Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock is an engaging historical tale about medical quackery from the early 20th century. I enjoyed the brief mention this story had received in Mary Roach’s Bonk, but it was great to read the whole tale.
The book follows one of America’s greatest con artists, John Brinkley, and his arch-nemesis Dr. Morris Fishbein. Fishbein, whose pet project was debunking medical quackery, worked tirelessly to expose Brinkley for what he was. The book is equally about Fishbein as it is about Brinkley, but the con artist’s tale really steals the show.
John Brinkley was a con-man from a poor background who purchased medical degrees and made his way around the country posing as a doctor selling ridiculous treatments to gullible people. He became famous for one procedure in particular: transplanting goat testicles into healthy adult men in an attempt to increase their virility. Despite having no medical training, minimal grasp on sanitation, and leaving a wake of sick, crippled and unhappy patients, Brinkley earned millions.
Brinkley was a true charlatan, charismatic and wildly popular. He was rich, famous and respected. He ran for political office several times, losing only narrowly to his opponents. When he was chased from state to state by medical licensing boards, Fishbein, and eventually the law, he set up shop in Mexico just south of the Texan border so he could broadcast his crazy medical ideas across the border without repercussion. His border blaster radio station remained hugely popular despite his controversial medical beliefs and brushes with the law, and made him somewhat of a pioneer in radio.
Eventually the hammer was brought down on Brinkley as he lost multiple lawsuits for his medical misadventures, depleting his millions and forcing him to declare bankruptcy. And in addition to his conviction of various medical frauds, he was also investigated for both tax fraud and mail fraud – a swindler in every sense of the word.
From a modern standpoint, Brinkley was such an absurd person with ideas that were so blatantly ridiculous that is almost difficult to grasp this as a non-fiction book. Yet even today, we can see the fervor for his cures still going strong in today’s popular “alternative medicine.”
The book is illuminating, fascinating, amusing and fast paced, and an all-around good read.