Book Review: "Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flim Flam"

Charlatan is one of my top two goat-related works of narrative non-fiction. Brock Pope's gripping account of the rise and fall of one of the most flamboyant and deadly quacks of all time edges out Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats for the top spot.


The quack in question was "Dr." John Brinkey. He wasn't technically a doctor. His credentials came from diploma mills. When he tried to take a crash course in surgery from a real surgeon, he was kicked out of the program for absenteeism and drunkenness.

But lack of medical training didn't stop Brinkley from getting rich performing surgery. He set up a private clinic in Millford, Kansas in 1917 and proceeded to turn goat glands into gold. Brinkley claimed that he could restore lost virility by sewing the testicles of baby goats into the scrotums of his patients. The goat had to be in the operating theater with the patient for the handoff.

Brinkley's nemesis was Dr. Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association. Fishbein made a career out of exposing health frauds, which were quite possibly even more prevalent and dangerous than they are today. (Suzanne Somers is still getting rich touting unregulated hormone creams as the fountain of youth, so let's not be smug about those old timey people and their goat glands.)

Brinkley ran afoul of the AMA by advertising that his goat gland surgery was 95% effective at curing 27 different ailments, from impotence to emphysema and cancer. He claimed no one ever died at his clinic. That was a blatant lie. By the time he was hauled up in front of the Kansas Medical Board in 1930, at least 42 people had died in his clinic. We know because he signed their death certificates. By that point, he was only half-way through his career. We'll never know his true death toll.

After being stripped of his license to practice in Kansas, he decided to run for governor. Brinkley, an early adopter of radio, used his considerable marketing skill to run a highly successful campaign. Brinkley was the first to use a campaign plane to maximize his contact with voters around the state. He probably would have won, had the local political machine not retroactively changed the rules for counting write-in ballots.

In his heyday, Brinkley was one of the most famous men in America. He was a pioneer of radio. When he wasn't touting patent medicines, advertising his clinic, or reading plagiarized sermons, he was launching the careers of future country music legends including the Carter Family. Johny Cash recalled that he first heard June Carter sing on Brinkley's station. 

The central conflict of the book is the decades-long battle between Fishbein and Brinkley. Fishbein tracked Brinkley across the country, denouncing him to anyone who would listen. Along the way Fishbein made friends with the likes of H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and other luminaries of the Chicago literary scene of the day. (An interesting side note: Brock argues that quack medicine shortened the life of labor leader and socialist politician Eugene Debs. Debs' quack healer nearly starved him to death at a sanatorium outside Chicago. Mercifully, no goat glands were involved.)

Finally, Brinkley made a fatal mistake: He sued Fishbein for libel for calling him a quack. That was a tactical blunder because the court was suddenly asked to adjudicate whether Brinkley was a quack. The evidence was incontrovertible.

Charlatan is one of the funniest books I've read in ages. Highly recommend.

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