Hamlin’s Wizard oil, launched in 1861, was a famous patent medicine of the late 1800s and early 1900s meant to be used as a liniment. According to the ad shown here, it was a remedy of rheumatism, neuralgia, toothache, headache, diphtheria, sore throat, lame back, sprains, bruises, corns, cramps, colic, diarrhea, and all pain and inflammation. This liniment was widely distributed and imitated. Recipes for preparations approximating Wizard Oil appeared in publications of the time.
The liniment was claimed to contain alcohol, camphor, sassafras oil, clove oil, turpentine, ammonia, and chloroform. An analysis performed in 1915, upon pursuit of a charge against the company showed that it contained 55% alcohol, 40% essential oils, “probably camphor,” as well as ammonia and unidentified alkaloid material. Likely, the actual formula was variable depending on what the makers had on hand.
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The charge in question was filed by the U.S. District Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, acting on a report by the Secretary of Agriculture. The charge was one of misbranding, as pamphlets that came with packages of Hamlin’s Wizard oil claimed that the liniment could cure much more serious conditions than those named above. The pamphlets claimed that the medicine could cure cancer:
“Cancer — Hamlin’s Wizard Oil will check the growth and permanently cure a Cancer if treatment is begun in the early stages of its development and faithfully continued for a long enough period of time. We have knowledge of a number of permanent cures of Cancer by the use of Hamlin’s Wizard oil. [example of testimonial given, claimed to be sworn to before a Notary public] Hydrophobia — Can be positively prevented by promptly washing out the bite with Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. (See Bites) Pneumonia — Can be positively prevented by prompt treatment the same as for Cold on Lungs. If neglected until developed, pneumonia requires the immediate attention of a physician. Tumor — A tumor, although not as dangerous, and more easily cured than a cancer, should be removed by a surgeon. Relief can be obtained and a cure effected by using Wizard Oil the same as for cancer, if treatment is begun before tumor has had time to develop.
The company plead guilty to the charges of misbranding and paid a fine of $200, plus court costs, and forced to remove the cancer claims from its materials.
Ironically, since Hamlin’s Wizard Oil contained similar ingredients as modern muscle rubs and other topical pain treatments, it may well have provided some temporary relief to certain pain conditions, such as rheumatism, backache, sprains, and cramps. This is because essential oils such as camphor, clove, and others act as counter-irritants, which is why they are used in modern preparations.
Some other conditions it was claimed to treat, such as ulcers, would have required it to be taken internally. Given the ingredients, this would have been markedly unpleasant. It was also claimed to cure deafness and many other things.
The popularity of Hamlin’s Wizard oil was probably due, in large part, to it having a traveling medicine show that was as popular an attraction as circuses. Since such shows competed not only with circuses, but also with the very popular Wild West shows, and minstrel shows, they became very elaborate and spectacular.
The famous Kickapoo Indian Oil, part of one of the biggest traveling Indian Medicine shows, was claimed to be a traditional Kickapoo medicine called sagwa, but it actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the Kickapoo and instead was a liniment containing virtually identical ingredients to Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. This oil was initially called Flagg’s Instant Relief.
To read more about medicine shows, see Medicine Show in Old West: Patent Medicines and Drugs During 19th Century Before TV Advertisement.
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