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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With his unerring nose for where the money was, Brinkley had already become an American archetype: the quack on the boards. For in our nation with its special genius for swindle--where swampland, beefsteak mines, and tickets to nonexistent attractions practically sell themselves--medical fraud had always been the king of cons. At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, a man dressed as a cowboy appeared onstage and strangled rattlesnakes by the dozen. He called what came out of them snake oil. People bought it.

Of course quacks have flourished in all ages and cultures, for nothing shows reason the door like cures for things. Unlike most scams, which target greed, quackery fires deeper into Jungian universals: our fear of death, our craving for miracles. When we see night approaching, nearly all of us are rubes.

Still, there has probably never been a more quack-prone and quack-infested country than the United States. Flocking west with the pioneers, they struck in one town, vanished to the next, and taught their tricks to others. Dupes were as common as passenger pigeons. Many Americans viewed hospitals, sometimes with justice, as tricked-up funeral homes and doctors as crooks who had a financial stake in keeping them sick.

But quacks weren't just accepted; they were joyously embraced, thanks to a perverse seam in the American mind stretching back almost to the dawn of the republic.

It first appeared in the early nineteenth century. In the heady days of Jacksonian democracy, that delirious celebration of the ordinary, the nation's elite--preachers, doctors, lawyers--were overthrown (at least mentally) with an abandon reminiscent of the French Revolution. Suddenly, to be educated was to be despised. Now, when it came to physicians, Americans not only tolerated but demanded incompetence. So high was the common man exalted that state governments, all but three, actually repealed licensing requirements for doctors. In midcentury educator Lemuel Shattuck, asked by the Massachusetts legislature to conduct a sanitary survey of that state, reported back: "Any one, male or female, learned or ignorant, an honest man or a knave, can assume the name of physician, and 'practice' upon any one, to cure or to kill, as either may happen, without accountability. It's a free country!"

The result of all this deregulation was the quack equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush, with effects that lasted for generations to come. Legitimate doctors had difficulty fighting back, their own record being spotty at best. Take Dr. Benjamin Rush, friend to the founders, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and by common consent the father of American medicine, who for many years after his death remained the nation's best-known physician. Hardworking, honest, a man who took his role as medical counselor to the nation seriously, he was also a virtual death machine, as grossly misguided as he was sincere. Rush favored bombing the body with mercury-laced calomel (which caused rampant diarrhea, bleeding of the gums, and uncontrolled drooling), blistering with hot irons (pain to no purpose), tobacco-smoke enemas, and bleeding by the pint. Some remember him today as the man who murdered George Washington, albeit unintentionally. Of course every evil has its upside: thanks in part to men like Rush, degenerative diseases of the heart, liver, kidneys, and so forth were almost unknown because so few people lived long enough to contract them.

So just who were the quacks? In this melee of plagues and poisons did it even matter? Granted, the people who bought pills against earthquakes were probably wasting their money, but when a man like Elisha Perkins (a contemporary of Dr. Rush) came along with his "galvanic tractors," fussing over the body with some hocus-pocus and two metal rods, at least he held with Hippocrates and did no harm. Like Dr. Rush, Dr. Perkins believed in what he was doing. Both were wrong, yet the one was honored and the other condemned. Given history like this, it becomes easier to understand why the people John Brinkley played to--especially the sick and frightened--were willing to give that youngster onstage the benefit of the doubt.

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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