It is a far cry from the frocked pharmacists of today to the medicine shows that rattled into town with their glitter and glamour in Sonora’s days of yesterday. Today’s remedies may be more scientific, but there certainly was greater lure in being charmed into the purchase of some nostrum by the silver tongue of a medicine spieler standing on a wagon and operating in the flickering shadows of a kerosene torch mounted above the driver’s seat.
These patent medicine companies that came to town were certainly winners when it came to making money – they seldom rented a hall, but held forth: in their gaily painted wagons or coaches parked on Washington Street.
As with other show companies they paraded up and down the street to advertise their wares – generally followed by the proverbial crowd of small boys, which – like the pied piper of Hamlin, gathered and grew in numbers at every corner.
I remember the Vigor of Life Company, just two or three men, but what they lacked in numbers they certainly made up in pep and personality. There was the manager and spieler who wore a wig of long black hair that made him a bit more unusual in appearance and he chose to call himself “Doctor” Ashe (they were always called doctors).
I recall him as rather handsome and refined, a fluent talker and with personality plus – there was a singer, Charley Maguire, who sang comic songs, much to the delight of the crowds gathered around – one was Plug McCarthy dancing with his wife – and in his repertoire were several real thrillers – one was the Milwaukee Fire, a melodramatic number, verse after verse – no rhyme or reason, but as children we were thrilled beyond words with it.
Then “Doctor” Ashe gave his spiel on the wonders of “Vigor of Life” and did he sell it? Why, just as fast as he could get the bottles wrapped up!
I remember their wagon generally stood in front of Riordon’s Millinery Store, night after night – across the street burned the old lantern in Kelly’s Livery Stable – nearby the Chinese store with little Charley Lee lighting the punks – on the other side we saw the doors swing in and out of Binder’s Saloon the benches along the street were filled with people “taking in” the show.
Then there was the Wizard Oil Company – a big aggregation of spielers, singers and salesmen – their wagon was a gorgeous affair, painted red and gold – and drawn by four beautiful horses with silver mounted harness. There were kerosene torches, one at each end, which added to the gaiety of the outfit. The men wore black suits and tall silk hats – the “Doctor” being always in full dress.
I remember two or three beautiful singers – a tenor, who sang the Golden Eventide and Good-bye Sweetheart, and a bass who sang “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”, and how their voices rang out in the soft Summer night air.
Then the spieler, a good talker, with a sense of humor, kept the crowd interested and amused, and with a little psychology he soon was selling Wizard Oil to every man and woman in the crowd – he described your symptoms so perfectly, you knew this wonderful panacea – so you bought in half a dozen lots.
Imagine the power of suggestion to the human family! Well, when these companies left town, their coffers were full and on every kitchen shelf were bottles of these quack medicines that could be used both internally and externally with efficiency.