deceive, inveigle, obfuscate

charlatan_coverIt’s a human universal that men are concerned about their package, and at a time (early 20th century) and place (America) with little regulation of medicine or advertising, preying on sexual insecurity was particularly lucrative. And while modern dick pills may produce more creatively oblique sexual metaphors—throwing a football through a tire—back then, peddling sexual prowess had more flair.

The late 19th and early 20th century was the time of patent medicines. Before food and drug safety laws, most of those medicines were either (a) colored water or (b) alcohol mixed with opiates, cocaine, or some unspecified amalgam of narcotics, herbal remedies, and/or industrial poisons. If they solved your medical problems, it was probably be rendering you senseless, replacing your current problem with a crippling addiction, or outright killing you.

Revitalizing tonics and vivifying elixirs were merely the tip of the dubiously-useful medicinal iceberg. Radium, mercury, vibration, X-rays, magnets, and on and on and on, with some treatments so seductive that they resurfaced years after being debunked. But one particular remedy dominated the 1920s: GLANDS. And by glands I mean testicles. The 1920s were the age of speakeasies, flappers, the charleston, and also rejuvenation doctors, where “rejuvenation” was a sanitized jazz-age metaphor for “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 in his time; unrequited love and amoral prosperity rendering his member as wilted and flaccid as his soul.

•     •     •

America’s confidence-less and unvirile—its great masses of carnal milquetoasts—demanded a champion. They found one: into a country riven by sexual torpor and flagging machismo stepped “Dr.” J.R. Brinkley, a man with a potentially fake medical degree from a definitely real diploma mill. Not, of course, that it mattered; flim-flam does not require proper accreditation.

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

Why goat testicles? It’s unclear. Brinkley was not the first grifter to dabble in testicular xenotransplantation; a less charismatic rejuvenation-doctor-cum-mad-scientist was reputed to keep 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 for their sexual vigor—a potency that could, presumably, 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 also 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 sexual desires restored. He impregnated his wife and went on to proselytize for Brinkley, with the baby—SON OF GOAT GLAND—serving as a priceless advertisement; a physical embodiment of the sexual avidity that awaited new customers. So successful was Brinkley that the goat gland procedure soon became not only a supposed cure for impotence and 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. Brinkley traveled the country, slingin’ goat nuts everywhere he went. And despite his occasional drunkenness, loutish behavior, and the trail of dead bodies in his wake—he was not, after all, an accomplished surgeon—people just kept buying.

He was selling himself as much as he was selling goat testicles, and made a smooth transition to a run for governor of his adopted Kansas. The campaign began 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, setbacks that did little to quell his popularity. He probably would have won the governorship if he hadn’t entered the race too late to be listed on the ballot; when major-party machinery realized he might win, they mobilized to pass legislation requiring write-in votes exactly match the legal spelling of a candidate’s name. Brinkley lost by 30,000 votes, fewer than he’s estimated to have lost due to the name-matching shenanigans.

Bad things happen in threes, but losing his license, radio station, and the governorship did not stop Brinkley—it merely emboldened him. 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 had a flair for innovation. He plumbed the money-making depths of radio advertising, renting airtime to other quacks peddling harebrained tonics, making him the Ponzi in a 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 (“ask your pharmacist for prescription number 65!”). 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, Brinkley’s creativity might have proven useful to society; instead we are left to marvel at his brazen and incorrigible quackery.

•     •     •

Brinkley was a confidence man undone by his own confidence. The particular instrument of his destruction was Morris Fishbein, who acted as the AMA’s designated quack hunter (and defendant in 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 brought Brinkley to court for his crimes against both humanity and ballsacks; Brinkley deployed his considerable charm to assuage the jury’s concerns and avoid conviction.

Brinkley escaped the law, but not for long. Fishbein waged a years-long media war, culminating in referring to Brinkley as a “charlatan” in a 1938 article. Finally snapping at the constant badgering, Brinkley sued for libel—without realizing that to win, he would have to prove his reputation was good enough to be sullied. Brinkley took the stand. 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 absorbed 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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