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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

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

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam - Pope Brock This is non-fiction history that will knock your socks off! Are you up for a testicles transplant? (I'm not speaking figuratively.) Can you believe guys lining up for the operation? I think I'm going to be sick thinking about it. Well, I guess they didn't have Viagra in those days so what else could they do?

The book is about "Doctor" J.R. Brinkley, a quack (King of Goat Glands) who became wealthy (millions in 1920s and 1930s dollars) doing this operation in the heart of the United States (an allegedly civilized country at the time). The book is also about Dr. Morris Fishbein who's persistent efforts on behalf of the American Medical Association brought the quack down.

And here's the part I'm embarrassed to admit. Brinkley headquartered his operations in Kansas, my home state. And when he ran for governor in 1930 he almost won! (He actually got the most votes, but he ran as a write-in and the election judges were very stringent in their definition of acceptable spelling.) And people to this day are still asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?"

Kansas officials do deserve credit for revoking his license to practice medicine. That was the motivation for Brinkley to run for governor so he could get his license back by stacking the medical board with his own appointees. That was about the same time that his radio broadcast license was taken away by Federal officials. He had owned his own radio station in Milford, Kansas and pioneered the development of the practice of advertising on the radio. The radio was a major reason for his popularity.

After being rebuffed by State and Federal officials he decided to move to Del Rio, Texas and build a clinic and a "border blaster" radio station on the Mexican side of the border. With a million watt station in Mexico he was able to reach all of the 48 states and Canada so he became more famous than ever. There seemed to be no way to stop him, and he could have probably continued on many more years. But he was tricked into suing for defamation and in the subsequent trial was publicly discredited.

The book's strength is that it ties the story of Brinkley together with the current events of the time. He wasn't the only charlatan in business, just the most successful. The legitimate practitioners of medicine of the time were currently experimenting and trying some crazy things too. The following quotation offers a mild defense of their actions:

"Nevertheless, great blunderers like these have a place in the history of science. Wrong, they helped point the way for others to be right. They fought as bravely for error as more fortunate prophets fought for the truth. In science, as in love, it is sometime extraordinarily hard to draw the line between faith and folly."

It's tempting to be smug and conclude that a Brinkley type couldn't happen today. But there are many health clinics still operating today on the southern side of the border serving clients from the north side. Why do you suppose they're on the south side?