New York in History and Anecdote
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The Unsubtle Knife

Several recent obituaries of June Carter Cash referred to her early years as part of the Carter Family, singing over XER, a border blaster, one of the extraordinarily powerful radio stations broadcasting to U.S. audiences from south of the Rio Grande. XER was founded in 1931 by Dr. John R. Brinkley, whose scalpel made, as one admirer said, “the dead bough quicken and turn green again.” Brinkley took roughly $12 million between 1917 and 1942 from aging men who wanted to be “sweetly dangerous among the ladies once more.” His secret: goat glands transplanted into the scrota of some 16,000 men.

As early as the 1840s, according to David M. Friedman’s A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, German physiologist Arnold Berthold was experimenting with transplanting rooster testicles. Shortly after World War I, Russian surgeon Serge Voronoff began transplanting testicles obtained from apes into elderly men who reported “renewed vigor.” He eventually performed more than 1,000 procedures at $5,000 a pop.

Gene Fowler, the Hearst journalist who organized the first known American monkey gland transplant as a publicity stunt to increase his newspaper’s circulation, had feared being unable to find “a man who [would] permit a doctor with a knife in his hand to start fooling around with his swinging trinkets.” Thousands of limp and flaccid men soon proved him wrong.

Though aspects of his autobiography varied from telling to telling, John Romulus Brinkley consistently claimed a birthday of July 8, 1885. He reported having been born in a log cabin and graduated from high school in Tuckasiegee, North Carolina. In 1908, while a Western Union telegrapher in Chicago, he began attending Bennett Medical College. He dropped out before his senior year. Four years later, Brinkley obtained a Tennessee license to practice medicine as an “undergraduate physician”—apparently some kind of learner’s permit.

He worked for one Dr. Burke, who was a “men’s specialist,” his office decorated with papier-mâché models of male organs that illustrated the wages of indiscretion. Once a prospect had been terrified by the prospect of tertiary syphilis, selling him a treatment was easy. Then Brinkley opened a medical office in Greenville, South Carolina. He advertised in the local daily, asking “Are You a Manly Man Full of Vigor?” The suckers came in droves. Brinkley gave them injections directly into the hip at $25 a shot. He claimed it was salvarsan or neo-salvarsan; it was really distilled water. Two months later, Brinkley skipped town, stiffing both landlord and newspaper.

In June 1913, Brinkley resurfaced in St. Louis, Missouri, where he received an M.D. from a diploma mill, the National University of Arts and Sciences, for a few hundred in cash. It fooled Arkansas, which licensed him as a physician; the Arkansas license, in turn, persuaded Kansas to license him too. Brinkley later obtained a second M.D. from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, Missouri, whose proprietor, Professor Date R. Alexander, once rebuked a reporter for printing that he sold medical diplomas for $200. (“That’s a deadly insult,” Alexander complained. “I never sold one for less than $500.”)

Brinkley’s career in World War I was brief: one month and five days on duty and one month and three days in hospital, followed by release as unfit, partially due to multiple rectal fistulas. The former lieutenant drifted to Milford, Kansas, which had no sidewalks, electric lights, or water system. But he was down to his last twenty-three bucks, so he rented an old drugstore for $8 a month and began a general practice.

One night a man came in, a self-described “flat tire” who complained of being “All in. No pep.” Somehow, the subject of goats came up. “You wouldn’t have any trouble if you had a pair of those buck glands in you,” Brinkley said.

“Well, why don’t you put ’em in?” the man replied affably.

Brinkley performed the operation in his back room. The procedure involved administering a local anesthetic, opening the scrotum by incision from both sides, and—as he later wrote—“[placing] the glands of a three weeks’ old male goat…upon the non-functioning glands of a man, within twenty minutes of the time they are removed from the goat.” Within two weeks, his first patient had “regained his pep.” Within a year, the man and his wife had a healthy child, named Billy to honor the goat. Then another man came in, with a … kidney problem. Brinkley whetted his scalpel, and the second patient reported complete rejuvenation. Thousands would follow. Brinkley had found his niche.

The medical establishment held that a recipient’s immune system would either encapsulate or entirely reject animal glands. Nonetheless, Brinkley firmly maintained that goat glands renewed their recipients’ physical and mental vigor; indeed, he eventually asserted that his procedure transformed its beneficiary into “the-ram-that-am-with-every-lamb” while also curing insanity, acne, influenza, and high blood pressure. Numerous patients publicly swore the procedure worked. Soon, the Doc was charging $750—in advance—and the patient selected his own goat.

By 1923, Brinkley was also running a radio station—KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best)—that broadcast weather reports and live country music as well as “Medical Question Box,” in which Brinkley himself read letters from listeners, mostly women, on their ailments and complaints. The medications he prescribed over the air were coded (e.g., “Dr. Brinkley’s No. 101”) and could only be filled by druggists who carried Brinkley’s products, kicking back $1 to the Doc for each prescription. With a warm, down-home voice and a knack for providing listeners with the answers they wanted to hear, he was perfect for radio.

Despite his affability, the Doc was amazingly vain. Sadie Luck, one of Milford’s public librarians, later recalled:  “He autographed everything with his initials. I counted them on his Cadillac once and, hubcaps and all, his initials were on that car seventeen times!” In 1928, vanity finally overcame common sense. Hygeia, the American Medical Association’s magazine, called him a quack. Brinkley sued for libel and lost. The AMA then denounced him to the Kansas Board of Medical Registration and Examination, which revoked his medical license for immorality and unprofessional conduct.

Worse, the Federal Radio Commission yanked his broadcast license after a hearing on June 20-22, 1930, holding that his operations were not serving the public interest. Some argued that Brinkley’s candor about sex had been fatal; others noted that the politically influential Kansas City Star‘s radio station was losing advertisers to KFKB. Of course, the commission might simply have thought Brinkley a fraud and swindler.

Still, KFKB had made Brinkley famous. He believed his licenses might be regained through political influence. Although only forty-two days remained until election day, and it was too late to have his name printed on the ballots, Brinkley announced his write-in candidacy for governor of Kansas. As his attorneys had appealed the commission’s decision to the federal courts, the actual suspension was delayed until the appeal could be heard. Thus, he stayed on the air throughout his campaign.

The Democrats and Republicans thought him absurd. His name wasn’t even on the ballot and his platform promised something for everyone: free school books, free auto tags, lower taxes, better times for the working people, lakes in every county, and increased rainfall. But Brinkley was a great salesman, with a knack for anti-establishment rhetoric in a state sliding into the Great Depression.

Every day, after several hours on the radio, he would stump the state in his sixteen-cylinder Cadillac limousine and his private plane. He drew enormous crowds to mass gatherings that mixed “elements of a fundamentalist revival meeting with the mood of a state fair.” One witness wrote, “The man glittered. Standing on the platform with the sun shining on his white beard, his gold-rimmed spectacles, his rings, watch-fobs, cuff-links and tie-pins, he seemed to glow, wink and twinkle like a…Christmas tree. And, could he talk… We hung on every word, our mouths agape… The man was magical, and his words were wonderful. I didn’t understand any of it.”

In the last days of the campaign, the state attorney general ruled that only ballots bearing precisely the words J.R. Brinkley would be counted for the doctor. This saved Kansas for the system. On Election Day 1930, as many as 50,000 ballots bearing variations on his name, such as Dr. Brinkley or John Brinkly, were discarded. Even so, the vote was Woodring (Dem.), 217,171; Haucke (Rep.), 216,920; and Brinkley, 183,278.

Brinkley relocated to Del Rio, Texas, just on the Rio Grande. In the neighboring town of Villa Acuna, Mexico, Brinkley built a transmitter with towers some 300 feet tall. XER (“The Station Between the Nations”) went on the air with 100,000 watts on October 21, 1931. Soon, thanks to Brinkley’s lobbyists in Mexico City, the station began using 500,000 watts, then one million watts. (The most powerful U.S. stations were limited to 50,000 watts. ) XER thus blanketed North America, unrestrained by U.S. regulations.

XER broadcast folksy lectures from Doc Brinkley, who answered questions from listeners about anything from astronomy to religion. Brinkley held forth on his special “x-ray and microscopical as well as chemical examinations” designed to diagnose properly “the disease that’s in your body, the disease that’s destroying your earning power, the disease that’s causing you to keep your nose to the grindstone and spend every dollar that you can rake and scrape.” He pleaded with those listening, “You men, why are you holding back? You know you’re sick, you know your prostate’s infected and diseased… Well, why do you hold back? Why do you twist and squirm around on the old cocklebur…when I am offering you these low rates, this easy work, this lifetime-guarantee-of-service plan? Come at once to the Brinkley Hospital before it is everlastingly too late.”

XER had Bible-thumping preachers and astrologers. Entrepreneurs pitched get-rich-quick schemes: oil wells, real estate deals, lottery tickets, all spectacular opportunities for enrichment, and 100 percent guaranteed. Frank the Diamond Man sold genuine simulated diamond rings. There was The Lord’s Last Supper Tablecloth, the man who sold false teeth by mail, and the cures for hemorrhoids, flatulence, and that tormenting rectal itch. XER was also the first major national radio station to broadcast country music, from the Carter Family to Hank Williams.

During the late 1930s, Brinkley, who increasingly blamed his legal troubles on Jewish doctors, began broadcasting rabble-rousing anti-Semites such as Father Charles Coughlin and Rev. Gerald Winrod, the Kansas Hitler. In 1938, while staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, Brinkley met William Dudley Pelley, chief of the fascist Silver Shirt Legion of America, and gave him $5,000.

During the early days of World War II, he opened a flight school. Its XER advertisements claimed untruthfully that its students would receive draft deferments. Hustling to the end, Brinkley died on May 26, 1942. He was only fifty-six. One of his patients summed him up: “I knowed he was bilking me, but that’s okay. You see, I liked him anyway.”

New York Press, May 28, 2003

May 28, 2003   Comments Off on The Unsubtle Knife