The Story of Painless Parker
Adapted from Smithsonian Magazine’s “A Brief History of America’s Most Outrageous Dentist”
Having a tooth pulled in the early 1900s was anything but awful. You’d climb up into the back of a traveling caravan, surrounded by a booming brass band, sparkling costumed women, and next to a bucket of pulled teeth carried by a dapper gentleman with a goatee. In time with the band’s cheerful tune, out would come your tooth, guaranteed to be a painless—and even entertaining!—extraction.
Well, not quite. Victims of this ruse, run by the famed dentist Painless Parker and his Dental Circus, often left the appointment hoarse from their screams of pain.
When Edgar Randolph “Painless” Parker first became a dentist in 1892, most offices (called dental parlors at the time) were incredibly unsanitary and the dentists were usually unlicensed. People didn’t want to go, so they tended to treat themselves at home with narcotic-laced over-the-counter medication. Parker began his practice, which he advertised on placards reading “Painless Parker,” to take advantage of the current dental atmosphere: a lack of trained practitioners and patients’ fears of pain. He concocted a cocaine solution to dull the pain of tooth extractions, but it didn’t always work; sometimes he just gave his patients a glass of whiskey instead.
But Parker wasn’t content to stop with his small business. Donning a top hat, coattails, and a necklace he made out of teeth (supposedly the 357 teeth he pulled in one day), he partnered with William Beebe, a former employee of P.T. Barnum, to create a traveling dental circus in 1913. At the show, Parker would bring a pre-planted person out of the audience and pretend to pull out a molar, showing the audience an already-pulled tooth he was hiding as evidence that the extraction was completely painless. Then, accompanied by a brass band, contortionists, and dancing women, real patients would climb into the chair for the same procedure.
While he pulled the tooth out, for 50 cents an extraction, Parker would tap his foot on the ground to signal the band to play louder—effectively drowning out the patient’s pained screams. He still used the cocaine solution—but instead of injecting it to numb the mouth, he’d squirt it into the cavity—and that only worked sometimes, if at all. Still, Parker managed to become popular. Dental patients and visitors liked the distraction of the brass band and the rest of the circus. Thanks to the band, no one heard the moans—and everyone but the hapless patient assumed the treatment didn’t hurt a bit.