Review

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

by Pope Brock

The
first group elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame might never
have made it out of the backwoods had it not been for a serial
killer.


If you find that statement intriguing, get ready for an
enlightening, disturbing and thoroughly enjoyable romp through the
Land of Flimflam, emceed by writer Pope Brock, author of INDIANA
GOTHIC. In CHARLATAN he forensically disinters the remains of a
portion of America's past that we might wish to disavow --- the
heyday of the quack.


Arguably, it is a phenomenon that has never completely faded,
because as long as there are gullible people there will be medical
quackery, no matter how cleverly disguised as --- and these are
Brock's designations --- "bogus cancer and weight-loss treatments,
biological dentistry, ear candling (putting a candle in your ear),
Wild Yam Cream, chelation therapy" etc. But in the early part of
the 20th century, shameless shamanism reached its zenith in the
nefarious person of mad genius John R. Brinkley, generally known as
"Doctor" Brinkley --- though no one ever had less right to that
title.


Brinkley was a product of the hardscrabble hills of North Carolina
who got his start selling "patent remedies" but soon graduated to
far more sophisticated forms of chicanery, in the grip of a
brilliant entrepreneurial mentality gone horribly askew. He became
known as "the goat gland doctor" after he and his wife Minnie
developed a "technique" for grafting animal testicles onto human
ones. Every time he had to demonstrate or defend this notorious
surgery for conventional medical people, he lost his license to
practice medicine. One official tally of deaths from Brinkley's
tampering is 42 in one state, and because he moved from state to
state to avoid legal prosecution, the actual total is undoubtedly
much higher and does not take into account the many people whom he
permanently maimed. He was known to collect his fees at gunpoint.
The patients who survived, men who had come to him to revitalize
their flagging sexual energies, were understandably ashamed of
their obvious stupidity in paying a small fortune for the botched
results. Few had the courage to testify against the wily
Brinkley.


One man, however, was determined to destroy the goat gland man: the
celebrated "quackbuster" Morris Fishbein. A legitimate med school
graduate, Fishbein worked for the Journal of the American
Medical Association
, and in that position he gradually took
upon himself the mantle of nemesis to people like Brinkley and
others of his ilk. As Brock puts it, "Fishbein plied his harpoon in
many waters, but Brinkley was his Moby Dick." Fishbein had as large
an ego as his antagonist, which made him as annoying to some as the
bombastic Brinkley himself. But the quackbuster's pioneering work
led to the establishment of genuine standards of credentialing for
medical personnel in America.


Hounded from pillar to post, Brinkley was arguably the first
businessman to understand the economic payoff of mass mailings and
radio ads. When his enterprises were shut down in the U.S., he
bankrolled huge "border blasters," radio shows emanating from
Mexico that featured live hillbilly music while touting 
everything from goat gland surgery to the wild claims of
mindreaders, psychics, teleporters, yogis and hot women with dirty
minds. He lost battle after battle with authorities on both sides
of the border, but always found a way to resuscitate his schemes
and collect his revenues --- sometimes just a dollar at a time ---
and maintain Minnie and his son Johnny Boy in an opulent mansion in
Del Rio, Texas.


It was during this phase of Brinkley's crazy-quilt career that he
encountered the now-legendary Carter Family, on the skids in
Tennessee and willing to come to Del Rio on the promise of a weekly
salary. They and many other musical wannabes of later stellar
accomplishment --- Johnny Cash, Patsy Montana, Gene Autry, Red
Foley and Jimmie Rodgers --- gladly pedaled their talents to
promote and increase the fortunes of the infamous surgeon.


It was when Brinkley began to defend the burgeoning Nazi party in
pre-war Germany that his dark star fell precipitously. He was
bankrupt but not defeated when he passed away in his sleep in 1942,
eluding multiple prosecutions that threatened him and the grieving
Minnie. Much of their legend would have disappeared forever had it
not been re-examined in this wide-sweeping, fact-rich
chronicle.


   















Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 26, 2010

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

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2008
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 0307339882
  • ISBN-13: 9780307339881