In 1917, after years of selling worthless patent remedies throughout the Southeast, John R. BrinkleyAmericas most brazen young con manarrived 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 Americas richest and most famous surgeon. His notoriety captured the attention of the great quackbuster Morris Fishbein, who vowed to put the countrys most daring and dangerous charlatan out of business.
Their cat-and-mouse game lasted throughout the 1920s and 30s, but despite Fishbeins 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 worlds 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.
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).
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–
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.
[A] lively and absorbing biography
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.
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.
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 pregnancyyou 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
purchase vibrators discreetly marketed as vaginal washers.
Most quack medicine provided generalized remedies for vague ills. Magnetism
had scores of devotees who sported magnetic belts, combs, and
brushesforerunners of today's magnetic bracelets. Vibration promised to shake
out disease or stimulate...
SHAM shows how thinly credentialed "experts" now dispense advice on everything from mental health to relationships to diet to personal finance to business strategy. Americans spend upward of $8 billion every year on self-help programs and products. And those staggering financial costs are actually the least of our worries.
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