Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam tells the story of con man J.R. Brinkley, the forerunner to today’s “FoodBabe” and “HealthRanger,” a man whose scams were so successful (at extracting money) and popular that he nearly won an election to become governor of Kansas. He helped create the modern radio industry, launched the first real “border blaster” from just over the border with Mexico, and spent about twenty years evading the pursuit of the American Medical Association’s lead investigator Morris Fishbein before finally coming to justice. It is so bizarre and so extreme that it defies belief, both that anyone could get away with a scam so brazen and that his name isn’t that well known today.
Brinkley’s main con was to pass himself off as a surgeon (despite a lack of any medical degree other than honorary ones he received later) who invented an operation where he would implant the glands from goat testicles into the scrotum of a human to give the latter added virility. In other words, he was selling penis pills before Al Gore invented the Internet. And it worked – the con, that is, not the operation, which was complete bullshit and left many patients maimed or worse. Brinkley built a huge practice in the backwater town of Milford, Kansas, in part by also constructing one of the country’s first radio stations and using it to promote his own business. He also filled much of the station’s airtime with country music, spreading the popularity of that genre and thus further building the audience for his promotion of his own business.
When the authorities in Kansas eventually forced him to stop killing people with scrotal operations, Brinkley first staged a write-in campaign for governor that, in just five weeks, may have garnered him enough votes to win, only to have a back-room deal invalidate thousands of those votes and hand the election to one of his rivals. Brinkley later decamped for Del Rio, Texas, opening a new surgery and setting up a half-million watt radio station just over the border that was so powerful there were days the signal could reportedly reach Canada. That station, XERA, introduced mexican and “tex-mex” music to the broader public and later gave us the outsized personality known as Wolfman Jack. Brinkley was a ruthless, sociopathic confidence man, but he was also quite brilliant and kept ahead of his enemies and adversaries for so long because he was a visionary. He saw potential in radio before anyone else did, and rewrote the rules of political campaigns, and also found a fine new way to part gullible people from their money, whether they had it to give him or not.
Fishbein enters frequently into the story as a secondary character, giving the story some narrative greed as he and Brinkley collide several times before the final denouement at a trial where Brinkley was actually the plaintiff, suing Fishbein for libel for calling the fake doctor a charlatan. Whether Brinkley actually believed his “operation” – which barely qualified as such – helped the patients is never clear, as he may simply have been convinced of his own invincibility regardless of the truth. He succeeded for nearly twenty years, running variations of the same scam, frequently upping the ante after he had to pull up stakes in one location, amassing enormous wealth and political power before his ultimate downfall.
That power in particular reminded me of the recent efforts by the soi-disant “FoodBabe” Vani Hari, a woman with no scientific or medical training (and no evident knowledge of either) who has used social media to run protests against specific ingredients in processed foods while encouraging people to do stupid things like take useless “natural herbs” or buy her book. Her post on staying healthy while flying is legendary for its ignorance (such as her beliefs on the chemical composition of air), and she fosters the same kind of anti-science sentiment that encourages vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, and 9/11 “truthers.” Her effort is hardly the only one of its kind; look at NaturalNews, another anti-science site run by a mountebank who peddles misinformation like claiming a raw food diet can cure cancer and fibromyalgia in what amounts to one giant appeal to nature. (Prepare to be shocked: Mike Adams, the self-styled “Health Ranger” who runs Natural News, is a vaccine denier and an all-around quack.) So while it’s easy to read Charlatan and convince yourself that such a sham could never happen today, in reality the fraudsters have just moved online.