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).

My Rating: 

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