the medicine show, due to its ever-increasing extravagance and attendant expenses, Seelye would bring the show to the clientele--or a semblance of it, at least. As a result, he was immensely successful for years, his customer base and profits increasing dramatically.

Seelye studied both medicine at one college and literature at another, without graduating from either. In 1890, after moving from Illinois, where he'd grown up, to the famous cowtown, Abilene, Kansas, of which Wild Bill Hickock had once been marshal, Seelye set up a laboratory and began making Wasa-Tusa, Fro-Zona, and about a hundred other concoctions.

His success was tremendous, his company growing to the point that, at the pinnacle of his success, he employed over three hundred traveling salesmen, among other workers. He had to move his operations into a larger building, which also housed his Seelye Theater, which sat an audience of eight hundred.
He married Jeanette Taylor in 1893, and the couple increased Abilene's population by two, their daughters Mary Eleanor and Helen Ruth.

Founded in 1890, in Abilene, Kansas, Seelye's company was incorporated nine years later. By 1905, its snake oil sales had made Seelye a wealthy man, indeed.

It's not hard to understand why. The company offers something for everyone—and for every ailment.


A three-ounce jar of its Fro-Zona Company ointment is a superb after-shave, its menthol, camphor, and oils (peppermint, eucalyptus, and pine), and, of course, its petroleum, constituting a “soothing preparation” for everyday use. It cools “prickly heat, sunburn, insect stings, chafing, frost bites [sic], head colds, chapped skin, nasal irritation, superficial burns, and simple headaches.”

It can be rubbed “between the eyes,” daubed up the nostrils, or dabbed “behind the ears,” preferably before “retiring at night.” Apparently, it also works on toys: the front of the product's label shows a physician making a house call to examine a little girl's doll, as he holds a jar of the panacea.

The fact that Fro-Zona is a patent medicine is indicated on the bottle by a stamped notice of the balm's registry with the U. S. Patent Office.


In promoting his medicines, Seelye is sure to offer his customers more than their money's worth. A 1903 promotional “almanac” is also a “health guide,” and the combination almanac-health guide is also a cook book—three useful publications in one. In short, the booklet contains, “besides the weather forecasts, some excellent Cooking Receipts [sic] . . . and general information, as well as a history of the Seelye Medicines and their method of cure.”

In addition, it's chock full of advertisements for his lotions, potions, and nostrums. The fifty-two-page publication promotes “Ner-Vena, Wasa-Tusa, Magic Cough and Consumption Cure, Seelye's Wintergreen Ointment, Wintergreen Soap, A. B. Seelye's Happy Life Pills, Seelye's Universal Stock and Poultry Powder, Horse Liniment, Seelye's Hair Tonic and Restorative, and other remedies.”

The brochure's “Introduction” boasts of the company's success. Business was “excellent” in 1902, and sales in 1903 promise to be no less flourishing, as the company marks its “13th year” of continual growth,” satisfied customers singing the medicines' praises as products that not only “cure folks” but also “prolong life.” The booklet is quite a bargain for free (although, should readers care to do so, they're more than welcome to send in their testimonials concerning the benefits of the company's cures).


The brochure contains many delightful, if not always informative, illustrations as well. One, labeled “The Human Body,” shows the figure of a man, lines connecting the animals of the zodiac to the various organs of the human anatomy over which these signs are said to govern: Gemini, the arms; Leo, the heart; Taurus, the neck; and so on.

The booklet contains all manner of trivia and esoteric information. In addition to the astrological associations with human anatomy, a list of religious holidays and their respective dates appears, beneath which the year's “Morning and Evening Stars” are identified.

As might be expected, advertisements and testimonials make up a substantial part of the publication, appearing either as full-page texts or as sidebars, complete with a photograph of the gentleman or lady who offers an endorsement of a particular product.


Mrs. Julia Weathers, for example, of Sedgwick, Kansas, who once suffered, it seems, from “weak nerves,” contends that “Dr. Seelye's Ner-Vena is the greatest medicine” for treating this condition that she has ever seen. “Dizzy spells” had afflicted her, causing her to “stay in bed half a day at a time,” before “three bottles” of Seelye's “remarkable remedy” remedied her condition, curing her. And that's not all! She adds, Ner-Vena also benefited her heart in some way. (She doesn't say how, exactly.) Whatever the wonderful nostrum did to help her heart, though, prompted her to declare, in no uncertain terms, “Ner-Vena was indeed a God send to me.”

These features weren't live acts, of course. There were no magicians and clowns, no ventriloquists or men on stilts, but there were interesting articles, loads of trivia, intriguing illustrations, esoteric lore, and, of course, apparently heartfelt thanks, product recommendations, and personal testimonials from satisfied customers. On the frontier, especially in rural areas far from the nearest town, the arrival of Seelye's combination almanac-health guide-cook book must have been welcome, indeed. Its pages provided escape from boredom and drudgery while acquainting its readers with the wonderful nostrums that could cure nearly any ailment known to medicine, and, best of all, it was delivered free to one's doorstep, upon request.

A help wanted advertisement in the May 15, 1902 issue of the Abilene Weekly Reflector also suggests that the company was doing well. Despite having forty employees, the company was seeking ten to twelve more salesmen and had hired the Abilene Carriage Company to build “ten new wagons” to carry products directly to the customers who ordered them.

Despite the announcement's headline, “Good Chance for Hustlers,” it seems that the newspaper found the company to be a good place to work: “Dickinson county young men need not hesitate to engage with the A. B. Seelye Medicine company as they are reliable and do well by their salesmen.”


Yes, whatever the effectiveness of its many “medicines,” The A. B. Seelye Company was good to its founder. With the fortune he earned, he built the fabulous 11,000-square-foot, twenty-five-room Seelye Mansion in Abilene, Kansas.


A beautiful home in the Georgian style, this magnificent mansion, built in 1905 for $55,000, boasts Edison light fixtures, a Tiffany fireplace, eleven bedrooms, a ballroom, a music room featuring “gold French furniture and a grand Steinway piano,” and a bowling alley. The house was also home, at one time, to Seelye's laboratory (where, it seems likely, plenty more nostrums were concocted),Seelye was even more extravagant in purchasing the mansion's elegant furniture. He bought most of it at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, paying more for it than he paid to build the house!


The bowling alley, which “was ordered at the Chicago World's Fair,” was constructed by the American Box Ball Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. It not only automatically returns the ball, but features an unusual feature: the pull of a lever resets the “drop-style pins.”

As a youngster, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered ice to the mansion; later, of course, the boy would become Supreme Commander of the Allied forces during World War II and the president of the United States, but, for the Seelye daughters, Helen and Marion, who lived in the house following their father's demise, Ike would remain “a man from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Frank Lloyd Wright

Another famous person associated with the Seelye Mansion is architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who “suggested renovated the interior” of the home in the 1920s.


Seelye's Wasa-Tusa, his Fro-Zona Company ointment, his Magic Cough and Consumption Cure, his Wintergreen Ointment, his Wintergreen Soap, his Happy Life Pills, his Universal Stock and Poultry Powder, his Horse Liniment, his Hair Tonic and Restorative, and all his other preposterous products—and his innovative and tireless efforts in promoting them—made the purveyor of dubious notions, lotions, and potions a remarkably wealthy man who lived out his life in luxury, perhaps tinkering with formulae and concocting new “medicines” right up to the end of his days.


Available NOW on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited!: On the Track of Vengeance

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