Stories of the American West are extremely romantic. They tell of pioneers on the Oregon Trail, mountain men, and horse-riding cowboys. It all adds to our society’s picturesque imaginings of the “Old West.” One thing to remember about the West is that it represented boundless opportunities for those hoping to improve their lot in life. That hope brought out many different types of people, including people willing to take advantage of gullible pioneers. The fraudsters went by many names: con artists, flim flam men, and snake oil salesmen. Fraud was one of the darker elements of the Old West and it is sometimes overlooked in Western narratives.
Where does the term snake oil salesmen come from? Traditional Chinese medicine utilized snake oil to reduce inflammation and Chinese immigrants brought their medicines to the United States in the nineteenth century. The snake oil—made from Chinese water snakes—was packed full of omega-3 acids which did help with issues like arthritis. Americans’ awareness of the medicinal properties increased demand, and con men saw an opportunity to defraud the public. Clark Stanley, unrelated to the town of Stanley, Idaho, started peddling snake oil across the country. Not only did Stanley lie about the maladies it could cure, but he also used rattlesnakes which have no omega-3s. He claimed he got the recipe from the Hopi tribe of the Southwest. Stanley recounted the fabricated story in his traveling medicine show that toured across the country. Eventually, in 1917, federal investigators tested the oil and found beef fat and turpentine instead of rattlesnake oil. Clark Stanley and his snake oil empire was built on a foundation of lies.
If the pioneers of the Old West managed to avoid the sleazy snake oil salesmen, they still had to contend with frauds in the disguise of reputable businessmen. In Utah, the town of Alta started as a mining camp and grew in the 1870s. Winters in Alta brought tremendous amounts of snow; sometimes the snow drifts would be forty feet high! Every winter, the full-time residents of Alta would have to extend their houses’ chimneys so the pipes could reach over the snow. According to local lore, there was an unnamed real estate agent who brought clients to Alta. All the houses were buried in snow, but the realtor would point to the stovepipes sticking out of the snow. When the new homeowners would return in the spring, they discovered the real estate agent had stuck unattached lengths of stovepipes in the snowbanks to give the illusion of standing cabins. The wily relator did not sell his clients land or a cabin, but only sold them single pieces of stovepipe. The historical record does not say if the realtor suffered any consequences, but he most likely skipped town as it was easy to do back then. The Old West flim flam men were experts at evading the law.
Concerning Idaho history, one of the most fascinating instances of fraud took place in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains. In 1934, a mysterious stranger named C. H. Lord arrived in the Stanley Basin. The historical record does not have much information about Lord except for that he hailed from Detroit and had enough money to lease a placer claim on Stanley Creek in the Basin. Lord acquired investors from out East with grand promises of high investment returns. How did Lord snag lucrative investments? He had come up with a new way to dredge for gold and called the invention “Gold Bowls.” How did the “Gold Bowls” work? No one except Lord could answer that question and he was reluctant to reveal any information. Lord kept the invention under lock and key until its grand unveiling. When Lord revealed the contraption to the large crowd of miners and shareholders, the crowd was shocked by the spindly frame and construction. Then, when the machine started, everything fell apart into a large pile of splinters. Shortly after, Lord left the Stanley Basin quickly and probably under the cover of darkness, leaving behind defrauded investors and workers owed back wages.
These stories of conmen are widespread across the history of the American West. They might not fit into the idyllic picture of the frontier, but it is important to remember that the West was not only inhabited by pioneers and cowboys. Much like the other Americans, the fraudsters and flim-flam men saw the West as a place of opportunity. Even remote towns, like Stanley, drew people—both honest and dishonest—looking for wealth and better opportunities.
Megan Nelson is the Docent at the Stanley Museum. Stanley is her favorite place on Earth and she’s especially passionate about its history.
Carr, Stephen L. The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1972)
Gandhi, Lakshmi. “A History of ‘Snake Oil Salesmen.’” Last modified August 26, 2013. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/08/26/215761377/a-history-of-snake-oil-salesmen
Piper, Grant. “The First Snake Oil Salesman.” Last modified October 24, 2020. https://medium.com/exploring-history/the-first-snake-oil-salesman-203d6bd9f71c
Wolsey, Thomas. “Six Scams From the Old West that Look Familiar in the 21st Century.” Last modified August 21, 2020. https://thomas-wolsey.medium.com/old-west-scams-in-the-21st-century-9ff4ec8b0fd4
Yarber, Esther and Edna McGown. Stanley-Sawtooth Country (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1976)