Archive for Thursday, July 3, 2008

Charlatan’ exposes infamous huckster

Tale relates how ‘goat-gland doctor’ almost became governor of Kansas

July 3, 2008

Election fraud is nothing new. But in 1930 the collusion of the Kansas Democratic and Republican parties served to keep out of the governor's mansion a mass murderer. In all likelihood, J.R. Brinkley, known as the "goat-gland doctor" - a reference to the fraudulent medical practice he'd made millions on by implanting goat testes in the testicles of human men as a cure for impotence and old age - received more votes than either of his Democratic or Republican opponents.

Brinkley is known to have been responsible, through shoddy and fraudulent surgeries, for the deaths at his Milford, Kan., clinic of at least 42 of his patients from complications including infection and gangrene. Logic suggests that at least as many patients died after they left the clinic.

"Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, and The Age of Flimflam," by Pope Brock ($24.95, Crown Publishers 2008), tells the story of Brinkley' rise and fall.

As its title indicates, the book also follows the course of Morris Fishbein - editor of the Journal of the American Medical Society - in his mission to expose Brinkley, and the milieu of early 20th century America, in which a seemingly endless variety of quackeries thrived.

Brinkley did more than thrive, as Brock describes. Amazingly, Brinkley made more than a $1 million a year during the Depression, preying on both the unschooled as well as educated professionals who should have known better.

Brinkley had entered the 1930 race only five weeks before the election. His candidacy was his apparent solution to the state medical board's recent revocation of his license. Because he declared so soon before the election, his name wasn't on the ballots. It was probably thanks to an ad hoc requirement that Brinkley's name be spelled exactly in a certain way - including the periods after the two initials, followed by an "X" -contrived by both the political parties, and enforced by the attorney general, that Kansas avoided installing as governor a world-beating quack, though there were also known instances in that election of ballot dumping, as well as alleged voter fraud in Wyandotte County.

In the end, Democrat Harry Woodring was declared the winner over Republican Frank Haucke by 251 votes, 217,171 to 216,920. The official tally for Brinkley was 183,278 votes. He would run again in 1932 and 1934 but never came close to his 1930s polling numbers.

Brinkley's business success owed much to his genius at marketing both himself and his phony cures. Brinkley established the first radio station in Kansas, KFKB, in Milford, and when the Federal Radio Commission in concert with the Federal Trade Commission - predecessor of the modern Federal Communications Commission - shut him down, he took advantage of the Mexican government's resentment of the United States' commandeering of the radio spectrum. With Mexico's blessing Brinkley started the first "border blaster" station, XER, in Villa Acuña Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He began broadcasting at 500,000 watts, and eventually was transmitting at 1 million watts (at a time when the maximum allowed for a U.S. radio station was 5,000 watts).

The station's broadcasts - which, as he did with KFKB's, Brinkley used to sell a variety of potions and tonics - could be picked up in Canada, and local residents reported that their headlights would turn on of their own accord near the station, and bedsprings would vibrate.

If no other good thing came of Brinkley's cupidity and enterprise, old-time country-music fans can thank him for the popularization of what was then known as "hillbilly music," most notably that of the Carter Family, by broadcasting on XER their live performances across the United States and beyond.

A number of other well-known historical figures also appear in the pages of "Charlatan," some of them repeatedly, including Baltimore Sun editor and skeptic H.L. Mencken, the novelist Sinclair Lewis, and five-time presidential candidate and socialist Eugene Debs. Two doctors with their own notions about rejuvenating the human body - one of them, through transplanting monkey testes, and the other, through vasectomies - also turn up repeatedly in the book. The difference between Brinkley and Drs. Serge Voronoff and Eugen Steinach was that the latter two were both treated respectfully in the articles of the New York Times. It wasn't until 1938 the paper accorded Brinkley with a "Dr.," although he had no degree but an honorary one from the University of Pavia in Italy and one purchased from a diploma mill, the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City.

The "doctor" met his end career-wise in 1939 after he took the bait of Fishbein and sued him for libel. The trial took place in Del Rios, and even though the jury was stocked with locals more than sympathetic to Brinkley for the prosperity he brought to the area when it was hard times everywhere, its verdict was for Fishbein. As Brock writes, the doctor may have been done in most by the revelation that the Formula 1020 he sold his patients post-surgery for $100 for six ampules was nothing but tinted water, and Brinkley's inexplicable admission under cross-examination that the goat glands he implanted were merely inserted in a slit and sewn up, with no connecting of nerves or blood vessels.

His radio station was shut down and he declared bankruptcy in 1941. He died May 26, 1942.

"Charlatan" may be the most hard-to-put-down book of history - or any other genre - this reviewer has read. Because the story of J.R. Brinkley is full of so many strange turns, facts and evidence of the seemingly infinite human capacity for being gulled, it's hard to say how much of this is due to Brock's skill as a writer and researcher and how much it's due to the story itself. In the end that's got to be the sign of a great history book: It makes you wonder how its story could not engross even the dullest philistine.

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