Snake oil and double meanings

cover of The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic GossIn our era of fake news, it is useful to introduce students to the way words can be used to deceive.

In the 1900 bestselling novel The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic Goss, which I reviewed over on GreatPenformances blog, one funny scene presents a patent-medicine salesman’s sales pitch for worthless cures.

The snake oil salesman has gathered a clutch of people around and is reading testimonials from satisfied customers:

‘Dear Sir: I was wounded in the Mexican war. I have been unable to walk without crutches for many years; but after using your liniment, I ran for office!’ Think of it, gentlemen, the day of miracles has not passed. ‘I lost my eyesight four years ago, but used a bottle of your “wash” and saw wood.’ Saw wood, gentlemen, what do you think of that? He saw wood! ‘Some time ago I lost the use of both arms; but a kind friend furnished me with a box of your pills, and the next day I struck a man for ten dollars.’ There is a triumph of the medical art, my friends. And yet even this is surpassed by the following: ‘I had been deaf for many years, stone deaf; but after using your ointment, I heard that my aunt had died and left me ten thousand dollars.’ Think of it, gentlemen, ten thousand dollars! And a written guarantee goes with every bottle, that the first thing a stone-deaf man will hear after using this medicine will be that his aunt has died and left him ten thousand dollars.

If I were to use this, I’d probably have students read it and then pose some informal writing questions about the text:

  • When you read the paragraph, what do you visualize the speaker doing? How does the salesman act?
  • What would you say is the salesman’s attitude toward his audience? On what do you base your impression?
  • How would you describe the audience? Is your attitude the same as the salesman’s?
  • The text doesn’t tell you how the audience responds. What you do think their response would be?
  • How would you describe this passage : descriptive? expository? persuasive? comic? serious? sad? Why did you choose that description?

I think it would be fun to have the class ham¹ act the role of the salesman, maybe shoot a video of the re-enactment.

The Redemption of David Corson is available as Project Gutenberg  eBook #14730. The paragraph quoted above is in chapter 12.

¹ ham  is a word with a double meaning.