him to be dubbed the “Diamond King.” A typical Lighthall tent show would begin with musical selections, half of which were rousing patriotic songs with the rest being popular minstrel dance songs. A series of comedians, puppeteers and sometimes fire-eaters would be followed by the Diamond King offering free dental extractions to anyone in the audience. In places where there were few dentists and few folks who could afford one, as much as a third of his audience might volunteer for the procedure. One witness reported the Doc “busy as a butcher preparing a barbecue for a firemen’s picnic, hurling molars and incisors hight into the air like shooting stars on a dark night.” The climax came when Lighthall himself stepped out onto the stage in a full length beaver fur coat with his dazzling crystal headed cane, and immediately launched into an impassioned spiel on the ailments of the time and the herbal nostrums brewed to treat them.
far less dangerous than most of what contemporary physicians administered. “Modern” medicine in the 19th Century was a scary proposition. Licensed doctors routinely bled their patients still, for all manner of debilities. Bones were set and wounds stitched with no anesthesia, and infection commonly set in that either slowed recovery or even cost the patient her life. Unlike the often addictive, suppressive or otherwise harmful “wonder drugs” being sanctioned and sold by the big companies, Lighthall’s preparations were never marketed as “cures”. As he puts it in his 1883 “Indian Household Medicine Guide”: “Medicine never cures anything. It is a natural tendency of a majority of diseases to get well within themselves. Medicine simply assists nature to remove the cause that obstructs her acting in a natural condition.” Herbal preparations like Lighthall’s “Spanish Oil” and “King of Pain” remedy offered a reasonable alternative to audiences estranged from “city doctors” yet already removed from the herbal practices and knowledge base of their own cultural ancestors.
Calling out a litany of common ailments, he would suggest a different formula for each. Handbills filled with optimistic health claims would be tossed into the crowd, “Read the testimonials from home, folks! If the high price of paper didn’t prevent, we could give you thousands more just like ‘em!” Lighthall’s Indians would then do a medicine dance down the aisles between the seats, handing out bottles of tinctures and linaments for fifty cents to a dollar from the many in the audience with raised and waving hands. The Doc’s preparations were lambasted by publications such as the publication “Texas Quackery,” as part of a campaign against patent medicines and home brews of all kinds, supposedly in the interest of “family safety” but predictably financed by the big eastern corporations striving for a complete hegemony of pharmaceutical drugs.
There were Medicine Men who sold preparations that were either devoid of useful herbs, but the Diamond King was not one of them. And while he freely admitted he was fond of making money, he was also known to wrap a five dollar bill around a bottle of medicine and give it free to someone in need. And Lighthall’s death at a young age showed how much he cared as well. On a selling tour through south of the border in Mexico, the charismatic herbalist from Peoria, Indiana heard about an outbreak of smallpox in a nearby village. Canceling the remainder of the tour, he and most of his troupe rushed to volunteer their aid. Believing that his vital force was too strong for him to be susceptible, he was undoubtedly surprised to find he not only contracted the disease but steadily worsened. James I. Lighthall was transported back to San Antonio and a private room within site of the Alamo, when on January 25th, 1886, Mexicans and Anglos alike cried... and the one, the only, Diamond King died.
As his Materia Medica of 1883 demonstrates, Lighthall actually had an unusually sound grasp of herbal actions. We can never know to what degree his preparations were truly inspired by Native American herbal practice as claimed, but he clearly sold known plant medicines that were 90
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