During the first few decades of the 20th century, the world changed so much and so quickly, it must have seemed like the most magical of times. Suddenly there were cars criss-crossing roads, electricity in homes, and moving pictures on screens. Airplanes flew in the sky and sounds traveled across invisible radio waves. Truly, it must have seemed a time of miracles. Was anything possible? Maybe. Even eternal youth! Or at least the energy and vitality of youth. Courtesy of goat testicle implants.
I often impulsively reserve books at the library and then by the time I get them, don’t remember why I chose that book. Had I read a review, or seen the title on the train, or found myself thinking about something in the middle of the night that led me on a strange keyword search through the library catalogue? As I began to read Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam and found myself in the middle of a description of a goat testicle implant operation (fresh from the goat, right there in the operating room), I did wonder what the heck had led me to this book and had I known what I was getting myself into (answers are, I realized later, an excellent review, and no, I probably hadn’t picked up the full scope of the topic covered in the book. I am always, without question, the widest-eyed naïf in the room and the last person to get any joke). I stuck with it, though, and was rewarded over and over. This is a book filled with stories and people that seem like they came out of a tall tale contest being held by a bunch of drunks who’ve stumbled into a diner at 4:00 am after last call. The word jaw-dropping seems to have been invented for this book. Every wild idea and proposition is incredibly topped by the next.
A great deal was still being discovered about how the human body worked at the turn of the 20th century, and an understanding of the endocrine system seemed to spark a whole new set of questions and answers. How much were glands and hormones responsible for? What could we do with these magic substances?
Modern medicine had improved enough, with the introduction of hygienic practices and better surgical techniques, to increase the average life span. The problem, though, then as always, is that while people want to live longer, they don’t want to get older. Women obsess about their looks; men focus on sexual power.
In 1889, a seventy-something French doctor, Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, longing for his lost youth, decided to try to recapture that certain something by injecting himself with a substance made of dog and guinea pig testicles. In a speech to the Societe de Biologie, he proclaimed that he had “regained the full force that I possessed.” And everyone in the audience understood what that meant. They were incredulous, horrified, even angry, but as reports of his experiment went out, a number of others began to think, “You know, I think there’s something there…” And lo and behold, numerous other doctors raced to expand upon his work.
Druggists began to sell compounds made from all sorts of animal parts, guaranteed to restore vigor to anyone. Doctors injected different combinations and strengths. Others got the idea to transplant human parts into themselves; one doctor showed off the six small lumps of testicular tissue he had obtained from cadavers and implanted into his ribs (no, I don’t understand…). A prison doctor took material from young prisoners who had been executed and implanted them into aged lifers and then observed them, convinced they saw new signs of liveliness in the old inmates.
John R. Brinkley had been bouncing around the Midwest, acting occasionally as a doctor, having attended for a while one of the dubious medical schools in Chicago. The Bennett Eclectic Medical College focused mostly on herbal remedies but Brinkley wasn’t as much interested in studying as drinking. Life at home with his wife Sally also was a grind, so he left her and their kids, drifted around for a while and hooked up with another would-be grifter. Together they ran a scam injecting colored water into men who “weren’t feeling manly enough”, saying it was an “electric medicine”, a surefire sales technique in the age of Edison and electric wonderment.
The pair walked out on bills and angry customers, then briefly landed in jail. Along the way Brinkley picked up a new wife (he did finally admit to his previous wife and after finally divorcing her, remarried Minnie, his second wife, making it legal) and decided to go semi-respectable. He bought a mail order medical degree and went to Milford, Kansas, a town advertising for a doctor. When they arrived, the town was so bare and desolate, in fact so little resembled a town, that Minnie burst into tears on the spot. But Milford and Brinkley turned out to be the best things that ever happened to each other.
In Life of a Man, the biography commissioned by Brinkley in the 1930s, everything changed on a day in 1917, when a man named Bill Stittsworth arrived in Brinkley’s office and complained of not having any “pep.” He and Brinkley both knew what that meant. Brinkley said that so far there was no known cure, upon which, the story goes, Stittsworth looked out the window at goats grazing on the hill, and wistfully wished for what those goats had… (cue little light bulbs going off over both men’s heads).
Later accounts contended that Brinkley solely came up with the plan and paid Stittsworth to be his guinea pig, performing the surgery late at night, after hours. When Stittsworth came back two weeks later and proclaimed himself a new man, Brinkley realized he was onto something.
He wasn’t the only one. The Jazz Age had prompted a celebration of youth that had people downing royal jelly from beehives and pega palo cocktails from a plant known as the “vitality vine.” The world was filled with scientific wonders—quantum physics, sonars, and new animals found in strange places. These people’s parents and grandparents had surely been the gullible ones, buying “tonics” filled with alcohol from traveling salesmen. They, though, got their information from doctors and scientists who conducted experiments and wrote papers and spoke at conferences. These learned men were willing to try just about anything that they could connect to some kind of impressive sounding theory, and people believed them because this was a time of wonder, when anything was possible. Dr. Serge Voronoff transplanted monkey testicles into men. Dr. Eugen Steinach theorized that vasectomies could restore youth and energy (William Butler Yeats was “Steinached” at age sixty-nine and immediately embarked on an affair with a twenty-seven year old actress; H.L. Mencken, usually a fierce skeptic of quacks and fakes, was quietly Steinached when he was feeling poorly).
No one likes a fat flapper.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the human gland seemed to be the answer to everything, just as electrical cures had been the cure-all a decade or two earlier. “Gland analysis” could perhaps even explain criminal behavior, as discussed in a mystery story by the immortal Mignon Eberhart:
“What is it you –think you know about—this murderere?” asked Jenny. “Why,” said Tom, “we know several things quite definitely…A touch of thymus, because there’s a completely feelingless cruelty about Myrtle Shultz’ murder. More than a little pituitary; for there’s an extremity of cunning and daring. I expect,” said Tom, “that some writing will crop up somewhere.” “Writing?” “It’s—among other things—the writing gland. When violently disordered, writing usually comes out in great quantities.”
(Good heavens, I'm in trouble!)
Dr. Brinkley, though, turned this fascination with the possibilities of glands into a veritable cash machine. Voronoff and Steinach may have been loftier names and managed to maintain a certain amount of scientific hauteur, but Brinkley turned out to be an advertising and marketing whiz who turned goats into an empire. His ads managed to hit all the right notes with desperate men (including guilt to their wives—one headline he managed to plant stated, “Dr. J. R. Brinkley Swamped With Letters From Women Craving Halo of Motherhood!”). He built a hospital in Milford that transformed the town from a backwater into a profitable little city. Men flocked in by the dozens to have the operations that Brinkley promised would solve all their ills; at one point he stated that he was performing 50 operations a month at $750 each. That’s excellent money today—in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a fortune many times over. (Brinkley’s attempts to recreate his success with women by implanting goat ovaries wasn’t quite as successful; a baby is evidence of success and if no baby appeared, women could see that the surgery had failed. Meanwhile, all men needed to proclaim success was a vague feeling of renewed “pep and vigor”).
Brinkley noticed the relatively new medium of radio and realized this would be a great way to get his message out to even more people. He bought a radio station and filled it with pro-Brinkley programming, including “Medical Question Box,” during which he gave on-air diagnoses to people who wrote in describing their problems. He typically directed people to take this solution or that solution, all of which could be purchased at their local drug store. Brinkley got part of the cut.
When he wasn’t speaking himself, Brinkley brought in all kinds of local entertainers and musicians to fill the airwaves. He also played advertisements that were as hard-hitting and persuasive as anything we hear today. This was new, and to some powers that be, appalling; the idea of using public airwaves for advertising didn’t seem right to them. But this was the age of wonders and wonders needed to be advertised. Marketing was discovered and talked about with a whole new kind of glee as another of the many miracles of the day. One of the best-sellers in 1925-26 was Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of Jesus, in which he described Christ as a great business executive who took “twelve men from the bottom ranks and forged them into an organization that conquered the world. According to Barton, Jesus was “the greatest advertiser of his day.” Brinkley reviewed this book approvingly, seeming himself in the Son of God (“that seems to be my life all over,” he wrote).
Brinkley wasn’t taking everyone in, though. Many doctors scoffed at his theories and advertisements. Morris Fishbein, a doctor who worked for the American Medical Association was a dedicated exposer of quacks who chased Brinkley as the prize quarry in a sea of medical iniquity. But the Federal Radio Commission got to him first, threatening to revoke his radio license, mostly due to the Medical Question Box and its blithe, careless dispensation of advice.
Brinkley offered to stop that program but his license was cancelled anyway. The Kansas Medical Board came after him next, revoking his license after finding that 42 people had died at the Milford clinic. Brinkley’s response was to run for governor of Kansas. Barnstorming the state in an airplane and outcampaigning the other horrified, legit candidates, he almost won; in fact, he may have. Brinkley ran as a write-in candidate, but the state decreed that it would only count votes that specifically wrote in J.R. Brinkley. Anything else was disqualified. Somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 votes for him were discarded, but if they had been counted it might have been enough for a win.
After the governor’s race, Brinkley regrouped. He moved his radio station to a Mexican border town where he was able to construct a 50,000 watt radio tower. His “border blaster” could reach just about anywhere in the US but wasn’t controlled by the Federal Radio Commission. He built a new clinic across the border in Texas.
The clinic and radio station did the job in making Brinkley even richer and more famous. The amount of cars, houses, yachts and jewelry Brinkley accumulated was incredible, again, especially for the time period. He didn’t just stand in place with goat glands, though; for a higher price, the super rich could get human testicle implants. Brinkley’s prostate treatments—colored water injections again—also provided a new source of income. In deference to the Depression, Brinkley sold the procedure in three different versions: Poor Folks ($150), Average Man’s ($750), and Business Man’s ($1,000, “recommended for the owners of the finest automobiles, the finest homes, the best horses, best diamonds, best works of art.” And apparently the best prostates).
Another side effect of the radio station, in addition to waking others up to the power of radio as an advertising medium, was the music it introduced to people far outside of Texas. Country music, Mexican music, singing cowboys (including Gene Autry) all performed on Brinkley’s XER station. The Carter Family grew from a regional act to a nationally known one on XER. Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash all grew up listening to Brinkley's radio station.
Dr. Brinkley’s on-air persona shifted with the times as well. He became rabidly religious, veered into right-wing politics, pro-Nazism and anti-Semitism. He grew ever more aggrandized; in his commissioned biography, Life of a Man, he had the author compare him to Jesus, Martin Luther, Dante, and Columbus.
Not surprisingly, it was his own pride and sense of invincibility that eventually brought Brinkley down. When Morris Fishbein included Brinkley in an article called “Modern Medical Charlatans,” Brinkley sued for libel. The 1939 trial was a disaster for him. Fishbein’s lawyers presented evidence of deaths that occurred under Brinkley’s care. Worse, when Brinkley was questioned about his surgical techniques, he couldn’t keep his story straight during his cross-examination, the reason being that he had no consistent surgical technique; his transplant surgeries, rather than the intricate, delicate procedure involving nerves and blood vessels that he had described in advertisements and interviews, more or less consisted of tossing in the goat glands anywhere.
Brinkley lost his case and lost almost everything else soon after. A new agreement between Mexico and the US resulted in the loss of his radio station. Other lawsuits and heavy borrowing caught up to him. Brinkley died soon after, in 1942. Considering the number of people who were known to have died at his clinic, plus those who died after leaving, and the unknown numbers who may have died because of treatment he recommended on the radio, without examination or study, Brinkley, Brock points out, may have been one of, if not the worst serial killers in the history of this country.
Brock’s book is wonderful because the author himself seems so constantly amused and astonished by his subject. He has an eye for dropping in just the right detail or perfect zinger to sum up a moment—when he poses the question of whether Brinkley believed in his own work or not, he writes that “the answer lies perhaps in small things, like his way of calling his patients “old fools” when he was drunk.” Brock refers to the serious, bureaucratic head of the FRC as a man who, “looked and sounded like a stranger to happy endings.” My favorite was this:
“No practitioner of modern rejuvenation wants portraits of the groundbreakers in his line hanging in the waiting room because these men were so deeply deluded that to even mention their theories now could turn a potential client into a fading scream.”
I loved the phrase “turn into a fading scream.” I picture a Looney Toons scene where the wall of the office is left with a hole in the outline of the fleeing patient, running and screaming in the distance. Brock seems to be having an enormous amount of fun in his book, and that makes it fun for his readers.
Brock’s details of the various medical schemes and tools available to the eager and willing is astonishing in itself. How about the Prostate Warmer, complete with a blue lightbulb to “stimulate the abdominal brain?” Or the different schools of medicine that included sysmotherapy, gluckokinesis, astrological diagnosis, and iridiagnosis? The photo section includes ads for “Violet Rays” that will “Build up your “Personality, Magnetism, Vitality!” and Electric Belts that will cure “nervous and chronic diseases.” Not to mention the radium water “health drink” that killed a man, leading to the Wall Street Journal headline, “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.”
Who doesn't need a little radioactivity in their lives?
The Americans in Brock’s Charlatan often seem desperate, credulous, and one step away from gullible village idiots. But we’re really not much different. Look at all the people who try to buy youth with HGH (a not so distant descendent of “gland therapy”) or have botulism freeze their foreheads. Think of all the people who, when you have a cold try to persuade you that ginseng, echinacea or the latest herb of the moment will make you instantly better. Think of the endless “cures” for fat that are advertised late at night, or the stories you’ve heard about people who have some kind of life-threatening disease who race off to any country to sign up for the latest experimental technique. People will try anything if they are desperate enough, and if they want to believe, will convince themselves it made a difference. And they’ll go on and on buying endless supplements and vitamins and pills distilled from flowers and herbs and fish. Anything is possible today. Look at the transplants and gene therapy and space ships and plastic surgery and the internet and 3D movie. After all, this is the age of wonder, the age of miracles.