Medical professionals began studying the chemistry and efficacy of Native American herbal medicine in the mid 18th century. By the mid-1800’s, the healing “secrets” of Indian medicine men had become the stuff of legend, and – along with a gaggle of dubious patent medicines – a new breed of white “Indian doctors” emerged, attempting to sell their herbal remedies as cures passed down from Native Americans.
Albany was not without its share of Indian doctors. Probably the first among them was Dr. Ira G. Frazer, also known as a “root doctor,” another name for what we would today call a botanic physician.
While new varieties of quackery emerged and thrived, legitimate research into traditional Indian medicines continued, blurring the distinction between progress and pure fraud. There’s no doubt that some “Indian doctors” concocted herbal potions based on early research of Native American discoveries, but of course there was simply no way for the ill or infirm to know who among the horde were actually reputable, or which therapies effective.
In 1864, E. Ostrander, “the celebrated Indian Doctor” at 64 Union Street, claimed the ability to “detect diseases at a glance” and “cure cancer without a Knife.”
In 1869, Dr. Warren, an Indian doctor from New York City, set up a temporary parlor at the American Hotel,. His arrival kicked off with a long and detailed litany of miraculous claims and testimonials.
Around the same time, a likely fraud known simply as The Indian Doctor (“The Great Indian Healer”) hung a shingle at 8 Norton Street (later at 51 North Pearl Street). He advertised in every edition of the Albany Evening Times from 1869-1873.
With major advances in modern medicine in the latter part of the 19th Century, the era of “Indian doctor” flim-flammery had begun to wane. Here, at the Indian Village exhibit (”Genuine Red Men!” screamed the ads) that ran from 1882-1883, the Indian doctor is relegated to a sideshow at a carny exhibit.
Although self-professed Indian Doctors eventually went the way of all fads, the mythos of the traditional curative secrets of Native Americans has never left American culture. Indeed, a second coming began in the late 1960’s, as a new generation was attracted to the simple benefits of lives of wholeness, balance, and spirituality. Natural healing and new age therapies flourished, and continue to be promoted by spiritual teachers, shamen, and homeopathic practitioners. Now, as then, opportunists have sprung up to exploit the gullible and the desperate; and, unfortunately, discerning between the authentic and the fraudulent remains as difficult as ever.