REVIEW: Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam
by Pope Brock
Three Rivers Press, New York, USA (2008)
Paperback: 324 pages
Goat glands, greed, and the gullibility of others turned out to be a winning combination for John R. Brinkley. In the early years of the 20th century it seemed as if science could do anything, perhaps even extend life – including life in the bedroom – well beyond the allotted three-score years and ten. Brinkley saw a market there, and managed to parlay the testicles of young goats, combined with the gullibility of the vain, the impotent, and the just plain desperate into an enormous personal fortune.
Pope Brock’s biography of Brinkley, Charlatan, is both entertaining & alarming in equal measure. Entertaining, because it’s quite a rollicking read. Alarming, because it highlights how easy it is for someone with a persuasive manner and a feel for the market to hoodwink an awful lot of people, and get rich doing it. For despite the fact that Brinkley had no real medical training, he somehow manage to persuade large numbers of men to part with good money (hard to come by, in the Depression years) for the dubious privilege of having the gonads of young billy goats implanted into their own scrotums. (These days, I guess people buy cialis & horny goatweed on-line instead.) We’re not told what subsequently happened to the goats.
Now, the mind boggles at the sequelae of this, given the way your immune system would likely reject the goat gonads, & the likelihood of the transplants decaying anyway since they’d have had no blood supply. But nonetheless, Brinkley prospered & somehow people never seemed to hear of the folks for whom things went very, very pear-shaped. Nor was he alone in his endeavours: other quacks offered chimp glands, vasectomies, & various ‘electric’ treatments – for rejuvenation, as well as the more personal problems in the bedroom, but somehow it was Brinkley who rose to the top, eventually even travelling to Japan to market his techniques.
Brinkley fairly quickly set up shop in a purpose-built hospital in Milford, Kansas. You’d think that staying in one place for too long would not be a sensible move for a charlatan, but Brinkley prospered there – to the extent that he even ran for governor. Perhaps he was bringing so much money, & business, into the town that people turned a blind eye to his failures. Brock describes how Brinkley built his own not-so-small empire in Milford. Having recognised the power of advertising, the good doctor expanded into mail-order nostrums for pretty much anything that ailed you, and then into the brave new world of the airwaves. When the regulators finally removed his medical licence, he simply left a couple of locums to do the operations and threw himself into expanding his radio operations, eventually broadcasting from a massive station just over the border with Mexico (to get around the US ruling that radio stations could use only 5000 watts: Brinkley deafened the southern states with his 500,000 W transmitter). In the process, Brock tells us, he even kickstarted America’s love affair with country-&-western music.
There was, of course, an eventual reckoning. Into Brinkley’s story, Pope weaves the tale of the various medical investigators who tried to shut him down; most notably, Morris Fishbein, eventually the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It took years, but finally, in 1939, Brinkley had his day in court, and lost. Once found guilty of medical malpractice, he was sued by many individuals & the IRS chased him for back taxes. His radio station closed, & he died in 1942.
But why did Brinkley have such a long run? You’d think, with a ‘treatment’ that was worthless, reality would have caught up with him much earlier. In explanation, Brock provides the following quote from Samuel Johnson, which probably goes a long way to explain why charlatans like Brinkley have never really left us:
[W]e go with expectation and desire of being pleased; we meet others who are brought by the same motives; no one will be the first to own the disappointment; one face reflects the smile of another, till each believes the rest delighted, and endeavours to catch and transmit the circulating rapture. In time, all are deceived by the cheat to which all contribute. The fiction of happiness is propagated by every tongue, and confirmed by every look, till at last all profess the joy which they do not feel, [and] consent to yield to that general delusion.