The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company: Old-Style Hucksters

March 20, 2022

Medicine shows had their origin in the Middle Ages in Europe, when circuses and theaters were banned, and swindlers traveled from town to town selling miraculous cures and offering street shows. In America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hucksters took advantage of three things: imported patent medicines were expensive, Americans believed that Indians were extremely knowledgeable about natural medicine, and they didn’t trust doctors.

Source: (New England Historical Society/colorized).

The peddlers in America began to bring medicine shows with them to attract customers and the shows began featuring “Indian agents” or “professors” in between Indian acts. These “professors” made outlandish claims for their “cure-alls.” The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company was not the only peddler of fake “Indian” medicine, but they were the most successful, with nearly 100 troupes on the road at a time, traveling west to Chicago, and south to the West Indies. During their shows, they peddled the Kickapoo Cough Cure and Kickapoo Sagwa which they claimed could cure any ailment.

Creating The Business

Source: (New England Historical Society).

One of the central figures in the Kickapoo Indian Medicine was a man named John E. Healy. He had been a drummer boy in the Union Army. He then sold vanishing cream and “King of Pain” liniment. He used his profits to put together Healy’s Minstrels and his Irish Thespians before joining forces with E. H. Flagg from Baltimore. Flagg played his violin on street corners to attract customers as he was selling his product, Flagg’s Instant Relief. They renamed the product Kickapoo Indian Oil and copied the liver pads that were originally being made by Percy G. Williams to revive the liver. In the fall of 1879, they hired Charles Bigelow, a long-haired sombrero-wearing man from Bee County, Texas. After meeting a phony Indian medicine man, who went by the name “Dr. Yellowstone,” Bigelow learned a magic skit and he and “Dr. Yellowstone” traveled together selling herbal remedies and sharing nonsense with the crowds. Bigelow, Flagg, and Healy traveled around with the Kickapoo Indian Oil Show until Flagg left the business. Bigelow took the stage as Doctor Lone Star, and they hired N.T. Oliver, who played the banjo under the stage name Nevada Ned.