Mark Twain takes on the snake oil salesmen of his time

Mark Twain was awesome. A lot of people date the beginnings of the modern skeptical movement at around the 1970s, when Paul Kurtz was starting CSICOP, Carl Sagan started making counterarguments to the claims of Ufologists, and James Randi started offering money to people who could objectively prove paranormal claims.

But it all goes back further than that and Mark Twain is a great example. He battled the emerging Christian Science school of faith-healing in a largely unknown book, was critical of religion in general in most of his works, and was even critical of belief in free will.

So back in 1905 a patent medicine salesman sent out a leaflet (p1, p2, p3, p4)advertising his “Elixir of Life” which proposed to be able to cure meningitis and diphtheria, among other diseases of “Human, Animal, and Fowl.” I guess today they call this stuff natural supplements which detoxify your body and stimulate the immune system. But they went even further in those days by calling it the “GIVER OF LIFE EVERLASTING.”

The huckster’s problem came when he didn’t notice a prominent name on his list of recipients to his advertisement – Mark Twain’s. Or maybe he was listed under Clemens then. Anyway, Twain decided to have his secretary take dictation on a letter in response. This secretary was apparently not chosen for the job due to her stellar handwriting, so there will be a transcript after the image of the actual letter:

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

“An idiot of the 33rd degree” is one of those phrases that need to live on, so I think I’ll be borrowing that one from time to time. Anyway, Twain was probably a little agitated beyond normal by this particular ad since his daughter and son had both been killed by diseases which this product claimed the ability to cure.


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2 Responses to “Mark Twain takes on the snake oil salesmen of his time”

  1. fred via Says:

    “an idiot of the 33rd degree” -masonic reference?

  2. African-American Jim « Atheist Hobos Says:

    […] like Twain’s message. It’s not exactly subtle, after all. That’s just not how the guy rolled. They want a friendlier, happier, most nostalgic view of Reconstruction in the south and this book […]

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