615: Charlatan by Pope Brock

by Gerard


615.856: Brock, Pope. Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. New York: Crown, 2008. 281 pp. ISBN 978-0-307-33988-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 610: Medicine and health
  • 615: Pharmacology and therapeutics
  • 615.8: Specific therapies and kinds of therapies
  • 615.85: Miscellaneous therapies
  • 615.856: Controversial and spurious therapies; quackery

First off, having the flu is a great way to work through a bunch of books quickly. When unencumbered by the need to go to work, the pleasure of reading is greatly magnified. Now, if I could find a way to get paid for this. Secondly, I absolutely love the fact that the Dewey Decimal system has a special number for quackery (also, it has to be said, quackery is one of my favorite sounding words).

Now, on to today’s book. From one con man to another—my week seems to be full of these. J.R. Brinkley (1885-1942) was a man always angling for a quick buck. But, more than that, he just wanted to be loved by everyone. He started out as a two-bit showman in a snake oil shop, but soon found out that having a medical degree was the way to really pull in the masses. After acquiring (read “buying”) a degree from a shoddy operation, he was licensed in eight states and began a quest to dupe  hundreds of folks with “cures” from exotic places at his hospital in Milford, Kansas.

Then one day, a man came into his office timidly complaining of “no pep” and “wishing he had billy-goat nuts.” So, Brinkley had, as Dr. Seuss would call it, “a wonderful, awful idea,” and surgically implanted goat testicles into the man’s scrotum, claiming that it would invigorate him back to his former condition. Soon, thousands of patients came from all over the Midwest to get their virility back. It would have been bad enough if he had just stopped there. But, he started concocting hundreds of medical “solutions”—each with their own number—that people should take to ease their various ailments (these turned out to be colored water flavored with a fair amount of alcohol). Worms were treated with Prescription 94; post-appendectomy pain was cured with number 61; kidney stones needed 80, 50, and a little 64 (just to be sure, you know).

With his new-found riches, he bought a high-power radio station and blasted his message of better living through goat glands across the whole state. But, he still wasn’t finished. When the FCC shut down his Kansas station, he set another one across the Mexican border with one thousand times the transmitting power. On a clear night, his station XER could he picked up by radios in Canada. Ironically enough, for all the lies Brinkley told on the air, his stations started the careers of many famous musicians, including Gene Autry and the original Carter family. With his new-found wealth, he put himself in the race to become the governor of Kansas, using a private airplane to change the way that politicians get their message to the people. Needless to say, he quite the amount of moxie.

All while Brinkley tried to dupe millions out of their hard-earned money, Dr. Morris Fishbein, a legitimate doctor and head of the American Medical Association, continuously tried to call Brinkley out for the damage he had caused. Fishbein spent the better part of two decades doggedly exposing medical fraud and hucksterism so that the American public would see these men for the quacks that they were. The cat-and-mouse game between Fishbein and Brinkley is what makes this book fun to read. Brock’s Charlatan is very well-researched and quick-paced. I suffered a lot from the dreaded “just one more chapter” syndrome while reading this one. If you like a good back and forth tale of greed, American history, and justice, then this one is for you.