The Goat-Gland Grifter’s Odd Tale

If Hollywood hasn't already optioned Pope Brock's "Charlatan," an account of the rise and fall of the all-American quack "Dr." John R. Brinkley, what's keeping it? Costume a halfway decent actor in a white suit, spectacles and Vandyke beard, scare up a dozen matching Depression-era Cadillacs, all painted to match the red (later lime-green) exterior of his Ludwig-of-Bavaria mansion in Del Rio, Texas. Stage a gruesome scene of Brinkley transplanting goat testicles into an impotent man, a crowd scene of him campaigning for governor of Kansas and drunk scenes in which he brandishes guns and butcher knives. Insert cameos by Father Flanagan of Boys Town (a friend and supporter), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (who rented one of Brinkley's three yachts) and the Carter Family (the royals of country music). Build up to a white-knuckle courtroom scene—and count the money. Brinkley would have loved it, particularly that last part. Just one problem: what will audiences make of a character who's part Professor Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz" and part Dr. Josef Mengele in "The Boys From Brazil"?

The man who brought Brinkley down—by goading him into a suicidal libel suit—was Morris Fishbein, the editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association. In 1937, Fishbein made the cover of Time magazine, but today, as Brock notes, the righteous Fishbein is a forgotten figure, while the diploma-mill flimflam man has become a comic but sinister folk hero. The "medical practice" that brought in millions of dollars during the Depression wasn't merely fraudulent—Brinkley dumped the goats' testicles into human scrotums—but downright murderous. Nobody knows just how many "patients" died at his hands. In 1930, the Kansas Board of Medical Examiners yanked his license after confirming 42—one reason he had to relocate to Del Rio, on the Mexican border, where Brinkley stayed in business for another decade. The "prescriptions" he sold by mail to those who wrote in with their symptoms may have killed many more. Brock justly ranks him among America's worst serial killers.

But Brinkley also changed the course of American culture. In his 1930 writein campaign for governor of Kansas—he would have won had not the pooh-bahs conspired to prevent a recount—he flooded the airwaves and used his private plane to travel from appearance to appearance; it's been the model for every whistle-stop campaign since. His broadcasts became the template for AM radio: talk and recorded music to get the marks into the tent. The stations he owned, first Kansas's KFKB, then the million-watt "border blaster" XER (later XERA), just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, introduced country music— the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers, Red Foley, Gene Autry—to Americans as far away as Alaska. (One was young Johnny Cash, who first heard the love of his life, June Carter, thanks to Brinkley.) After Brinkley's death, XERA DJ Bob Smith (a.k.a. Wolfman Jack) did the same for blues and R&B. As Brock argues, with only slight exaggeration—though with maxed-out metaphors—such border stations "spawned the white-black crossover culture, fueling the rise of rock and roll, and that paved the way for—well, you name it."

It's a shame that "Charlatan" doesn't include a CD of Brinkley's broadcasts. "Why do you twist and squirm around … while I am offering you these low rates … Come at once to the Brinkley Hospital before it is everlastingly too late." For his mostly rural audience, he branched out into fundamentalist preaching: "Now I shall discuss some of the beatitudes of Jesus as they came from His mouth on the Mount of Olives …" He also expatiated on such topics as "Mother" and "Highway Safety": "I want to digress now for a few minutes and carry you back to memory days. Those little memories that spring up along life's way like violets along a riverbank …" He even worked up a trendy approximation of a Father Coughlin-esque right-wing demagogue: "War is the Communist's delight … I would deport every radical who preferred the gleam of warlike Mars to the soft amber light of the Bethlehem orb." His medical practice also branched out, into prostate and rectal surgery—for the latter, he built a separate hospital. "Remember," he told listeners, "Del Rio for the prostate and San Juan for the colon!"

What, besides greed, might have driven Brinkley? True, he grew up dirt-poor in North Carolina, using gunnysacks for boots in winter, but his cruel indifference to the lethal consequences of his incompetence suggests some sort of nameable disorder. Was he a sociopath? A narcissist? Brock doesn't presume to diagnose him, but he quotes an old letter from a Del Rio woman who visited Brinkley's mansion, with its wandering Galápagos turtles, its pipe organ (played by an organist hired away from Grauman's Chinese Theatre) and a giant hand-colored photo of Brinkley posing in an admiral's uniform with a prize tuna he caught; it was titled "Tuna Fish and Self." "Obviously he was eaten with vanity and ambition," she wrote. "It must be a terrible thing to have to keep telling the world how great you are and to want so badly to achieve what is really impossible. We have much to fear from these people, but in a sense, I think, they are tragic." That's far kinder to Brinkley than he was to his victims. But at least it's a theory.