Excerpt from Charlatan by Pope Brock, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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

by Pope Brock

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2008, 336 pages
    Jan 2009, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Print Excerpt

In the last room the customer met The Boy.

It was known by that name throughout the trade, and every "free educational anatomical institute" worth its salt had one. The scene was replayed countless times: while the salesman hung back, or bent to tie his shoe, the customer approached a rectangular pillar walled in glass. It was pitch-dark inside. The mark moved toward it cautiously, perhaps glancing back at his guide for the go-ahead, peered in close trying to see what was in there--and then the lights blazed on full, and the grinning wax face of an idiot sprang into view. Horrifying as it was, the warning above it was even worse:


The customer knew then that he wasn't just looking at a vile mask with dripping yellow eyes. He was looking at the future. He was looking at himself.

After this bit of venereal kabuki--"the convincer," in quack talk--the rest was usually easy. As Dr. Burke sat at a desk, possibly lost in a medical tome, Dr. Brinkley brought the poor sinner forward and introduced him. Burke gave him an "instant consultation" ("Are you ever thirsty?" "Do you sometimes suffer from fatigue?"--warning signs all) and produced a bottle of peerless tonic, which the man was assured would save his organ and probably his life. The price was almost as big a shock as The Boy, between ten and twenty dollars, but who in his right mind would economize at a time like this? Moments later the customer was standing in the alley with the hooey in his hand and the door shut firmly behind him.

How much satisfaction Brinkley felt at such moments is unknown. The greatest quacks never gloat for long; when deception is the drug, there's no building up a supply. Besides, he had so much ambition that working in two tatty rooms with a substandard Boy could have been depressing at times.

On the other hand, he might have taken pride in having gotten so far so young. Brinkley came from the tiny town of Beta, North Carolina, tucked in the Great Smokies not far from the Tennessee line. Like his neighbors, he grew up on a hilly little farm that produced mostly rocks. He ate mush and greens and lashed gunnysacks to his feet for winter boots. The thick forests and hard climbs, the rainy days when bowls of fog gathered in the valleys, the strangers scarce as hen's teeth: all this conspired to make the outside world seem little more than a rumor, so it was natural that most people, if they started out there, stayed put.

Not Brinkley. "Kind of a recklesslike boy," one neighbor called him. "Lively as a cricket," another said. And all the while he burned with a bitter fire, and he dreamed. ("I thought of John Brinkley freeing the slaves," he said later, "John Brinkley illuminating the world, John Brinkley facing an assassin's bullet for the sake of his people, John Brinkley healing the sick.") But with the slaves freed, the world lit, and nobody caring enough about him to kill him, he chose number four--sort of. First he married Sally Wike, a spitfire from a neighboring farm, as eager as he was to escape the prison of the mountains. Then "he got up a little play," as Mrs. Ann Bennett, who boarded them briefly, recalled it, "and he and his wife and some more people went on the road from town to town, you know, giving little plays."

He sang and he danced and he healed. Barely twenty, Brinkley got his precocious start touring as a type of medicine man known as a Quaker doctor. Though, in the general run of Quakers, specialty numbers were almost unknown, some itinerant quacks in those days liked to impersonate them, trading on their legendary rectitude. Some folks saw through the act, but it hardly mattered. Fooling some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time was plenty.

They usually performed at night. A platform was unfolded and torches placed at each corner as the audience gathered, drawn by handbills and word of mouth. While there is no specific record of a Brinkley performance, there was a set pattern to most Quaker-doctor shows. First a fiddler or a dancer got the crowd warmed up. A short morality play followed, in which a noble head of house or ringleted female died pathetically for lack of a miracle tonic, identified by name. Finally the physician himself (Brinkley) shot onstage in a dinner-plate hat, cutaway coat, and pious pants that buttoned up the sides, theeing and thouing, singing and selling, waving a bottle of Ayer's Cathartic Pills. Or maybe Burdock Blood Bitters or Aunt Fanny's Worm Candy. One thing was for sure, whatever it was cured whatever you had.

Excerpted from Charlatan by Pope Brock Copyright © 2008 by Pope Brock. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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