Summary and book reviews of Charlatan by Pope Brock

Charlatan

America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

By Pope Brock

Charlatan
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2008,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2009,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

In 1917, after years of selling worthless patent remedies throughout the Southeast, John R. Brinkley–America’s most brazen young con man–arrived in the tiny town of Milford, Kansas. He set up a medical practice and introduced an outlandish surgical method using goat glands to restore the fading virility of local farmers.

It was all nonsense, of course, but thousands of paying customers quickly turned “Dr.” Brinkley into America’s richest and most famous surgeon. His notoriety captured the attention of the great quackbuster Morris Fishbein, who vowed to put the country’s “most daring and dangerous” charlatan out of business.

Their cat-and-mouse game lasted throughout the 1920s and ’30s, but despite Fishbein’s efforts Brinkley prospered wildly. When he ran for governor of Kansas, he invented campaigning techniques still used in modern politics. Thumbing his nose at American regulators, he built the world’s most powerful radio transmitter just across the Rio Grande to offer sundry cures, and killed or maimed patients by the score, yet his warped genius produced innovations in broadcasting that endure to this day. By introducing country music and blues to the nation, Brinkley also became a seminal force in rock ’n’ roll. In short, he is the most creative criminal this country has ever produced.

Culminating in a decisive courtroom confrontation that pit Brinkley against his nemesis Fishbein, Charlatan is a marvelous portrait of a boundlessly audacious rogue on the loose in an America that was ripe for the bamboozling.

1

In the period before the First World War, the Reinhardt brothers, Willis and Wallace, owned a thriving chain of anatomical museums: the London Medical Institute, the Paris Medical Institute, the Heidelberg, the Copenhagen, and so forth. Located in Des Moines, Fort Wayne, East St. Louis, and other towns throughout the Midwest, they were devoted to the documentation and cure of "men's secret diseases." Most had big display windows facing the street, and what the Reinhardts put in those windows was the talk of the industry. Their most celebrated exhibit, in Minneapolis, was entitled "The Dying Custer."

He lay like Saint Sebastian, bristling with arrows, in a lavish three-dimensional tableau. Redskins, corpses, and plaster vultures added richness to the scene, but what kept passersby bunched at the window, staring in for minutes on end, was the slow, rhythmic heaving of Custer's chest. They gazed till their own breathing fell into sync--it was irresistible--and that gave the ...

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Alas, the subtitle's promise to explore—or even define—the Age of Flimflam goes unfulfilled. By remaining so fully under the sway of Brinkley's charismatic personality, Brock fails to probe the psychology of Brinkley's patients, thus bypassing the opportunity to generate a larger theory about the persistence of snake oil in an era of scientific progress. Charlatan thus bears a certain similarity to the nostrums peddled by quacks like Brinkley: it does nothing to cure the disease—unremitting gullibility—for which it is prescribed, but it goes down in a nice, quick gulp with an altogether pleasing sensation.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

[A] hugely amusing if somewhat sobering book.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

[T[old with uproarious brio…Mr. Brock never lets his readers forget that the follies on display in Charlatan are alive and well today.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Library Journal

[A] lively and absorbing biography

Kirkus Reviews

With sprightly style, Brock exposes the randy rise of a master huckster and his fall at the hands of a relentless quack hunter. It’s a fine account of medical fakery, congenital scientific stupidity and the habitual human appetite for being fooled and exploited…Wonderful American social history and lots of fun.

Entertainment Weekly - Adam Markovitz

[T]he author's gee-whiz tone, while fun to read, doesn't leave room for a deeper portrait of a mad genius who may ultimately have had more in common with Jack the Ripper than P.T. Barnum. B–

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Beyond the Book

Quack Medicine

In the nineteenth century, when even mainstream medical therapies included painful bloodletting and leeching, quack* medicine didn't seem quite so quacky.

If you wanted your hair to grow, you could don a Thermocap to send just the right amount of heat to your follicles. If your eyes were weak, you could apply the Neu-Vita Oculizer to massage your muscles and improve your eyesight. If you had a "female complaint"—code for an unwanted pregnancy—you could down a tonic containing pennyroyal. If your problem was onanism, you could submit to a bracing ice water bath each night from a belt that circulated tubes between your legs. If, on the other hand, your problem was blocked sexual energy, you could...

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