From Abracadabra to Zombies
The only complaint I have about Pope Brock's fabulous and depressing book, Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, is the implication in the title that the age of flimflam has passed. Flimflam will end when human weakness ends. Human nature drives us to magical thinking, making us vulnerable to becoming either charlatans or their victims or both. You don't have to enter the revival tent to find masses of people adoring charlatans. You don't have to go to third world countries to find people who believe in magical potions that promise everything from restoring vitality, hair, or eyesight to curing everything from constipation to cancer. My local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, carries full-page ads, written and posted in the style of news articles, for such things as "memory pills" (that also restore vision) and "miracle, drug-free" cures for aching joints. You might have seen the same kind of medical posing in the Los Angeles Times during the 1920s and 30s. Brock's featured charlatan, John Brinkley (1885-1942) was a master deceiver, most famous for planting bits of billy goat testicle in men's testicles. Why would he do such a thing? To help the feeble rise to the occasion, and he had neither knowledge of nor access to the bonobo. Billy goats had a good reputation, were cheap and accessible in rural Kansas. His methods, if not his choice of placebo, live on in the heirs to his ignoble vocation. According to Brock, at a time when the average medical specialist might make $7,500 a year, Brinkley was bringing in more than one hundred times that much. The Great Depression had no effect on his lavish lifestyle, though he did occasionally stoop to the down-and-out-spent-every-penny-we-had-on-good-deeds appeal made popular by such modern day charlatans as Jim and Tammy Faye Baker.
Fortunately, there are also many who have followed in the footsteps of Dr. Morris Fishbein (1889-1976), the man who pursued Brinkley with the same fervor that James Randi has pursued Peter Popoff and Sylvia Browne. Fishbein, however, eventually snared his prey and lived long enough to see the charlatan ruined (bankrupt) and butchered (leg amputation). Today's Fishbeins--Stephen Barrett, Edzard Ernst, Steven Novella, David Gorski, Harriet Hall, and the like--pursue their prey mostly on the Internet, a task nearly as thankless as it is hopeless. The Brinkleys of the world are ubiquitous and on the Internet they multiply like Malthusian rabbits. Many operate clinics in Tijuana or Texas where they attract the desperate with the lure of hope for the hopeless. Today's Brinkleys have medical degrees from accredited schools and have the advantage of television where they needn't advertise since they either have their own shows like Dr. Oz or they're invited as guests to share their wisdom with the masses looking for someone to idolize like Depak Chopra. As an added bonus our charlatans can dazzle the public with jargon lifted from quantum mechanics.
While Fishbein focused on medical quacks, his friend H. L. Mencken exposed the racket of faith healing. Long before Randi's Faith Healers, Mencken had explored that expansive pond of human gullibility that makes fishing for suckers so profitable to those who claim to follow Jesus and other miracle workers. This was the 1920s and 30s, a period of negligible government regulation that would make any card-carrying Republican, NRA member, or conspiracy theorist giddy with freedom from government. Mail order medical diplomas were a dime a dozen, so to speak, and Brinkley bought his. Don't be fooled by the Wikipedia entry that refers to him as a "medical doctor who experimented with xenotransplantation." He wasn't a medical doctor and he didn't experiment, at least not in the sense that words like 'xenotransplantation' imply. He was a man who bought a medical degree and got a license to practice from a crooked board of Eclectic physicians. He stuffed goat testicles into men looking to revitalize their sex lives and goat ovaries into women longing to have babies. He killed and maimed many patients. The ones who survived or those who just longed to follow a man who compared himself to Jesus and claimed to be working medical miracles were full of praise. The dead don't give testimonials but enough of the living did to keep Brinkley in good enough favor with the populace to almost get him elected governor of Kansas as a write-in with only three weeks to campaign. He had just lost his license to practice medicine in Kansas (because his license was bought not earned from a medical school) and his license to broadcast on the radio. He turned those setbacks to his favor, as he seemed to be able to do every time he was caught lying, cheating, or killing customers. He became a hero, at least to a large segment of the uneducated, ill-informed, and gullible public. They believed every lie he told, including the lie that he was being-persecuted by the government and the American Medical Association. Had not those in charge of the election rigged things, Brinkley would have gotten enough votes to defeat both the Democrat and the Republican who finished ahead of him. Well, if you can't beat them, you might as well join them.
For all his chicanery and deceit, Brinkley was insightful, if not clairvoyant. On one of his many sojourns around the globe to publicize his amazing self, he met Harry Chandler. Chandler inherited the job of publisher of the Los Angeles Times when his father-in-law died. From Chandler, Brinkley learned the value of advertising, forbidden by the AMA in those days. Brinkley considered Fishbein to be the AMA and devil incarnate, so it must have given him much pleasure to be able to taunt real doctors with his advertising. Brinkley also learned about radio from Chandler. Brinkley was already a rich man from the goat gland business, but advertising on the radio opened up new vistas of wealth. He set up a radio station in Milford, Kansas, and from there he could not only bellow daily blasts against the evil AMA, he could strike it rich as the purveyor of high-cost drugs for ailments he'd diagnose on the air. Later he would sell advertising time to those with as few scruples as he had about hawking snake oil.
Today we have energy healers who claim they can diagnose and heal over the telephone or the Internet. They can also reap a fortune by prescribing vitamins, minerals, and other supplements as well as a pharmacopoeia of detoxification potions. Brinkley was getting thousands of letters a day, mostly from women who wanted better performances from their men. There was also the occasional unhappy bride who hoped Brinkley's goat gonad implantation would end up killing her husband. Unlike lesser men, who might have simply discarded the many pleas for help, Brinkley invited his radio listeners to send him their medical questions, which he would answer on air. He had his clerks (9 of them) select about seventy-five letters a day for his Medical Question Box (MQB). He allegedly received thousands of letters a day.
The MQB scam was pretty simple. Brinkley would diagnose people he'd never seen and prescribe drugs over the air so all those who might detect similarities between their own ailments and the writers' could benefit him by buying the prescribed drugs. None of the prescriptions were identified by name. Each had a number. A woman complains that her six-year-old daughter has cramps. Brinkley diagnoses and prescribes on the air: "I think she is wormy. Ask for Prescription 94....you had your appendix taken out....My advice is number 61 and stay on it for about ten years." Brinkley lured about 500 Midwestern drugstores to his Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association. The drug prices were highly inflated and the kickbacks were good. He offered a money-back guarantee. "For every complainer there would be five new customers coming through the door because he was so honest." When the government shut down his 5000-watt station in Kansas, Brinkley set up a 50,000-watt tower on the border in Mexico. He was whack-a-mole incarnate. Eventually he had more watts than he had money and his voice could be heard all across America and in a few foreign countries as well. Some of his remedies were actual pharmaceuticals meant for something other than what he prescribed them for. One got him in a lot of trouble. It was a panacea consisting of water and a tiny bit of indigo.
Proving the adage that it's an ill wind that doesn't blow somebody some good, Brinkley became a model for not only other hucksters of fake cancer cures and the like, but for blasting music from Mexico into the United States. Brinkley used Tex-Mex and country singers to fill in the space on his radio show and attract listeners. Brock gives Brinkley credit for expanding the audience for country music from a small region to the entire nation. One of those who followed the Mexican border trail in broadcasting was Wolfman Jack, whose raspy voice I can still hear echoing in some remote corner of my brain where memories of my wasted youth lurk.
For every positive spin-off from Brinkley's activities, there was an equal or greater negative consequence. Along with radio broadcasting towers springing up along the border in Mexico there came the quack-run clinics for the desperate, places where many unknown and a few well-known figures like Steve McQueen, Pat Paulsen, and Coretta King ended their days.
The AMA declared Dr. Albert Abrams (1863-1924) the "dean of twentieth century charlatans." That would make Brinkley the chancellor of the school. They've produced many graduates. In his own day, Brinkley had competition from Norman Baker who claimed he could cure cancer with a mixture of watermelon seeds, brown corn silk, alcohol, and carbolic acid. He was eventually convicted of mail fraud, a crime the modern charlatan need not concern himself with. Serge Veronoff made his fortune grafting parts of monkey testicles to the testicles of men to give them vitality and a very long life. Unfortunately, the procedure also gave his victims syphilis. Eugen Steinach promised long life and vitality by partial vasectomy. His errors led others to isolate testosterone.
Brinkley's lies and deceit harmed many people and brought him and his second wife, Minnie, fame and much fortune if you can call money and the things it can buy 'fortune.' He ended up bankrupt and discredited after he sued Fishbein and the AMA for libel. The case was lost when the judge told the jury that the plaintiff had authorized a biography of himself that contained criticisms of him that were more scandalous than Fishbein's tepid descriptions of Brinkley as a quack and charlatan. It's hard to maintain you've been libeled by name calling when you've bragged about being called worse things and paid to have them published.
Goat and monkey gonad implants are out of vogue, but the idea of longevity and vitality through glands and their products lives on in such popular products as DHEA and the numerous hormones and steroids taken by athletes to enhance their powers. Some of the medical follies identified by Fishbein in his 1925 book of that title live on, e.g., homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic. In 1927 Fishbein wrote New Medical Follies with a fresh list of quackeries, including the work of Brinkley, Voronoff, and Steinach. There were a few others, too. There was Henry Lindlahr (1862–1924) who, according to Fishbein, killed Eugene Debs with a naturopathic regimen. Lindlahr was the author of Nature Cure and ran a sanitarium where Debs spent his last months. Lindlahr was a graduate of the National Medical University of Chicago, called a diploma mill by Fishbein and "the worst place in the city" by a local health official. Coursework included sysmotherapy (vibratory massage, which as far as I can tell involves some sort of rapid tapping on various parts of the body), gluckokinesis (?), zone therapy (reflexology with ten energy zones), physicultopathy (?), astrological diagnosis, practical sphincterology, phrenological physicology, spectrochrome therapy (treatment using colored lights), iridagnosis (iridology), tension therapy, and naprapathy (treatment of disease by manipulation of joints, muscles, and ligaments, based on the belief that many diseases are caused by displacement of connective tissues). "In short," writes Brock, "naturopathy was a sort of elephant's graveyard or jumble sale of all things quackish--embracing, as [Fishbein] put it 'every form of healing that offers opportunity for exploitation.'"
If Fishbein had a flaw it was that he had too much fun baiting quacks and writing about them for a small journal with little connection to the national press. For example, he considered his work at JAMA his "fun department." In his article "John R. Brinkley--Quack, the Commercial Possibilities of Goat-Gland Grafting," concern for the harm being done by Brinkley was secondary to his racketeering. What is disconcerting and depressing is that things are not much better today even though we have reams of regulations and laws to protect consumers from quacks like Brinkley. In fact, the lawmakers themselves have sometimes compounded the problem. Thanks to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) we have The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), formerly the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Harkin and others who support him represent government-sponsored quackery. Over the years, the NCCAM has given away more than $2.5 billion and has nothing to show for it. Belief in energy medicine and countless quack cures for cancer and other diseases has risen in disproportion to our increased knowledge and improved treatments thanks to science-based medicine. The task may seem hopeless, but if were not for the Fishbeins of today things would be a thousand times worse.
posted March 2013