Friday, October 5, 2012

The Legend of Goat Gland Doctor JR Brinkley

Beta, the town in western North Carolina where John Romulus Brinkley was born in 1885, no longer exists, which in a way is kind of fitting, since huge chunks of his life's story were made up in the first place. Brinkley was an almost wholly self-invented man, which is to say, he was a conman, a fraud, and a crook. But Americans as a people have always prized self-invention. It is part of our worship of success.

JR Brinkley was a handsome, distinguished-looking man who spoke beautifully. He'd always dreamed of being a doctor, but this was not possible, since his own education had been limited to a few odd years of schooling in one-room, country schoolhouses. He worked for a while as a telegraph operator as well as for different railroads, which allowed him to leave the hills and relocate to New York City, where he immediately adopted big-city ways. He apparently tried night school at one point, but quickly lost interest in the long process of education as a way to respectability and success. Instead he found a shortcut.


Brinkley's career began working as a guide at a storefront "medical museum," a phenomenon that existed in big cities at the turn of the century. They pretended to be educational establishments, but they were more like carnival sideshows.  Their real purpose was to draw in men who worried that they might be suffering from a venereal disease or some other ailment of the reproductive system.  While the visitors stared at the various exhibits, Brinkey and his cohorts stood discreetly in the background, waiting for the right moment to present themselves.  They were always very well dressed, often they sported mustaches and vandyke goatees along with pince nez spectacles to inspire doctorly confidence. He learned to read their body language so he'd know the right moment to step in and offer medical advice. In a matter of seconds, the pigeon was ushered upstairs, given an examination, a consultation, and quickly offered a phony cure and just as quickly separated from whatever money he had on hand.

Brinkley did this for a while, then struck off on his own. For a while he had a partner, with whom he plied the phony doctor trade in different cities in the south. They offered a cure for virility problems, an injection of some "electrical serum," that was really nothing but colored water for $25 a shot, a fortune in those days. In the process they ran up massive bills with local tradesmen and businesses and then skedaddled at the last minute.  After pulling it off successfully in a number of towns, they eventually got caught and put in jail. But Brinkley was able to charm his way out. After that, Brinkley didn't have partners. He strictly worked alone.

Brinkley got a medical degree from a mail-order diploma mill, which billed itself as an 'eclectic' university. For a while Brinkley worked as a doctor for a meat packing plant. During World War One, he was briefly a doctor in the U.S. Army, but he apparently showed so little interest in his duties he was soon let go. Brinkley wasn't the sort to have any boss but himself.  He went to Milford, Kansas and set up shop there.

The way Brinkley told his own story,  and there's no way to tell if it was true or not, he had his epiphany after witnessing a young male goat going at it with a female. He mentioned it to a patient who'd come to him, suffering from a "flat tire;" or, loss of "sexual vigor."  The patient pleaded with Dr. Brinkley to, perhaps, transplant some of the goat's testicles onto his own.  Brinkley did, and lo and behold, the operation was such a success that the man's sexual potency soon returned and a mere nine months or so later, he had sired a son, whom he gratefully named, "Billy."

Within a very short time Brinkley found great success with his goat gland cure.  The patients came in, Brinkley's hospital grew. To advertise it, he bought a radio station, KFKB. At this time radio was still in its infancy, and though it had many proponents,  hardly any of them could grasp its tremendous commercial possibilities. But Brinkley did. He instinctively knew it was the perfect way to reach out to people.

Brinkley was also perfect for radio. He had a deep, soft, golden voice and he spoke beautiful, dignified English. He came off as familiar and reserved, friendly and authoritarian. He spoke about the things you weren't supposed to talk about, sex and glands and energy.  All energy is sex energy, he'd say. With his simple operation, he'd make old men young, he'd turn men from geldings into stallions. People loved what they heard, the loved Brinkley.  The problem was, radio was ceasing to be a wild, wide-open frontier. Radio stations were expected to operate in the public interest. Broadcasters weren't supposed to flat out ask for money, which was what Brinkley did, many, many times each day.

None of it might have been a problem, had Brinkley had the sense to stay out of politics. But he couldn't help it. He was a born outsider, hated anyone telling him what he could and could not say. He spoke out against the authorities in Kansas and the authorities in Washington.  He decided to run for governor as a write-in candidate, and probably would have won, except the authorities  voided most of the ballots for him.  They also shut down KFKB, his station.

But Brinkley wasn't defeated. Far from it. He took his money and abandoned Kansas and did what outlaws traditionally did. He headed for the Border. To Del Rio, Texas , a sleepy little, mostly anglo town on the Mexican border and set up shop there.  Del Rio's town fathers had lobbied hard to get Brinkley to come there. They knew that wherever Brinkley went, lots and lots of money followed. Brinkley set up his Brinkley Hospital, which was really just the second floor of the Roswell Hotel.  But then, in a masterful move, Brinkely built a radio station across the river in Villa Cuna Cohuilla, Mexico. 

A little bit of background: during the 1920s, when the radio craze first burst onto the world, there was no effort at regulation at all, so radio stations popped up all over the dial, often on the same frequencies.  Eventually an effort got set up to rationalize things. Somewhere along the line radio officials from the US and Canada met and carved up the radio band for themselves, leaving the scraps for their little brown neighbors, Mexico and Cuba. Enraged at their treatment, the Mexican government decided it was time to show the gringos what for. They let Brinkley and others set up super-powered radio stations along the border, knowing that the more they irritated Washington, the sooner Washington would agree to a more equitable distribution of the airwaves.

Brinkley was probably not aware of any of this when he decided to make his station, XER, the most powerful radio station on the planet.  It was enough for him to know that his reach extended all over North America and that he could say and do whatever he wanted. He spoke about sex, about glands, about God and government. Needless to say, he was no fan of FDR or the New Deal or the American Medical Association, whom he referred to as the "American Meatcutter's Association." Brinkley also knew how to draw in listeners. He interspersed his long lectures on sexual health with music from hillbilly bands. These included the Carter Family, and in no small part, had much to do with the spread of country music's popularity. He also rented out airtime to anyone else who could pay for it.  And there were plenty of them.  There were radio preachers, psychics, pitchmen, yodelers, singing cowboys. And they were all there for the same reason; it was where the money was.

Even though America was deep in the middle of the Great Depression, there was an unending stream of suckers arriving in Del Rio every day with eight hundred dollars in their hands, hoping Dr. Brinkley's celebrated goat gland operation would give them a new lease on life,  that it would make them, as Brinkley himself liked to put it, "The ram that am with every lamb!"  Patients were encouraged to examine a pen of active young goats kept outside the Roswell Hotel and pick the liveliest.

Supposedly the operation involved transplanting slivers of young goat testicle onto those of his patients. Sometimes they operated, sometimes they just faked it.  Either way, some patients reported miracle results. Sometimes the operations were botched, sometimes the patients got sick from it. Sometimes they even died. Whenever this happened, it was easy enough to sweep it under the rug.  The local medical authorities in Val Verde County, Texas were in no hurry to expose Brinkley as a fraud. Nobody was. He was bringing in far too much money and he was spreading it around.

Brinkley lived in splendor in a massive mansion on the side of which he had his name, 'Doctor Brinkley', done up in large glowing neon lettering. At night the mansion and grounds would be lit up in colored lights. Brinkley had fancy cars. He had several airplanes and he had a massive ocean-going yacht. He often went on trips to Europe, he visited Nazi Germany and met its leader Adolf Hitler, of whom he greatly approved. Life was very good for John Romulus Brinkley.

But Brinkley had enemies. Not powerful ones, but they were vocal and they were relentless. The first blow came when another quack doctor set up a competing hospital in Del Rio, offering the same phony operation, but cheaper. Suddenly Brinkley was finding that the patients he'd gone to such efforts to attract, were being hustled away the moment they stepped off the arriving trains. Brinkley had expected Del Rio's town fathers would be quick to run him out, but to Brinkley's surprise, they wouldn't.  But the enemy Brinkley hated the most was one Dr. Morris Fishbein, a non-practising physician who was editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Fishbein had written a series of articles titled "Modern Medical Charlatans," where he went after the different quacks and frauds doing business on the American public. He made Brinkley his favorite target.

In a way, Brinkley's great failing wasn't that he was a quack, a fraud, and a crook. It was that he believed his own lies about himself.  The truly smart criminal is the one who accepts that he lives and operates on the margins of society. He never calls attention to himself and when anyone takes a shot at him, no matter how unwarranted, he must never seek redress.

Brinkley had been at the top for so long that he lost sight of this essential fact. He should have acccepted Fishbein's articles as the very minor irritant they were. He should have had the circumspection to recognize that almost nobody out there in radio-land who listened to his broadcasts ever heard of the Journal of the American Medical Association, let alone read Fishbein's articles. He should have accepted it as the cost of doing business and moved on. But Brinkley couldn't.

Brinkley sued Morris Fishbein for libel and for $250,000 in damages. By doing that, he'd played himself right into Fishbein's hands. The trial only took a couple of days, but when it was done, not only was Fishbein found innocent, but Brinkley was publicly declared a charlatan with blood on his hands. Suddenly the lawsuits began rolling in. The U.S. Government moved in as well, charging him with not having paid his taxes. Even the Mexican authorities went against Brinkley. Mexican army troops came in and seized control of Brinkley's border blaster.  A short time later, a deal was finally reached with Washington and Ottawa to redistribute the airwaves so that Mexico got a fair share.

Brinkley had been a millionaire, but now he was bankrupt. He suffered a series of heart attacks and had to have one of his legs amputated due to poor circulation. He was penniless when he died on May 26, 1942.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL is a darkly comic, supernatural thriller set in the crazy, colorful world of Del Rio during its legendary 'Border Blaster' era of the 1930s.  Doctor Brinkley is just one of the many characters in the story. It is available on Kindle through Amazon.

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