Tuesday, October 7, 2008

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

"Dr Brinkley is the foremost money-making surgeon in the world, because he had sense enough to know the weaknesses of human nature and gall enough to make a million dollars a year out of it." This quote is a summation from the last attorney to try Dr. J.R. Brinkley in a court of law.

In Charlatan, Pope Brock takes us through the, frankly, amazing career of Dr. Brinkley who had a successful 20 year career spanning the 1920's and 1930's which started with the transplantation of goat testicles into humans. He started, of course, with men but then discovered that women, too, would pay handsomely for the promise of "rejuvenation". All of this without a medical degree and after loosing medical licenses that he had purchased. How did he do it?


That's right. In the early 1900's Brinkley built an AM radio station just inside of Mexico (call letters XERA), to avoid US broadcasting standards, and reached through much of the country hyping his cure-alls from morning to night. But, he was no fool. He also broadcast "hillbilly" music, giving The Carter Family, among others, national exposure.

He also eventually stopped performing surgeries. Was it the loss of lives, the threat of lawsuits, the constant pursuit of Morris Fishbein of the AMA that caused him to stop? No. It was the discovery that if he answered listeners letters through his program Medical Question Box. All the good doctor had to do was sit back, answer the letters on air and send everyone to their local pharmacists to buy drugs that had no names, only numbers. Of course, these were his own brews and mostly alcohol.

Never one to sit on his laurels, Brinkley also twice ran for governor of Kansas and added evangelism to his radio programming, with himself as orator.

Pope Brock has uncovered a fascinating story. And, although I sometimes found his writing style to be slightly confusing, he has told the story in a very compelling fashion with many characters and "cameos" of the days writers, politicians and musicians.

This is a nonfiction book with a story that reads like fiction. And it would be quite easy to sit back and scoff at the gullibility of the, mostly, small town folk of the time until you look at current events and the number of people who make a living selling books with bogus diets or randomly calling people and actually getting money from them with threats of law suits for debts they don't even owe. When was the last time someone knocked on your door claiming to be from the cable or power company?

To quote an "anonymous geezer" from the book, "I knowed he was bilking me, but...I liked him anyway."

Title: Charlatan
Author: Pope Brock
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 9780307339881

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