The Rattlesnake King and Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey

Hear the story of the miracle cure-all that took the world by storm.

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It was just a decade and a half since Phillip Thomas and George Brown had built the first North American railway. And within that span of time, their Baltimore and Ohio had become just one of several common carriers laying track east of the Missouri River. 

With manifest destiny realized through the Louisiana Purchase and the development of territories out west, it was time to start thinking of how track could be laid from coast to coast, to make the United States easier to traverse. By 1845, a trip to California was unaffordable to most and extremely dangerous whether you took the path over land and through the mountains or sailed around Cape Horn and South America.

A New York entrepreneur named Asa Whitney would first propose a Transcontinental Railroad to congress in 1845. But the country was edging closer and closer to civil war. So every decision made in the national interest had to be measured by whether it favored the slaveholders or abolitionists. 

And even with the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, the idea of a Transcontinental Railroad would have to wait.

Two events would serve to open up the railroad to reality. An entrepreneurial engineer named Theodore Judah would form the Central Pacific Railroad Company in Sacramento, California with a dream of laying track through the Donner Pass. And the election of President Abraham Lincoln would give him an ally in lobbying Congress for land grants and funds needed to build the railroad. 

Congress would use the opportunity to create some competition to help speed the result and an agreement was made that the Central Pacific would start building from Sacramento east, and the Union Pacific would gain a route starting at the Missouri River and move west, earning bonds for every mile of track they laid. 


Civil engineers were borrowed from the Union army and were joined by Canada and European engineers.

But Judah found the hiring of hard laborers difficult, as many of the gold diggers who had come to California to find their fortunes, balked at the idea of laying track through those dangerous mountains.

But now there was one group of people who were more than willing to take the sure cash of working on the railroad, over the promise of gold they had traveled so far to find. 

These were people not unfamiliar with pain and strife. In fact they had escaped from their homeland due to war, oppression, and severe hardships. And so, it would be laborers from China’s Pearl River Delta that would be the backbone that drove the construction of America’s first coast to coast railway.

And they were so impressive in their ability to get the job done that the rail lines began a recruiting campaign in Canton to bring in more and more workers. By 1882, it would be estimated that some 180,000 Chinese immigrants had made it to the shores of California and many of them worked the Central Pacific line.

Along with their muscles, fearlessness, and dedicated determination - came families, culture, food, clothing, and Eastern medicines. And one of the medicines they brought with them was a fatty oil, rich in omega-3 that was used for several ailments including inflammation, arthritis, and bursitis. For workers on the railway, blistered and beaten, this oil became one of the necessities of life. 

And the curative effects of this special ointment would soon catch the attention of these worker’s American born counterparts - who found the oil’s source curious, but effects beyond reproach. 


One such curious American was a Texas cowboy named Clark Stanley. Clark was as fast talking as charismatic as they come. He himself wondered many times if he was wasting his talents living the life of a cowboy alone on the prairie.

He knew there was a better life for him, but where. 

When he first caught wind of this magical Chinese oil, visions of a traveling medicine show started dancing in his head. He’d seen those fancy advertisements in the newspaper touting herbal remedies, elixirs, and powders that could reduce inflammation, rejuvenate one’s constitution, or even prolong one’s life.

The name patent medicine was a misnomer. No patent issued for any of these miracle cures, mainly because the manufacturers of these elixirs would never want to disclose the lack of medicinal ingredients.  

Whether Clark knew that or not, is unknown. But what is known is that the oil that he would eventually start selling, was anything but the genuine article.

You see, the product the Chinese were using to heal themselves was an oil derived from the Chinese water snake. And unfortunately there were no Chinese water snakes to be found in Texas.

But that was just a minor detail for an industrious budding salesman like Clark Stanley. If the oil of a Chinese water snake could do the trick, then surely the oil of a rattlesnake would do just as well!

Now all he needed was a pitch!

And in the years following the Civil War, no stories sold better than tales of the Old West, cowboys, indians, and desperados. So he concocted a story about living for some time with a Hopi tribe, learning from the medicine men of the healing power of oil derived from a rattlesnake.

He went to work creating his product, grabbed a few rattlers for effect and hit the road to find his fame and fortune.


Word of Clark's amazing ointment soon spread across the midwest. But Clark made his biggest splash at the highly anticipated 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago. So while Westinghouse and Tesla demonstrated the more practical use of alternating current by lighting up the festival, Clark Stanley took the low road, barking out to a crowd of curious onlookers, asking them to step right up and learn of his magical potion. 

He'd reach into his sack and pull out a rattler, to the gasps of the crowd. And then he'd tell those weak of stomach to turn their heads while he pulled a large blade from a holster on his side and slit the snake open, thrusting it into a barrel of hot water. 

Then his face turned soft and pleasant, as he leaned toward the crowd in a low voice that forced them to pull forward... "the perfect pain reliever for rheumatism, lame back, contracted muscles, sprains, bruises, corns, chilblains, frostbites, and bites of most insects!" Why there was little Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment couldn't do! 

The crowd watched in amazement as he scooped up the oils that had floated to the surface of the water and soon bottle after bottle left his hands at the incredibly generous price of just 50 cents a piece. 

Stanley would do quite well for himself over the years, peddling his snake oil. Amazingly, there were few documented cases of complaints with the product. Maybe because Stanley was too far down the road for anyone to raise a ruckus.

It wouldn't be until 1916, some decades later, when the Federal government finally caught up with him.  

Having seized a shipment of the oil, they tested it and found that it actually didn't contain snake oil at all. Instead it was loaded with mineral oil that was likely sourced from beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine. And this would lead to his prosecution - for promoting false claims in violation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

History has mostly forgotten the man they once called “the Rattlesnake King.” And for his own part, his exit from the business wouldn't be as bad as one would suspect. 

After pleading nolo contendere, his fine for duping the public for over two decades - a mere $20 - equal to the cost of 40 bottles of his fraudulent product. 

But even though Clark Stanley would be forgotten, the concept of the snake oil salesman itself would live in infamy. In fact, to hear the term uttered, just wait until the next political debate and you're sure to hear one politician call another politician's policies a load of snake oil.

The world of whisky had its own snake oil salesman. A man with a complicated legacy that floats somewhere between whisky magnate and skillful con man. His name would become infamous after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, but his simple product would be complicated enough that even the government couldn’t figure out exactly what he was selling. 


Born in Canada to Irish immigrants, Walter Duffy was no stranger to whisky. His father Edward was a successful liquor salesman in Canada, but the elder Duffy was soon looking for a better life and found his landing spot in Rochester, NY.

In the 1860s he established a cider mill at the corner of White Street and Lake Avenue and produced cider vinegar products, and dabbled in refining whisky. He made enough money to send his young son off to St. Michael’s college in Toronto. And then at 17, young Walter would return to Rochester, taking a job as a clerk in his father's store. Saving up all that he could, by the age 26, he was able to purchase half of his father’s business along with a partner A.S. Bigelow. But not long after, Walter found enough money to buy out his partner, and he rechristen the business Walter B. Duffy & Co.

To all that watched him work, Walter was a certified hustler and he helped build the company from a $3000 per year business in 1868 to a $250k a year business by 1877. He would upgrade the cider mill with a grinder that would crank out 3000 bushels of apples a day, more output than any machine in the world. And his products reach far and wide, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. 

Walter would marry Theresa O'Dea in 1868 and she would bear him six sons and four daughters before she passed away in 1884.

And with all of those mouths to feed, Walter soon looked beyond the cider mill, and built the Rochester Distilling Company for the purpose of distilling and rectifying, French spirits, malt, wheat, rye and bourbon. His brands included Elite, Genessee, Kentucky Raider, Rochester, and Tromley Rye, but his best known product was called Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey. 

And that name had been used strategically. During the late 19th Century up through Prohibition, malt extract was sold as a patent medicine to aid in digestion and help provide a rejuvenating sleep. Just a spoonful of this liquid would be just enough to allow a whisky drinker to get their nightcap without their teetotalling spouse raising a fuss. And Walter would have been quite familiar with the practice of marketing alcoholic spirits as medicinal remedies. And it wasn’t just in the myriad of advertisements in the paper, two of his neighbors in Rochester were doing quite well with patent medicines. There was Asa Soule, who sold his hop bitters regionally and H.H. Warner with his Warner’s Safe Cure.

It seemed that all Walter needed was the right marketing! 

His first job was to get it into the hands of doctors and apothecaries. So rather than putting his own face on the bottle, he decided to use a scientist's face on the label, claiming that his whisky came from the mind of one of the greatest chemists in the world. To put a punctuation mark on the suggestion, he would include a dosing spoon with every bottle of Duffy’s Pure Malt Whisky that was sold. 

Whatever your ailment, a bad constitution, hemorrhaging, influenza, malaria pneumonia, dyspepsia, or even depression, this "Pure Stimulant" as the label suggested was just what the doctor ordered! Literally - as his label also proclaimed that over seven thousand physicians had prescribed it. 

His newspaper ads went even further. A headline screamed “Why Grow Old: when you can be strong and vigorous at 100 years old!” The ad would go on to claim “Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey” was the fountain of youth and “a godsend to old people.” And he backed up the claim with a bunch of testimonials. From Abram Elmer of Utica, NY who at 120 claimed he had spent the last 30 years drinking Duffy’s as his only medicine. Mr. Townshend of Long Island, who claimed at 104 he was as fit as he was at 25. And Mr. Ralph Bullick of Brooklyn said at 105, he felt as vigorous as he did at 40, all thanks to Duffy’s. 

The secret of the potion, according to the ad was that it was a whiskey with no fusel oil, the most dangerous ingredient in whiskey. And because they had stripped that out, it now had medicinal properties that would cure grip, asthma, bronchitis, and consumption!

Even today fusel oil gets blamed for hangovers and foul tastes in whiskey. In fact, fusel is a German word used for bad liquor. And in the late 19th Century, there were plenty of distillers that left too much of the tails in their spirit runs, but it wasn’t the most dangerous chemical in whiskey, and simply removing these oils would only served to make the whiskey taste different, it wouldn’t have made it a miracle cure. A glass of pure water would do more for your health than his whiskey.

But the genius of Walter Duffy went beyond his outrageous health claims. He also sold his whiskey to shops, bars and restaurants, something his patent medicine competition couldn’t do. 

But not every decision Walter made was golden. His venturing into the Maryland rye market was likely a step too far and the distillery he built in Baltmore to produce his Maryland Star brand, failed not long after it was built. And the business went into bankruptcy.

Still, success would be his, even through the Panic of 1893, and even with the strong advances of Joseph Greenhut’s Whisky Trust. 

There would be a few years of sorrow in the Duffy household, as Walter’s wife Theresa passed away in 1884. He would spend his time shuttling back and forth between Europe and America for years, before falling in love with Loretta Putnam, during his time in London. The two would marry and she would return with him to Rochester, where she took full advantage of his growing finances and began collecting rare art and antiques to fill their palatial mansion. 


On the morning of February 16th, 1898 the headline of the San Francisco Examiner pronounced in all CAPITAL letters “The Battleship Maine Blown Up in Havana Harbor.’ Showing solidarity with Cuban guerrillas against Spain, the United States had sent the battleship to Cuba to lend support to the cause. And its destruction with what was thought to be an underwater mine had touched off a major conflict in the Caribbean. 

A peace loving President William McKinley decided war was unavoidable and Congress passed the war declaration on April 25th. Shout of “Remember The Maine” echoed throughout the country. 

But Congress had a problem. The coffers for the military were thin and so money needed to be raised. As usual, sinful whiskey would be a primary target of politicians. But alcohol wouldn’t be alone, patent medicines would also be required to carry a tax stamp, but at the greatly reduced price of two cents per bottle.

Walter saw his chance to leverage his medicinal claims and lobbied the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, N. B. Scott, for status as a patent medicine, so he could save hundreds of thousands on the tax stamp. The word "malt" was convincing enough to bring the revenueer on board and he ruled that "Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey, is being advertised as a cure for consumption, dyspepsia, malaria, etc., liable to a stamp tax as a medicinal article." A further memo, meant to clarify the decision, said that although Duffy's contained nothing but distilled spirits, it still could be considered a patent medicine.

For all of his advertising prowess through bogus claims, nothing suited Walter better than a Federal stamp of approval, confirming to the public that his product actually was a medicine!

The success of the Rochester Distilling Company eventually led Walter to America’s greatest emerging whiskey center, the Bluegrass State of Kentucky.

The balance of whisky power had been shifting from New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to Illinois and Kentucky. And thanks to Col. E.H. Taylor’s staunch defending of Kentucky’s bourbon reputation, thanks to the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act, Kentucky Bourbon was gaining a strong foothold as America’s spirit. 

So it had to be a gut wrenching moment, when Walter Duffy, one of the rectifiers he so detested, moved into Frankfort, Kentucky and purchased Taylor’s once prized Old Fashioned Copper Distillery, which at the time was called the George T. Stagg Distillery, and put it under his newly branded New York and Kentucky Company. 

Money was no object for Walter at the turn of the Century, he would use his wealth to better his hometown of Rochester, building the National Theatre and a large Main Street department store called Duffy McInnerney. 

But he wasn’t just about creating more revenue sources for himself and he was more than just the callus one dimensional profiteer many historians have made him out to be. 

As a local historian William Farley Peck put it - Walter was extremely philanthropic and a 'big brained, big hearted, courteous gentleman.' "Much of the time has been in recent years devoted to the betterment of conditions among the poorer classes and at all times he manifests a philanthropic spirit that gives ready response to a call for needed aid from individual, organizations or municipality. Rochester acknowledges her indebtedness to him along many lines."  

It seemed the sky was the limit for Walter Duffy. But dark storm clouds loomed on the horizon.


When Illinois representative James Mann rose to give a speech to Congress in 1906, the floor of the House was spellbound by tales of fruits colored by poisonous red dyes and chemicals being added to whisky. 

It was the Progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt and everything from labor abuses, to monopolies, to unscrupulous food production were being burned under the microscope of muckraking journalists and political leaders. 

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle would serve to shake a sleeping nation out of its slumber and now Congress was acting to curb the abuses.

Soon a bill came forth arguing against “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.” 

To help drive the public even further to the side of the bill, a journalist with Collier’s Weekly, Samuel Hopkins Adams put forth an 11-part series on the abuses of the patent medicine industry. Titled “The Great American Fraud” it pointed out the danger of false claims and took direct aim at Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey. 

How could Walter Duffy stand there straight faced, calling this whiskey a “cure.” An agent of relief maybe, but a cure? 

And to make his case he decided to dig into a 1905 advertisement that suggested “Clergymen Endorse Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey.” Adams thought, no self-respecting clergyman would sign his name to such trash. He decided to reach out to the men in the article. As it turned out, only one of the three men pictured were actually clergy. One ran a Matrimonial Bureau and had been paid $10 for the use of his photo. Another was a racehorse owner and deputy internal revenue collector. And the third, who actually was a clergyman, had lost his job because of his association with the ad and its false claims. 

Adams' articles and the outrage of the public would lead congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and on June 9th President Roosevelt signed it into law. And while it sent a warning shot to all vendors of low character, it didn’t immediately put an end to the practice of doctoring food and spirits, or making outrageous claims. 

It would take lawsuits and lawyers to accomplish that.


As damning as Adams articles were, they had little effect on the sales of Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey.

And even legal actions were brushed away like flies. 

Thinking he could at least gain back the lost tax revenue from the Federal medical seal of approval Duffy’s was given years before New York Commissioner of the Excise Patrick W. Cullinan, took Duffy to court, claiming his product was nothing but a sweetened whiskey with no active medical ingredient. Duffy's lawyers would enlist the testimony of eleven physicians who swore up and down the whisky contained drugs. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. 

The state finally won its case, but this was just one state out of fifty. Again a minor irritation to the highly successful Duffy.

But Walter had another enemy coming his way. Dr. Harvey W. Wylie had been appointed as the first head of the newly developed Food and Drug Administration. And Duffy's, was at the top of his list to go after. He called it "one of the most gigantic frauds of the age and a flagrant violation of the law." But apparently few were as passionate about bringing Duffy's down as he was. He'd say there were "determined efforts [by] my colleagues to protect Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey from being molested either by seizure or bringing any criminal case against the maker."

Even the Supreme Court was brought in on a case of a young nurse whose photo had been placed in an ad in the Chicago Sunday Times, claiming she drank and recommended Duffy’s - of which she did neither. The high court would side with the decisions against Duffy’s.

But no one could ever bring down Walter B. Duffy. In fact the only thing that stopped him was death itself. He would pass away in 1911.

But his son Walter J. Duffy, wouldn’t be so lucky and Dr. Wylie would finally get his way in 1915, all medical claims were to be removed from the label. All that remained were the words "tonic Stimulant" and "household remedy."

Once Prohibition hit, Walter did his best to save the company by moving it to Los Angeles and changing the name to Duffy's Laboratory Ltd. Now selling Duffy’s Pure Malt Tonic, it held out as long as it could as a medicinal product, but wby 1926, it was relegated to the dustbin of history.

So if the FDA was dead set against Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, why were there six licenses approved for selling medicinal whiskey? Was it a belief that whiskey did actually have some healing qualities, or was it because revenuers enjoyed their whisky based nightcaps as much as the next person? Hard to say. But being forced to get a prescription to obtain it, the promotion of the spirit would move from the distillers to the doctors.

As for patent medicines, some actually survive to this day - including aspirin, tonic water, cough drops, and a whole host of soft drinks, including Coca-Cola which ultimately swapped its active ingredient cocaine for caffeine, 7-Up which contained a mood stabilizing drug called lithium citrate, Hires Root Beer which claimed to purify the blood, and Pepsi whose name is actually the Greek word for digestion. And today patent medicines have taken on a new form, in the non-regulated industry of supplements.

When we look back on the Duffy’s and Stanley’s of the past, we may think that we are much smarter than our 19th Century counterparts, and that we could spot a snake oil salesman from a mile away. But today’s snake oil salespeople have become a lot more subtle and hard to catch. They have to be...thanks to the over exuberance men like Clark Stanley, Walter Duffy and the patent medicine men who brought a country out of its slumber and forced politicians to care.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

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