A Tribute to a Scoundrel: Pope Brock’s “Charlatan”
From 1917 to 1942, a man named John R. Brinkley became very rich and famous for transplanting goat testicles (which he called “glands”) into thousands of men, who paid dearly for the procedure thinking that it would revive their libido. That hundreds died, thousands suffered terrible pain and were maimed and crippled for life from a dangerous, expensive and useless operation does not take away from the magnificent marketing genius and chutzpah of this titan of quacks.
Pope Brock’s charming little book “Charlatan” is Brinkley’s story, along with that of Dr. Morris Fishbein, who devoted his life trying to put the wily Brinkley out of business. It is a classic story of gullible folks and the art of manipulation through entertainment and promotion.
In the course of “Charlatan,” we learn that Brinkley went to China and did the operation on the president of the Bank of Peking, where the local media called him “the Burbank of Humanity.” A Maharajah from India came to America for the goat glands. In Japan, the government made the operation compulsory for aged charity patients. He became a millionaire celebrity and was invited to the Atlanta premiere of “Gone with the Wind.” And in a way, he helped to launch modern country music, and is at least partially responsible for the careers of Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Gene Autry, and even ZZ Top and Wolfman Jack.
Brinkley held a bogus degree (from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical College), and declared himself a “doctor” — a title anyone could use in his time, at the as medical regulations were weak. It was the golden age of fantastic quackery. America was primed for a bright future and ready for new things, the perfect medium for suckers to be fleeced. “Mankind has found wisdom at last,” writes Brock. “Science! Technology! These were the new church.”
As the body count grew, Brinkley was run out of several states around the country, yet he was always able recreate his money machine elsewhere. Then he saw the future: radio broadcasting.
In 1923, he got a license for KFKB (“Kansas First, Kansas Best”). Brinkley called it “the Sunshine Station in the Heart of the Nation” — a tag line that, the doctor said, “(was) suggested by a crippled child.” It had one kilowatt of power. In between his homilies (“A Tribute to Mother”) and promotion of his goat gland procedure (he appealed to both men and woman to become more sexually active), he played up and coming country music stars, for which he had a talent for spotting. Also broadcast were French lessons, military and gospel music.
Brinkley started a new segment called “Medical Question Box,” where he would read complaints over the air and suggest treatments. The treatments were only available at stores that were members of the “Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association.” They sold his medicines at highly inflated prices and sent a cut back to Brinkley. Brock estimates that this system generated Brinkley $14,000 in weekly profit, or about $9,500,000 per year in current dollars.
Brinkley used the money to build a mansion on 16 acres of land, with a greenhouse, a foaming fountain garden surrounded by some 8,000 bushes, exotic animals from the Galapagos and a pool with a ten-foot diving tower. Parked in his garage were a dozen Cadillacs.
When the state of Kansas revoked his medical license in 1930, he threw together a write-in campaign for Governor in the last few weeks before the election. In an airplane previously owned by Charles Lindbergh, he flew over Kansas to whip up support, pioneering a new way of political campaigning. He promised a lake in every county, free textbooks for public schools, increased educational opportunities for blacks, lower taxes and old-age pensions.
Honest observers say he actually won. Officials disqualified enough ballots cast for him to keep him from winning. But the indefatigable Brinkley forged onward.
When the Federal Government forced his radio station to close, he moved to Del Rio, Texas. He went across the border into Mexico in 1932 and built XER, a station with one million watts of power. It was the most powerful station in the world. “On clear nights Brinkley reached Alaska, skipped across to Finland, was picked up by ships on the Java Sea,” Brock says. “In later years Russian spies reportedly used the station to help them learn English.”
Locals said the signal was so strong it turned on car lights and made their bedsprings hum. “It makes the hair on your arms stand up,” a station technician said. Brinkley’s tag line for this station was a play on his first: “Sunshine Station between the Nations.”
The brilliant Brinkley started selling air-time to other con artists on his Mexican super station. Soon mystics, “psychists,” and fortune-tellers flocked across the border to pitch their messages. One was Rose Dawn, Patroness of the Sacred Order of Maya, who peddled a “guaranteed” way to increase your income and “obtain your desires” for $4.98. When Rose wasn’t broadcasting her Mayan message, she cruised Del Rio, Texas (which became known as “Hillbilly Hollywood”), in a pink Chrysler with green trim, along with her lover, Koran, an astrologer-mentalist.
Others bought time on the station and sold “Crazy Water Crystals,” rupture cures, life insurance, live poultry, electric bow ties (hey, I want one of those!), a windup John the Baptist doll (turn the key and it walks around till head falls off), Last Supper tablecloths and “autographed pictures of Christ.” It was American hucksterism at its finest! It makes me proud to be an American having such earnest and creative characters in our past. Why can’t our current con artists, those rogues of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms, be as colorful as this? Surly we deserve the entertainment and pageantry as we shuffle into foreclosure and unemployment.
But eventually, even Elvis has to leave the building – and Brinkley’s goat-gland empire collapsed. What bought the twisted, but brilliant Brinkley tumbling down? It was the greatest crime of ancient Greece: hubris. And if you want to know that part of Brinkley’s story, you need to read “Charlatan,” and learn the forgotten history of the greatest marketing genius of all time.
PHOTO: KANSAS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY