Date of Award

Spring 4-25-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Mark Noble

Second Advisor

Audrey Goodman

Third Advisor

Larry Youngs


This thesis investigates the historical American medicine show of 1880-1900 through the lens of contemporaneous social and cultural debates, primarily regarding class and race relations. The medicine show pitchmen, the central figure of the medicine show, is the progeny of the confidence man of the mid to late-nineteenth century, best personified through the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and P.T. Barnum and novels of Herman Melville and Mark Twain. The confidence man utilized a performative identity directed towards the assumed needs and desires of his audience, which gave him a purely pragmatic orientation. As the confidence man filtered through emerging forms of popular entertainment, he found his place in the traveling medicine show in the figure of the medicine man. In many ways, the medicine show functioned as a cultural arena in which the concerns of rural audiences about the ongoing professionalization of the classes, specifically within the medical profession, were investigated and manipulated.