Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

Quacks have always been around, but Charlatan proves they have been especially prolific in the United States. Pride, vanity, and the endless pursuit of youth are human qualities that have helped quackery flourish. Charlatan is the story of the greatest con man of early twentieth-century America, John R. Brinkley, who exploited male vanity to build a multi-million dollar business empire. Pope Brock is the author of Indiana Gothic; he has also written a variety of articles for Esquire and other periodicals in the United States and Great Britain.

Charlatan is about a doctor, but it is also the story of an unregulated era in America—an environment that allowed John R. Brinkley to build his empire on the implantation of goat testicles to “restore” male virility. Brinkley started his life on a farm in the Jackson County, North Carolina community of Beta. After an early career selling patent medicines and other medical scams, he purchased a medical license in Kansas that allowed him to practice in eight states. In the fall of 1917, Brinkley performed his famous operation for the first time. Demand for the operation and financial success allowed him to open a clinic in Milford, Kansas. Radio Station KFKB began marketing Brinkley’s operation and patent medicines to the nation in 1924. Preferring an unregulated broadcasting environment, Brinkley moved his radio station to Mexico in 1931, where it was renamed XER. By 1932 it boasted a million-watt signal and was the most powerful radio station in the world. During the mid-1930s, Brinkley’s annual income was twelve million dollars.

Every force has an opposing force: for Brinkley it was Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Fishbein and Brinkley shared many qualities: sharp intelligence, a flair for self-promotion, and relentless energy. In 1930, Fishbein’s influence led Kansas medical authorities to revoke Brinkley’s medical license. Brinkley’s response was to run for Governor of Kansas, nearly winning the race. Throughout the 1930s, Fishbein used his position to pursue Brinkley and to expose other quacks. In 1939, Fishbein and the American Medical Association were able to win a medical malpractice suit against Brinkley in Texas. Former patients started lining up to sue Brinkley, and in 1941 he was charged with federal mail fraud and forced to declare bankruptcy. Brinkley’s health declined and he died on May 26, 1942 in San Antonio, Texas.

Charlatan is a fascinating read, and this reviewer is surprised no one has made a movie of Brinkley’s life. John R. Brinkley was the ultimate quack, and his is a unique American story. Charlatan includes an excellent index and comprehensive footnotes. The bibliography includes two doctoral dissertations on Brinkley.Highly recommended (This review was previously published in North Carolina Libraries).

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Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen

All right, noir fans, the dark hearted master of the Emerald Isle has returned to regal us with the tale of Matthew Patrick O’Shea, and oh, my dear Wild Things, it was worth the wait . . .

O’Shea, whom everyone calls Shea, is a Galway Guard who skillfully blackmails his way into a coveted police exchange program between Ireland and the United States. Manipulative and psychotic, Shea wants to feel the edge of being out there, on the streets, a killing machine; and he does love the ladies, does our Shea, although he does tend to smother them in his ardor. Shea manipulates his way into the New York City Police Department and once there, he is partnered with Kurt “Kebar” Browski. Kebar, as he is known, has made a deal with the devil in the form of the mobster, Morronni, who supplies Kebar with money to keep his disabled sister in a quality institutional home in exchange for information.

Although as shamelessly violent as Shea, Kebar’s love for this sister humanizes him; his frustrations are real, his personal agony over becoming the very thing he loathes is wrenching. Morronni soon implicates Shea in Kebar’s corruption, and Shea moves with calculating, debilitating aggression to assure his rise as a hero cop is not disrupted. In spite of his own feeble protestations of yearning for normalcy, Shea knows and embraces the emptiness in his soul, gleefully exploiting those who stand in his way, confident as only a serial killer can be in his superior intelligence.

Bruen has written this novel in short, hanging paragraphs that burst with characterization; each sentence is a resounding sucker punch to the brain, unrelenting in intensity. There is also poetry here, lyrical in the rhythm in which Bruen carries us through the lives of Shea, Kebar, Morronni, and those unfortunate enough to be a part of their circle. Bruen captures the soullessness of the serial killer with startling reality, reminding us that the most frightening monsters are those that walk amongst us undetected. Yet he manages to skillfully weave a thread of hope into this dismal world he has created for us, proving that even in the deepest night of the most damaged soul, there is a light dimly shining.

Highly recommended is Once Were Cops and may you write on, sir . . .

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The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

On a dark night in long-ago 17th century Persia, a comet streaks across the sky.  This event foretells bad luck for a young girl in a small village.  When her father passes away unexpectedly, she and her mother must move to the city of Isfahan and throw themselves on the mercy of their father’s half-brother Gostaham, a carpet maker to the Shah, and his greedy wife Gordiyeh.  Treated as servants in her Uncle’s house, the unnamed girl soon gains her Uncle’s respect when she demonstrates her skill at carpet making.    Women were not allowed in the rug making workshops, so the girl works on her own with guidance from her Uncle who grows to love her, seeing himself in her, but realizing the limits her gender places upon her carpet making career.

One day an offer of marriage arrives, but since the girl (who remains nameless throughout the novel) has no dowry the offer is for a “sigheh” or temporary marriage to a rich man.  Gordiyeh pressures her to accept the offer, reminding her of the expense she and her mother have caused Gostaham and herself.  The girl accepts, thus losing the only thing of value she owns — her virginity.

Throughout the novel, the girl’s mother weaves fables and tales like Sheherazade, providing stories within stories.

This beautifully written first novel captures the sights and sounds of medieval Iran, bringing to life the city of Isfahan with it’s bridges, mosques and colorful bazaars, while providing insight into a society with little regard for women beyond their abilities to look beautiful and bear children.  Recommended.


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The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories [edited] by Alan Ryan

Ahh, it’s that magical time of year again, the spectral month of October when the world wastes away and horrors stalk the night (hehe); ‘tis the Dragon’s favorite time of year, my Wild Things

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, edited by Alan Ryan, is the title that should be in the library of every serious horror/vampire fan, for here shadows pursue and vampires haunt with a rapacity that tears not only the body, but the soul. This comprehensive anthology of vampire tales spans the decades from 1816 through 1984 beginning with the “Fragment of a Novel” written by George Gordon, Lord Byron, which has an interesting story behind the story. Lord Byron often traveled with his close friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Shelley. During a spate of bad weather while they vacationed in Italy, they read ghost stories to one another and decided that each would pen a ghostly tale; Lord Byron penned the “Fragment of a Novel,” Percy Shelley lost interest in the project, and Mary Shelley conceived her novel, Frankenstein, which was published two years later.

Thirty-two tales grace this volume with brief introductions of the stories and the authors by Mr. Ryan that are as entertaining to read as the stories themselves. There is even an excerpt from the “penny dreadful,” “Varney the Vampyre, or, the Feast of Blood,” written in 1845 by James Malcolm Rymer and while the writing is overly melodramatic, the vampire is stark and deadly. I could find no fault with any of the tales, some were more memorable than others, beginning with Lord Bryon’s “Fragment.” J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” is here, and it is interesting to note that Bram Stroker admitted the influence of “Carmilla” on his own Dracula tale. 

So it is hard for even the Dragon to pick a favorite until I come to the final tale, “Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur De Feu,” by Tanith Lee. A lyrical fantasist whose prose I have long admired, Lee’s vampire story haunts us with her erotic tale of the doomed lovers, the vampire prince, Ferlouce, and the scullery maid, Rohise. Lee weaves her heartbreakingly ethereal tale with fathomless skill exemplifying the love of the damned and the beauty with which such love can flower. A most perfect ending to a perfect vampire anthology, you will put it down only to pick it up and read it again and again.

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The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s first novel covers familiar territory, the hysteria and superstitions surrounding the Salem witch trials.  What sets this effort apart, though, is the fact that Kathleen Kent is directly descended from Martha Carrier, who was hanged in Salem as a witch in 1692.  After hearing family stories and researching for five years, Kent wrote this debut novel based on the true story of her ancestor.

Four of Martha’s five children were also accused and imprisoned, including Sarah, her 9-year-old daughter.  Kent’s descriptions of the harsh, closed society of Puritan New England, as well as the squalid conditions in which the accused were held, and the mounting hysteria and dread keep the pages turning, and I finished this one in two days.  Kent’s personal connection to Martha Carrier is evident in this emotional and thought provoking novel.  Recommended.

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