deceive, inveigle, obfuscate

charlatan_coverIt’s a human universal that men are concerned about the potency of their package. And at a time (late 19th, early 20th century) and place (America) with little or no regulation of doctors, medicine, or advertising, preying on sexual insecurity was a lucrative business. It still is—dick pill commercials take oblique sexual metaphor to dizzying levels at astronomical costs—but it used to have more flair.

Before food and drug safety laws of the early 20th century, most patent medicines where either a) colored water or b) alcohol mixed with opiates (laudanum), cocaine (coca wine), or any of dozens of other narcotics, herbal remedies, or industrial poisons. If they solved your medical problems, it was probably by inducing a narcotic haze rendering you insensate, by replacing your malady with a crippling addiction to one or more substances, or by outright killing you.

Revitalizing tonics were just the tip of the iceberg: one could make a delightful timeline of quack medicine fads (as well as their debunking and subsequent recurrences) like radium, mercury, vibration, x-rays, and magnets. But the 1920s were dominated by GLANDS. And by glands, I mean testicles. Besides speakeasies, flappers, and the charleston, the 1920s were the age of rejuvenation doctors, where “rejuvenation” was a sanitized, jazz-age way of saying “if you can’t club a baby seal to death with your erection, you’ll never satisfy a woman.” Jay Gatsby, I’m sure, visited a rejuvenation doc or two in his time, unrequited love and amoral prosperity having rendered his member as wilted and flaccid as his soul.

The confidence-less and unvirile of America demanded a champion, and they found one. Into America’s vacuum of sexual potency and dashed machismo stepped “Dr.” J.R. Brinkley, a man with a potentially fake medical degree from a definitely real diploma mill. Not that it mattered, since it doesn’t take a degree to be a huckster.

Brinkley, born in 1885, had dabbled in mountebank-ism as a younger man—he and a partner had been run out of a small southern town for peddling ineffective tonics—but in 1918 moved to Milford, Kansas and established himself as a “real” doctor. He quickly won the town over with his charm and charisma, but he had big plans in the works: a “rejuvenation” procedure that entailed the transplantation of goat testicles into the scrotums of his patients.

Why goat testicles? It’s unclear. Certainly Brinkley was not the first to dabble in testicular xenotransplantation; a less charismatic rejuvenation-doctor-cum-mad-scientist was well known for keeping a menagerie in his apartment, where he tested the vitality-restoring properties of their gonads. Brinkley’s authorized hagiography, meanwhile, claims the goat-gland procedure was actually suggested by his first patient, with the doctor only reluctantly agreeing. Billy goats, you see, were renowned through the heartland for their impressive sexual vigor—which, presumably, could be transplanted into humans, thus placing them, like the horny goat whose nuts they had resorbed, in a state of permanent concupiscence.

However it happened and whoever had the idea, it’s a universal truth that any successful person needs at least one lucky break. Here was Brinkley’s: the first person who had the goat-testicle-transplant not only survived, but—the placebo effect being what it is—saw his impotence cured and carnal desires restored, and impregnated his wife. He went on to proselytize for Brinkley, and the baby—SON OF GOAT GLAND, or as the Irish would call him, McGoatGland—became a priceless advertisement, a physical embodiment of the sexual potency that awaited new customers. Brinkley began hawking his “goat gland procedure” as a cure not just for impotence or vigorlessness, but for everything from cancer to flatulence.

Goat glands became a booming business in Kansas. And California. And elsewhere. Brinkley erected a radio tower in Milford and began peddling his testicular wares on the unregulated airwaves—even upsetting the sexual mores of the zeitgeist by offering the procedure as a sexual restorative for women, whom everyone was shocked to discover actually had sex. He traveled the country slingin’ goat nuts at every opportunity. And despite his occasional drunkenness, loutish behavior, and the TRAIL OF DEAD BODIES left in his wake—he was not an accomplished surgeon, after all—he became so popular in his adopted Kansas that he made a run for governor.

That campaign happened very shortly after his medical license was revoked by the nascent AMA for unvarnished quackery, and his radio station was shuttered by the nascent FCC for excessive flim-flammery. These setbacks did little to quell his popularity. Mostly, his downfall owed to deciding to run too late for his name to appear on the ballot. When the major-party machinery realized that Brinkley was likely to win, they hastily passed legislation requiring that write-in votes exactly match the legal spelling of the candidate’s name. He lost by only 30,000 votes, and most estimates suggest he lost at least that many votes to misspellings (he ran again, much more unsuccessfully, in 1932).

Bad things happen in threes, but losing his license, radio station, and the governorship did not stop Brinkley—it just made him think bigger. He hopped over the Rio Grande and erected a massive radio tower in radio-regulation-free Mexico. At a million watts, it was the most powerful radio station on earth, heard across most of the continental US. Thus did Brinkley usher in the era of so-called “border blaster” radio stations broadcasting from Mexico, where Wolfman Jack and a host of early country music stars got their start.

By now, Brinkley was performing fewer surgeries, but still making money. Like most successful charlatans, he demonstrated a flair for innovation exceeding “honest” businessmen. He was the first to truly plumb the depths of what radio advertising offered, such as renting airtime to other quacks peddling their own harebrained medical solutions, thus making Brinkley the Ponzi in a kind of pyramid scheme of medical dupery. He developed a medical Q & A program, in which he read letters from listeners, diagnosed their problems on-air, then advised them to take a numbered Brinkley’s brand prescription (e.g., “ask your pharmacist for prescription number 65!”), from which he received a kickback. His use of an airplane to make campaign stops during his run for governor was subsequently mimicked by many politicians of the time. Had he not left scores of dead bodies, amputated limbs, and mangled scrota behind him, his creativity might have proven useful to society; even still it’s hard not to be impressed by his innovation and his incorrigible and irrepressible defiance of every attempt to stop him.

Brinkley’s downfall was largely his own doing—a great example of the perils of hubris. The instrument of his destruction was Morris Fishbein, basically the AMA’s designated quack hunter (also part of the landmark Supreme Court decision US v Fishbein, in which it was determined that a man subjected to potential incineration, while wearing another man’s suit, is entitled to $10,000 in airline tickets). Fishbein had previously brought Brinkley to court for his crimes against both humanity and ballsacks; Brinkley had deployed his considerable charm to assuage the jury’s concerns and avoid conviction.

It was the birth of a lifetime of hatred. Fishbein waged a media war against Brinkley, eventually calling him a charlatan in a 1938 article. Finally snapping at what he perceived as constant badgering, Brinkley sued for libel—but didn’t realize he’d have to take the stand in order to prove that he had a reputation capable of being sullied. Things did not go well. After days of acrimonious testimony, his goat gland operations were shown to be fraudulent (he merely opened an incision and tossed the goat testicle inside, where it was resorbed by the body—he’d claimed it as a true transplantation), his medicines just colored water, and his medical degrees fake.

The decision in Fishbein’s favor unleashed a torrent of lawsuits from unsatisfied and/or scrotally-maimed patients and thusly did Brinkley’s empire come crashing down, with bankruptcy, destitution, and death soon to follow.

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