Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

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In 1917, after years of selling worthless patent remedies throughout the Southeast, John R. Brinkley -- America?s most brazen young con man -- arrived in the tiny town of Milford, Kansas. He set up a medical practice and introduced an outlandish surgical method using goat glands to restore the fading virility of local farmers.

It was all nonsense, of course, but thousands of paying customers quickly turned ?Dr.? Brinkley into America?s ...
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Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

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Overview

In 1917, after years of selling worthless patent remedies throughout the Southeast, John R. Brinkley -- America’s most brazen young con man -- arrived in the tiny town of Milford, Kansas. He set up a medical practice and introduced an outlandish surgical method using goat glands to restore the fading virility of local farmers.

It was all nonsense, of course, but thousands of paying customers quickly turned “Dr.” Brinkley into America’s richest and most famous surgeon. His notoriety captured the attention of the great quackbuster Morris Fishbein, who vowed to put the country’s “most daring and dangerous” charlatan out of business.

Their cat-and-mouse game lasted throughout the 1920s and ’30s, but despite Fishbein’s efforts Brinkley prospered wildly. When he ran for governor of Kansas, he invented campaigning techniques still used in modern politics. Thumbing his nose at American regulators, he built the world’s most powerful radio transmitter just across the Rio Grande to offer sundry cures, and killed or maimed patients by the score, yet his warped genius produced innovations in broadcasting that endure to this day. By introducing country music and blues to the nation, Brinkley also became a seminal force in rock ’n’ roll. In short, he is the most creative criminal this country has ever produced.

Culminating in a decisive courtroom confrontation that pitted Brinkley against his nemesis Fishbein, Charlatan is a marvelous portrait of a boundlessly audacious rogue on the loose in an America that was ripe for the bamboozling.

About the Author
POPE BROCK is the author of the critically acclaimed Indiana Gothic, the story of his great-grandfather’s murder in 1908. Brock has written for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ, and the London Sunday Times Magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his twin daughters, Molly and Hannah.
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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
…told with uproarious brio…Presentation is everything in telling this elaborate, many-faceted story. And Mr. Brock's has three outstanding virtues. First of all, he has a terrific ear for singling out quotations…Second, he is selective. This fast-moving, light-stepping book takes care not to throw in extraneous detail. Third, his own voice is wry enough to compete with the actual Brinkley material, which is saying a great deal…And the topicality of this material is deathless. Mr. Brock never lets his readers forget that the follies on display in Charlatan are alive and well today.
—The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
…[a] hugely amusing if somewhat sobering book…
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

John Brinkley, who grew up poor in rural North Carolina but attended Rush Medical College in Chicago, got his start touring as a medicine man hawking "miracle" tonics and became famous for transplanting goat testicles into impotent men. Brinkley built his own radio station in 1923, hustling his pseudoscience over the airwaves and giving an outlet to astrologers and country music. His nemesis was Dr. Morris Fishbein, the buoyant, compulsively curious editor of the Journal of the American Medical Associationwhose luminary friends included Sinclair Lewis, Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken. Fishbein took aim at Brinkley in JAMA, lay publications and pamphlets distributed by the thousands. Even after the Kansas State Medical Board yanked his medical license in 1930, Brinkley ran twice for governor of Kansas and almost won. Finally, Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and lost in a spectacular showdown. Brock (Indiana Gothic) did tremendous research on this rollicking story, but the result is at times unfocused, overwritten and digressive, borrowing just a little too much from the overblown rhetoric of its subject. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Feb. 5)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In this lively and absorbing biography, Brock deftly captures the consummate snake-oil salesman and gifted entrepreneur John R. Brinkley (1885-1942), in his day America's most famous (albeit uncredentialed) doctor. Not content peddling useless potions to the gullible for decent profits, Brinkley pursued fame and riches and built a wildly successful business transplanting goat testicles into thousands of men and even some women, from the poor to movie stars and politicians, all conned into parting with $750 and risking their lives for a miracle cure for impotence, infertility, or other ailments. Brock (Indiana Gothic) frames Brinkley's show-stopping exploits with a well-drawn portrait of Morris Fishbein, the editor of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, who worked for decades to discredit Brinkley, whom he considered the most dangerous quack in the land. Brinkley, the subject of earlier biographies, including R. Alton Lee's recent The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley, masterminded innovative marketing techniques still in use today, ran a close race for governor of Kansas, and built the first "border blaster" high-wattage radio station in Mexico, his influence thus extending even into music and broadcasting in America. Not bad for a serial killer. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/07.]
—Donna L. Davey

From the Publisher
"Brock is a fresh, sharp writer, lingering lovingly over the evocative language of fakery." —-Chicago Sun-Times
The Barnes & Noble Review
What could be more American than the Whopper? Burger King's flagship sandwich isn't just loaded with fat, the most patriotic of all calories. Its very name embodies the twin American obsessions: size and lies.

Dr. John R. Brinkley led a whopper of an American life, one overflowing with untruth. He started with an early apprenticeship in an anatomical museum that existed to sell fraudulent health tonics. By 1917, he had a questionable medical degree and his own gimmick: he claimed to restore men's virility by surgically implanting goat testicles into their bodies. In Charlatan, Pope Brock entertainingly recounts the places that this scheme took Dr. Brinkley: not just to his clinics in Kansas, Texas, and Arkansas, but into the worlds of politics, radio broadcasting, country music, and the rich and powerful.

Brinkley opened his first clinic in Milford, Kansas, claiming that augmenting your own testicles with those of an unfortunate goat was good for what ailed you. He charged a steep $750 and did booming business, ultimately owning his own radio station, all the better to tout the virtues of gland implants. Brinkley became fabulously wealthy and lived like he was waiting for MTV to invent Cribs: whenever he repainted the mansion on his 16-acre property in Del Rio, Texas, he would repaint his fleet of a dozen Cadillacs to match the house. When Brinkley sailed his yacht (he owned three in succession -- the last and largest had a crew of 21) to the Bahamas, he became friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (better known as the abdicated King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson).

Brinkley's patients -- or victims -- didn't fare so well. If they were lucky, they just went home with less money in their pockets. Others left with blood poisoning or festering wounds; dozens died at the clinic from Brinkley's butchery. Brinkley was not the only questionable doctor touting vigor borrowed from animals. Many doctors on the fringes of early-20th-century medicine were trying to find some way to exploit the power of glands; when people believed that monkey glands might provide an injection of youth, the price of chimpanzees shot up 600 percent. They were correct that there was power in glands if utterly misguided in how to access it. These medical follies eventually led to the isolation of testosterone -- and ultimately to modern steroids and congressional hearings on Roger Clemens.

Brinkley's story is still largely unknown, despite his being the subject of several books, including a pair of academic-press volumes from 2002: R. Alton Lee's Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley and Eric S. Juhnke's Quacks and Crusaders. Brock has done considerable original research for Charlatan, although he also draws heavily on Gerald Carson's 1960 volume, The Roguish World of Dr. Brinkley.

Where Brock really outdoes his predecessors is with the story of Dr. Morris Fishbein, who served as editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and played Inspector Javert to Brinkley's Valjean. Following Brinkley from state to state over the decades, the crusading Fishbein convinced various local authorities to revoke Brinkley's medical license and ultimately baited him into suing for libel, a decision that proved ruinous to Brinkley. Fishbein also rubbed elbows with a more cynical crew of celebrities: H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene Debs.

Brock's prose tends toward the purple, and sometimes he strains to make his narrative fit with his designated themes. Consider this early passage: "What this meant for Brinkley and Crawford, as they plotted the future, was that the old tonic wheeze would no longer suffice. They needed something with more snap, more pizzazz, something worthy of the age of Edison." Of course, Brinkley and his conspirator were not scheming a way to better embody the tenor of the times or hoping to fit into some future sociological overview of the era -- they were just looking for a good scam.

Brinkley's life went in so many directions, Brock sometimes provides only a quick gloss on its most fascinating aspects. Take Brinkley's two campaigns for Kansas governor, in 1930 and 1932. They were full of drama and innovation: Dr. Brinkley was groundbreaking in his use of an airplane to travel around the state -- and when he wasn't in the air, he was on the air, making powerful use of the new medium of radio. The 1930 election ended with a photo-finish victory of the Democrat over the Republican, with tens of thousands of disqualified write-in ballots for the independent Brinkley. The Republican candidate declined to ask for a recount, afraid that Brinkley might end up with the victory instead. This story is as compelling as the 1948 Texas senatorial election, which provided the meat of the 592-page Means of Ascent, the second volume of Robert A. Caro's brilliant LBJ biography. Brock disposes of the 1930 and 1932 gubernatorial campaigns in chapters of nine and eight pages, respectively.

Much more satisfying is Charlatan's treatment of Brinkley's radio career. In 1930, his KFKB station ("Kansas First, Kansas Best") was the most popular radio station in the United States. His license was pulled by the Federal Radio Commission (the forerunner of the FCC) the same year, for excessive advertising and general obscenity. (The latter charge came because in Brinkley's "Medical Question Box" program, he not only handed out bad medical advice but routinely used words such as "erection.") After he sold KFKB to a Wichita insurance company, he went down to Mexico and spent $350,000 to erect two
300-foot towers that broadcast the first "border blaster" radio station, XER. By 1932, he was broadcasting on a million watts, making XER the world's most powerful radio station by far.

Brock writes: "A technician there now reported that the transmitter 'makes the hair on your arms stand up.' Locals said the signal was so strong it turned on car headlights, made their bedsprings hum, and sent Brinkley's voice wandering in and out of other people's telephone conversations.... A Montreal station two thousand miles away reported chronic interference from XER. On clear nights Brinkley reached Alaska, skipped across to Finland, was picked up by ships on the Java Sea. In later years Russian spies reportedly used the station to help them learn English."

Aside from pushing the virtues of goat testicles, XER (which Brinkley later renamed XERA) played a lot of country and Tex-Mex music. In Arkansas, a young Johnny Cash was listening -- and hearing not only the music but also the voice of his future wife June Carter. Just ten years old, she was singing on XERA with the Carter Family.

Things didn't end well for Brinkley. He became enamored of the Nazis, who were drawing on the same techniques of mass manipulation as he was. Brinkley even redecorated his swimming pool with red swastikas. He lost his radio station and his medical license; in 1941, he declared bankruptcy. After a heart attack, his health declined quickly; he died in 1942.

Despite Charlatan's subtitle, the "age of flim-flam" didn't end sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Brinkley and his peers merely presided over the dawn of flim-flam. In today's world, advertising is ever more lurid and emotional. Government initiatives such as the Clear Skies Act have effects diametrically opposed to their names. The golden age of flim-flam? We're living in it, here in the home of the whopper. --Gavin Edwards

Gavin Edwards is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Wired, among other publications. His most recent book is Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307339881
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/5/2008
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.49 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author


Pope Brock is the author of Indiana Gothic and a former staff writer at GQ.

Johnny Heller has won two prestigious Audie Awards, earned numerous Audie nominations, and was named one of the Top 50 Narrators of the Twentieth Century by AudioFile magazine.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 13 of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2008

    WWII buffs should read this book

    In addition to the excellent points in the Dr's review, the author peels back a very important layer of the 30's in America when a powerful flirtation with Facism bubbled to the surface in many more places than we would like to admit. The so called 'Dr.' Brinkley was an open admirer of Adolf Hitler and an active participant in the America First movement. The Dr. may have well won election as govenor of Kansas by independently taking up the campaign vehicle that der Furher is credited with inventing - the campaign airplane. The Democrats and the Republicans likely colluded to prevent his election. If so it was a rare instance in American history when the end may well have really justified the means. Brinkely also pionered talk radio and mass marketing. Folks like Johnny Cash got their careers started on his border blaster radio station located just south of the Rio Grande.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2008

    A reviewer

    Imagine, if you will, a time when water laced with radium promoted good health, wearing an electric fez was guaranteed to re-grow hair, and having the 'glands' of a monkey or goat grafted onto your own could restore youth and sexual virility. Sounds like the Dark Ages, right? Try something a bit closer to today... say, less than 100 years ago. These treatments and others were common in an America struggling to recover from the horror of World War I and the shock of the Great Depression. Some were legitimate trial-and-error experiments by trained and learned physicians. Most were dangerous, sometimes deadly frauds perpetrated by skilled fly-by-night 'doctors' who make the fictional Professor Harold Hill look like a saint. Pope Brock's new book ''Charlatan'' focuses on the meteoric rise and fall of Dr. John Brinkley -- the most famous of the early 20th century's medical hucksters -- and Morris Fishbein, the crusading editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who made it his life's work to bust medical quacks of all stripes, but Brinkley in particular. It's also a startling look at how far the medical profession has come in the past century, in terms of approving the education and conduct of its members. Brock takes what could have been dry and dull and makes it into a crackling read. A definite must-read!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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