The Vagabond – Medicine shows in 19th century Gadsden

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By Danny Crownover

In the 1880s, Gadsden was frequently visited by medicine shows that were occasionally entertaining and generally on the bizarre side. The shows afforded opportunity for the mountebank to display his wares and for the faker to rake in the dollars of suckers.

One of those traveling sales merchants was the Wizard Oil Wagon that came around once a year.

The wagon was drawn by six large and perfectly matched horses, of which nearly always were calico.

However, one particular team of dappled grays came through Gadsden just before that plan of advertising was discarded. Each outfit featured an organist and male quartet that could really sing. The wagons usually put up at the Herzberg corner on Broad Street where they drew a large crowd.

The first such medicine wagon crew that came to Gadsden included a young man who had a good voice and a most pleasing address. He made the obligatory spiel about the great things the medicine would do for aches and pains, and while spoke, the others in the wagon were busy selling the product at a dollar a bottle.

He joined in the sale after his spiel, and it appeared that most customers wanted to buy the product from him.

When that wagon reached Florida, the man quit the job and announced that he was henceforth a citizen of that state. The man continued to sell himself to the public, for he was soon elected Florida’s governor. The man’s name was William Jennings, a cousin to the famous attorney and orator William Jennings Bryan.

Another show that attracted much attention in Gadsden was that of Dr. James Key, a tall man who marketed Keystone liniment and owned a farm in Tennessee where he raised and trained horses for circuses and such. His sales pitch included two banjo pickers and singers who could really entertain a crowd, in addition to a trained pony called Dolly that performed amazing feats.

Dr. Key would have his audience stretch a rope into a ring, and inside that ring Dolly would do things that no other horse had ever done in this area.

Some years later, Dr. Key showcased a white stallion called Jim in the best theatres and always drew large audiences. Dr. Key said that Jim was well-educated, which was proven time and time again. Jim performed stunts that amazed everybody.

Blue Mountain Joe brought his show annually to Gadsden for some time. His act included several singers, dancers and musicians and was usually put on an open-air theatre. Blue Mountain sold plenty of medicine and was successful until he put up in Attalla for a week’s stay, when he got out with the boys of the town and took on too much liquor and passed out.

Blue Mountain’s chief asset was his long flowing hair, which lent color to his claim to be some sort of Indian scout in from out West. The Attalla boys eventually took him to a barber shop and shaved his head as clean and bare as an onion. Blue Mountain Joe did not raise any fuss, except to declare that he had been ruined and that it was necessary to quit business.

Contact The Vagabond at dkcrown@bellsouth.net.

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