A marvelous portrait of a boundlessly audacious rogue on the loose in an America that was ripe for the bamboozling.
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.
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 ...
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).
Full Review (887 words).
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...
If you liked Charlatan, try these:
Amy Reading's fascinating account of con artistry in America and Frank Norfleet's wild caper invites you into the crooked history of a nation on the hustle, constantly feeding the hunger and the hope of the mark inside.
A real-life Talented Mr. Ripley, the unbelievable thirty-year run of a shape-shifting con man.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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