the cotton baled and money still in the pockets of hard-working farmers, every
November the “doctor” and his son worked a familiar circuit in North
Texas, bringing hope to the infirm and entertainment to the healthy.
More than a half-century later, Dallas
banker William A. Philpott, Jr. reflected on his Montague County boyhood back
in the early 1900s, when the people of Bowie
eagerly awaited the arrival of Dr. Blair’s traveling medicine show. Accompanying
the doctor was his son Jack, in Philpott’s estimation a “highly apt and versatile
From their home in the Sherman
area, father and son made their rounds in two wagons, an old phaeton and a big
surrey that had been fashioned into a rolling performance stage with ample cargo
space for the doctor’s stock of patent medicine. Each wagon had a fringed top.
Describing the doctor as “a cartoonist’s dream of a physic concocter,”
Philpott wrote: “In bearing he mingled the smooth persuasiveness of a charlatan
with the comforting bedside manner of a family physician. His words carried more
conviction than a shelf of books…and his sales talk was more forceful than the
spiels of half a dozen side-show barkers.”
A big man who attributed his
robust constitution to ample reliance on his own product, Dr. Blair always wore
a black beaver hat, Prince Albert coat, striped pants and well-polished shoes.
“This sartorial perfection set off with dazzling effect his muttonchop whiskers
and expansive mustachio,” Philpott recalled.
good doctor had not always been a perfect specimen of health. As a young man of
20, he claimed, he had almost died of tuberculosis. Luckily for him and all his
future customers, somewhere north of the Red River he had run into a Choctaw woman
who generously shared the secret tribal formulation for a herbal brew that cured
him of the dread lung disease. Now, that life-saving distillation was available
to anyone as Dr. Blair’s Paleface Panacea.
medicine shows were common throughout the 19th century and into the early 1900s,
when the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 set the industry
back considerably. Despite the law and subsequent legislative tweaks, some “doctors”
continued their practice into the 1940s. The last big show came to Texas
from Louisiana, where the LeBlanc Corp. manufactured an alcohol-rich product called
Hadacol. Known as the Hadacol Caravan, the show lasted until 1951.
Dr. Blair’s products contained ethanol or merely a non-intoxicating mixture of
other plant derivatives is open to conjecture, but anyone who has ever ingested
a spirituous beverage knows that first sip or two sure makes you think you’re
getting better. No matter the ingredients of his medicine, the doctor’s show alone
left his audience feeling good.
blackface in those Jim Crow times, son Jack appeared in a clown-like costume complete
with over-sized shoes. He could dance, sing, play the banjo and violin and be
funny. Beyond that, he knew how to handle a trick knife, twirl Indian tomahawks
and do card tricks.
Each show started with a greeting from Dr. Blair.
Then his son took the stage, sitting down on a chair and saying, “Howdy, Papa”
to the loud approval of a crowd that remembered him from the year before. Soon,
Jack sang an old Texas favorite, “Cornbread, Buttermilk, and Good Old Turnip Greens.”
From there, the show proceeded with soft shoe, music and Vaudeville-like humor.
always graciously allowing for an encore performance, eventually Dr. Blair pulled
something from his coat pocket and pronounced, “Now that we’ve had a little fun,
folks, let’s see what’s in this box.” Then he would open one of his nostrums and
begin discussing its miraculous healing powers.
His wagon held a virtual
pharmacy, his products including eyewash, salve for corns and eczema, soap that
could soften water as well as fade liverspots, rattlesnake oil elixir good for
taking the bite out of rheumatism; and tincture of linseed oil useful for everything
from dandruff control to shingles.
But Dr. Blair’s most important product
was his Paleface Panacea. Not only had it saved his life, he explained, it could
cure most chronic conditions in man or animal. If his potion could not eliminate
a particular disease, he declared, it would at least lessen its symptoms. Suitable
for oral ingestion, dermal application or even for pouring into one’s bath water,
Paleface Panacea represented one-stop wellness in a bottle.
his various other products and their many benefits, Dr. Blair magnanimously extended
to his many friends and repeat customers an incredible offer. No matter that a
bottle of Paleface Panacea normally retailed for $1, the doctor would sell a sample
kit of his other medicines – including Paleface Panacea -- for ONLY a dollar,
a $3.25 value.
“Now, folks,” he said, “step right up…”
Philpott remembered, is just what people did. They lined up to hand over their
silver dollars in exchange for a medicine chest they believed could see them through
just about any condition known to man – except quackery.
Cox - January 24, 2013 column
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