When I was a kid, Saturdays would find me at the Johnston Public Library on West Tenth Street in Baxter Springs, where one book in particular was so strange that even as a kid, I detected a deeply disturbing vibe.
It was the life story of one John Romulus Brinkley, as told by himself.
You may recognize the name from any number of books, articles, a play, and even an animated documentary in recent years. Brinkley is best known as the Kansas Goat Doctor. But that wasn’t talked about much in decades past. Imagine my shock as I read that Brinkley had discovered a way to restore old men to sexual vigor by the grafting, onto older men’s tender parts, testicular material from goats. There was a black-and-white photo plate opposite the title page, as I recall, of the supposed first baby to have resulted from this method: a happy boy named “Billy.”
Now, there’s no need here to recount all of the medical frauds associated with Doc Brinkley, who had a 16-bed clinic (with the goats out back) at Milford, in Geary County. Suffice it to say he was a fraud of the first class, that the goat gland method was bogus, and that Brinkley probably killed dozens of patients on the operating table.
Gland grafting, as odd as it now seems, was a medical fad in the early 20th century, and Brinkley cashed in on it and every other form of pseudoscience, especially the sale of colored water as various “medicines.” There was no physical, mental or spiritual illness in any human being that Brinkley did not claim to cure. In doing so, the Goat Doctor amassed millions of dollars.
For a thorough discussion of Brinkley’s offenses against medicine, check out Pope Brock’s skillful 2008 book, “Charlatan.” I don’t recall the name of the Brinkley book I found at the Johnston library, but it may have been a version of “The Goat Gland Transplantation,” published in 1921 and available at Project Gutenberg.
Brinkley had no credible medical training and had purchased his medical degree from a diploma mill. Brinkley, who was born in North Carolina, had hawked patent cures at medicine shows across the south and had spent some time at an unaccredited “eclectic” medical college before moving to Milford in 1916. It was there, for $750 a whack — more than $15,000 in today’s money — he performed his goat gland quackery.
But it’s not Brinkley’s contributions to medical flimflam that I’ve been pondering lately. It’s his political career, and how closely it resembles the practices used by the nation’s charlatan-in-chief, Donald Trump. Brinkley created the playbook for modern politics, and like Trump, he kept people awake at night worrying about what he would do next.
A short list of his innovations include: The first to use a new electronic medium — in this case, radio — to speak directly and immediately to his patients and his supporters, allowing him to bypass traditional gatekeepers; the first “talk radio” host to appeal to the American yeoman with a folksy style and the public denunciation of communists, liberals, radicals and traditional experts; and the first to make widespread use of an airplane for campaign hops.
Brinkley also garnered the support of fascists, including Gerald B. Winrod, a Wichita preacher and Nazi sympathizer who blamed all of society’s troubles on an international Jewish conspiracy.
In 1923, Brinkley received a license for a radio station and began construction at Milford of what became KFKB — “Kansas First Kansas Best.” Commercial radio was still in its infancy, but Brinkley saw the power inherent in the new medium. At a time when nearly four out of five radio stations accepted no advertising, Brinkley made sales of his services the cornerstone of every broadcast.
“Each day Brinkley would sit at a small table with his gold-finished microphone,” Brock writes, “a grandfather clock ticking gravely behind him, and free-associate for hours in a mysterious soothsayer’s voice that coasted across America’s prairies and beyond.”
Brinkley had a “Medical Question Box” segment in which he gave advice to those who wrote in, and on Sundays he personally delivered sermons. Increasingly, he began to see himself as a Christ-like figure. Those who attacked him were attacking God.
The town of Milford largely overlooked his fraud because of the boon he brought to the local economy and because of his generosity; he provided, for example, the uniforms for the Little League team, the Brinkley Goats. To his radio audience, in addition to his soothing voice and comforting if worthless advice, he brought entertainment in the form of live music, with singing cowboys a specialty.
In 1930, Radio Digest named KFKB the most popular station in the United States.
But in June, the Federal Radio Commission voted 3-2 that KFKB was not operated in the public interest, but only in Brinkley’s interest. His license to broadcast was revoked. He told his radio listeners that he’d been crucified. Shortly after that, the state revoked his license to practice medicine.
Days later, on Sept. 20, Brinkley announced his candidacy for governor.
It was too late to get his name on the ballot, so he waged an all-out write-in campaign. He flew across the state in “The Romancer,” a plane once owned by Charles Lindbergh, speaking to record crowds.
“But voters felt more for the goat-gland man than just sympathy,” Brock writes. “When he stood on that platform and tore into the government, the (American Medical Association), all the powers of darkness out to destroy him, a lot of folks scared to death by the onslaught of the Depression identified with him keenly.”
In just weeks, Brinkley had turned Kansas politics on its head.
An example of one of his speeches is reported in the Oct. 27, 1930, issue of the Iola Register. On short notice, two thousand people turned out at the airport to greet Brinkley and his family as they stepped down from the Romancer.
“As you see, I’ve left my horns behind,” Brinkley quipped.
He railed against the Kansas City Star, the two-party system, urban business interests, and the suggestion that his candidacy was a joke. Later, Brinkley said: “It was an insult to the people of Kansas when the opposition said that the persons who listened to the Milford radio programs were the illiterate class of the state.”
The article noted that if Brinkley received 40% of the vote against his opponents, Republican Frank Haucke and Democrat Harry H. Woodring, he would win.
But just three days before the election, the state attorney general announced a change in the long-standing rules about how write-in votes would be counted. Previously, it had always been the intent of the voter that mattered. But now, only one form of his name would be counted: “J.R. Brinkley.” Anything that contained John or Doc or got the initials or spelling wrong would be thrown out.
Woodring won the election — with a margin of only 251 votes. The vote between Woodring and Haucke was nearly evenly split, at 35% each. Officially, Brinkley received 30% of the count. But tens of thousands of votes for Brinkley were disqualified. Clearly, Brinkley would have won had it not been for the last-minute change in the rules.
Brinkley would run for governor again, in 1932, but suffer a clean loss to Alf Landon.
Done with Kansas, Brinkley eventually moved his operation south. While living in a mansion at Del Rio, Texas, he built a new radio station, XER (later XERA), just across the border in Villa Acuña, where regulations on content and power were more relaxed. Eventually, this “border blaster” station pumped out a million watts, making it the most powerful radio station on earth.
Brinkley continued his established format of quackery and live music, and gave a start to some of the biggest names in country music, including the Carter Family. Later, XERA and its disc jockeys, such as Wolfman Jack, would be among the first to introduce rock-and-roll to an American listening audience.
Brinkley died broke in 1942 at San Antonio, after being hit with multiple lawsuits for malpractice and being indicted for tax and mail fraud. He was 56.
What Brinkley pioneered for us was not only modern political methods, but also the politics of influential outrage.
In the early 20th century, Brinkley marshalled a mass audience sympathetic to his message of magical medical thinking, his ostentatious celebrity and his public persecution complex. Whatever good he did — the baseball uniforms, the promotion of popular music — was incidental to his overriding selfishness.
In that, and many other things, he was like Trump.
But the thing that keeps me awake is not the fraud or the hucksterism, the genuine brilliance corrupted by narrow self-interest or even the flirtations with fascism. It’s that percentage required for Brinkley to be elected governor in 1930. Forty percent. And he got it; four of 10 Kansans voted for the fraud who was called “America’s most dangerous man” by the AMA.
Take a look at the presidential race polling data. No matter how bad things get for Trump, not matter what outrage he commits, no matter what pseudoscience he spouts, his approval rating never dips much below 40%.
It felt strange, all those years ago, reading about Brinkley in that old book. Those crazy ideas! It all seemed so remote. But now, just 16 days away from an election that history will see as a national referendum on fraud and quackery, I realize that we’re never all that far away from crazy.