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Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam Hardcover – February 5, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 106 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

John Brinkley, who grew up poor in rural North Carolina but attended Rush Medical College in Chicago, got his start touring as a medicine man hawking miracle tonics and became famous for transplanting goat testicles into impotent men. Brinkley built his own radio station in 1923, hustling his pseudoscience over the airwaves and giving an outlet to astrologers and country music. His nemesis was Dr. Morris Fishbein, the buoyant, compulsively curious editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association whose luminary friends included Sinclair Lewis, Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken. Fishbein took aim at Brinkley in JAMA, lay publications and pamphlets distributed by the thousands. Even after the Kansas State Medical Board yanked his medical license in 1930, Brinkley ran twice for governor of Kansas and almost won. Finally, Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and lost in a spectacular showdown. Brock (Indiana Gothic) did tremendous research on this rollicking story, but the result is at times unfocused, overwritten and digressive, borrowing just a little too much from the overblown rhetoric of its subject. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Feb. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Reviewers across the board bought what Pope Brock is selling. The author reeled them in with the incredible Brinkley, a quack who was one of a kind yet revealed so much about the era in which he lived. Critics were mesmerized by Brock’s ability to connect Brinkley’s life to other episodes in American history and fill them with vitality. Yet the true potency of Charlatan derives from Brock’s storytelling skill: many critics spent much of their reviews retelling the highly entertaining tales from the book. Like the work to which it was most often compared, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City (**1/2 May/June 2003), Charlatan will surely prove to be popular with those who love American history as well as with those simply in search of a good yarn.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307339882
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307339881
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #470,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David W. Straight on February 9, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Charlatan is a thoroughly enjoyable (and pertinent even today!) tale of medical quackery a man who spent years battling against the country's leading quack. The self-style "Doctor" Brinkley had no formal medical training and purchased his degrees. He started selling patent medicine for sexual problems (and other ailments) but soon found his niche. About 1919 he began transplanting goat testicles in men: $750 a pop. That's $750 back then, and no credit given. But you did get to visit the goat pen behind the clinic in Kansas to pick out a young billygoat of your choice.

By today's standards, the operations were eye-popping in terms of the lack of attention to asepsis/antisepsis. Gangrene and lockjaw were among the perils one too often faced. Brinkley got very rich, and very famous: he twice ran for governor of Kansas and was narrowly defeated both times. When the Kansas Medical Board came down hard on him (at last), Brinkley moved to Del Rio, Texas, and set up the most powerful radio station in the world just across the border. This staion was used to broadcast the program Medical Question Box which would answer questions for a fee and which promoted quack medicine available through mail order. Pulling in a million dollars a year (in 1930s dollars, not 2008 dollars) was no mean feat.

Nemesis, in the form of Dr Morris Fishbein, finally proved to be Brinkley's undoing. Fishbein spent his life fighting and exposing medical quackery, and regularly wrote articles for the JAMA. It took Fishbein 10 years to bring down Brinkley: the climax of the book is a magnificently described court case where Brinkley was a disaster on the stand.
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Format: Hardcover
I couldn't put this book down, and couldn't stop from telling other people about it.

I don't want to give away too many details, but it was amazing, fun, and yet sad, to learn that an American in the 20th century could earn millions, win popular acclaim, hobnob with the rich and famous, and nearly win election as a governor - all because people believed that, er, goat glands could bring them renewed life and, er, virility.

There are many other odd twists to the story, from popular music to media history to the rise of the American Medical Association.

It's an oddball slice of history told with the wry wit the story deserves.

This book will rejuvenate your reading.
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Format: Hardcover
Everybody knows Viagra nowadays, and what it treats. Eighty years ago, everyone knew of the "goat gland" treatment, which not only treated what Viagra treats, but also brought a general rejuvenation to men, eliminated flab, advanced previously receding hairlines, and provided other miraculous cures. Provided cures, that is, to the gullible. The goat gland treatment never worked, despite its fame, and unlike the talismans that men have used for millennia to restore vigor, it had serious, sometimes lethal side effects. That little drawback did not impair the career of Doctor (perhaps that should be "Doctor") John R. Brinkley, one of the most famous of names in America in the 1930s. His astonishing rise and fall story is told with wry good humor in _Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam_ (Crown Publishers) by Pope Brock. Brinkley is gone, and Brock does not harp on lessons we might learn from his enterprise, but it is clear that although we don't do goat glands anymore, the golden age for medical hucksterism has never entered its twilight.

Brinkley was a farm boy who fiddled with "electric medicine" and injecting colored water into the buttocks of patients, which got him jailed in South Carolina in 1913 for practicing without a license. Once sprung, he headed to Chicago, and in 1915 he paid $150 for a degree from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, and he was in business. He set up a clinic in Milford, Kansas, and began implanting goat testicles into men who had lost their pep. He became a pioneer in radio advertising, and also in broadcasting country music.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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