In the autumn of 1879 residents of Boston arriving at the central railway station were greeted by a novel spectacle. A gentleman flamboyantly dressed in tuxedo, high silk hat and clothing that shimmered, was lecturing to an audience seated in front of him. Suddenly the air was shattered by the bloodcurdling whoops of Indian war cries. The next moment their eyes widened further as a troupe of Native Americans, resplendent in feathers, adorned with colourful beads and carrying crudely-made weapons, interrupted the speaker. Instead of attacking the audience, they started showing them baskets of Indian medicines. Encouraging them on were colourfully dressed men, one sporting long flowing hair and wearing a sombrero.
Bostonians had just been introduced to the first ever performance offered by The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. The lecturer, who probably presented himself as Professor or Doctor John Healy, would then have introduced his colleagues as Doctor E.H. Flagg, ‘Texas’ Charlie Bigelow and Ned ‘Nevada’ Oliver. Their Native American colleagues working in the background, he would have explained, were from the Kickapoo tribe, adding that the Kickapoo medicines were made to ancient recipes from secret ingredients that cured all manner of ailments.
They were being economical with the truth. Healy, a former drummer boy in the Union Army during the Civil War, was no doctor or professor, but a born salesman from New Haven, Connecticut, who at one time owned and ran an Irish minstrel show. Flagg’s medical credentials were equally suspect. He was in reality a peddler Healy met playing the violin on a Baltimore street corner. Bigelow was no frontiersman – he had escaped from the family farm in Texas and was working for the bogus Indian medicine man, Doctor Yellowstone. Oliver was another highly experienced sales pitchman who had previously worked with Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Company, based in Chicago.
The Kickapoo Indian tribe, from its reservation in distant Oklahoma, would have been surprised to learn that some of its number had joined the stage in Boston. The Native Americans in reality were a motley collection hired by Healy from the Sioux, Blackhawk and other tribes. The tribal elders would have been equally bemused by the ancient Kickapoo medicines on sale, with authentic-sounding names such as Kickapoo Indian Oil. This was in fact a reinvention by Flagg of his Instant Relief Oil that he and Healy had peddled on the streets of Baltimore.
The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company was one big act, but it worked. It was the largest and most successful example of a theatrical tradition that stretched back to the mountebank shows staged in Medieval Europe. These were travelling shows that combined drama with salesmanship, peddling cure-all elixirs in between tricks, acts and freak shows.
Healy and his partners were successful for a number of reasons. First of all they understood their market. These were shows that ventured deep into the American South and East, where a deeply-held trust in the power of Indian medicine held strong. They also had a broad vision. Not content with sending out one troupe to travel the country, they sent out dozens of authorised teams at the same time. At the height of their success, the Kickapoo Medicine Company had nearly a hundred wagons on the road.
Born salesmen, they also understood the power of branding. Everything bore the Kickapoo imprint. The teams that ventured as far west as Chicago and as far south as the West Indies were uniformly ‘Native Indian’ in their appeal; every bottle of medicine peddled was labelled unashamedly Kickapoo. They were even successfully published; for example a cookbook was released by Charlie Bigelow in 1885.
By 1900 Bigelow and Healy ran the company. The government was slowly catching up with what officials termed ‘fake patent medicines,’ as illustrated by the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. While broadly supportive of the Act at first, the directors were chastened in 1911 when their Kickapoo Cough cure was censured for misrepresenting on the label the alcohol level in each bottle. They were astute enough to know when to call it a day and sold the company a few years later for half a million dollars.