Of all the books I've read this twelve-month, Charlatan is the best candidate for a movie contract. This is a story that has it all – a murdering "doctor" con man and his coldly calculating "nurse" bride, a host of gullible men willing to pay a fortune to rejuvenate their love-lives, a Mexican connection, a political scandal, an intrepid AMA official determined to bring the doctor down, and the birth pangs of country music, involving some of the biggest stars in the Grand Old Opry. It all takes place in a dusty
western post-Depression-era landscape: picture Elmer Gantry meets Bonnie and Clyde with the twang of a pedal-steel guitar in the background.
John R. Brinkley was never a doctor, but he claimed the title all of his adult life after buying a medical certificate from a fly-by-night "college". His lack of credentials never kept him from performing surgery - notably inserting desiccated male goat gonads into the testicles of male humans whose sexual powers were flagging and who believed that Brinkley could restore the potency of their prime. This gave him the notorious nickname, "The Goat Gland Doctor." Many men died after being operated on by Brinkley; others suffered permanent damage to their health, and a very
very few reported glowingly of the sought-after result. Likely even Brinkley's "successes" were really just men too sheepish to reveal that they had not been transformed into goats after having mortgaged the farm to pay Brinkley and his sinister nurse/spouse, Minnie. Minnie was as psychopathic as Brinkley himself – at a patient's first visit she thought nothing of scaring him into believing he'd perish without the treatment, and afterwards she was merciless at hounding even the poorest patient for payment. Quite a pair, the Brinkleys, and by all accounts, real lovebirds.
Ironically, it's possible that John Brinkley was a genius – he was the first American to realize the potential for political barnstorming by airplane, and to harness the new and financially fertile medium of radio advertising. When he lost his license to practice medicine in Kansas, he determined to have his vengeance on the smart-alecks who'd shown him such disrespect by running for governor – and he came close to winning. In the course of his campaign, he became the original frequent flyer, harnessing the relatively new science of aviation to visit little farming communities that were off the map.
And when he was prevented, more than once, from garnering customers for his clinics in person, he manipulated another kind of air power – radio waves. First he operated radio stations out of Texas and then, encountering official resistance to his grandiose on-air medical pitches, he simply moved across the border to Mexico. For several highly profitable years, he and his crazy cronies – yogis, mediums, astrologers, fundamentalist preachers – border-blasted from XERA, south of Del Rio, pushing nostrums worth less than the bottles they were contained in for exorbitant rates to a nationwide audience that had absolute faith in the cures they promised. To pump up his listener numbers, Brinkley hired a heavenly choir of aspiring performers whose names comprised some of the later-to-be-great stars of the country charts. The Carter Family and Johnny Cash were among those whose songs punctuated Brinkley's ads for everything from snake oil to sex-organ surgery.
Always on his trail was a real doctor, Morris Fishbein, who worked for the AMA and vowed to put an end to Brinkley's nefarious hydra-headed schemes. Fishbein's dogged determination to do the right thing provided a counterpoint to Brinkley's madness.
In this all-encompassing sweep through American flimflam, writer Pope Brock has connected the dots between our national ideal of the bootstrap entrepreneur and our secret admiration for the scam artist who gets away with it - as Brinkley did, almost to the end. At the time of his death, knowing he would lose his beloved XERA, he was already plotting to start afresh.
More than 40 deaths were attributed outright to the infamous Goat Gland Doctor.