“Are you a manly man full of vigor?”
What reads like a modern-day male enhancement ad was in fact penned some 80 years ago by John Romulus Brinkley. The Jackson County native catapulted from his humble mountain childhood to national fame and notoriety by surgically implanting goat testicles into his patients’ man parts, among other highly questionable treatments.
Along the way, Brinkley made a mint as a virtuoso flimflam artist, stirring controversy and dodging the law at (almost) every turn. But he also revolutionized early 20th century advertising methods and political campaigning, spread the gospel of radio broadcasting, and helped spark the careers of country and mountain music stars, including some from his beloved Jackson County. It’s hard to say that he wasn’t possessed with a kind of vigor—if not, perhaps, the sort you’d want in your doctor.
Birth of a Myth-Maker
Brinkley was born in 1885, in a cabin in the tiny community of Beta, a few miles outside Sylva. His father, also named John, had served as a medic in the Confederate Army, imbuing young Brinkley with a yen for healing. After stints as a mail carrier and telegraph operator, he joined a traveling medicine show of the snake oil variety and sensed the potential in promising to heal assorted ills.
In 1913, Brinkley struck out to Greenville, South Carolina, and opened a shop hawking “German electric medicine.” His injections of the fluid, which in fact was mere colored water, cost $25 a pop and were just starting to draw customers when the young con man and his partner jumped town, fleeing check fraud and other charges.
From there, Brinkley’s career would grow odder at every turn. After a short time in jail and years of sundry jobs and scheming, he collected a couple of bogus medical degrees from uncredentialed and mail-order schools. And in an era when oversight of doctors and those claiming to be was still rudimentary, he began to practice medicine in remote Midwestern towns that were grateful to have a local doc of any sort, qualifications be damned.
One day in 1918, the would-be physician was running a small Kansas clinic when a farmer came in to complain of “sexual weakness.” It was Brinkley’s light-bulb moment: He convinced the farmer to allow him to implant goat testes into the man’s scrotum and started claiming he’d restored his vigor. “COUNTY DOCTOR DISCOVERS SEX SECRET; HE IS USING GOAT GLANDS,” a local newspaper headline blared, and demand for the procedure took off.
Before long, Brinkley was charging $750 (the equivalent of about $9,000 today) for the purported penis pumper-upper, attracting patients from as far away as Hollywood. He started offering similar operations to women, along with a battery of other quack treatments intended to restore virility and extend life. His business spread quickly—but so did stories of surgeries gone awry that resulted in infections, disabilities, and possibly deaths.
Undaunted, Brinkley seized on the then-new power of commercial radio to tout his treatments. In 1923, he built one of the state’s first stations, KFKB (“Kansas First, Kansas Best”), and used the airwaves to draw in more sexually anxious customers. He personally hosted a popular segment, Medical Question Box, where he fielded queries from listeners about health woes and prescribed his own (unproven) brand of medicines as the cure. As Brinkley’s coffers filled, he built a reservoir of local goodwill by investing in civic improvement projects and even a local baseball team, the Kansas Goats.
But as he nurtured his genius for advertising, Brinkley’s propensity for fibbing started to catch up with him, and his credentials were challenged as malpractice lawsuits started to mount. Fatefully, he landed in the bull’s-eye of Morris Fishbein, an investigator with the American Medical Association dedicated to rooting out quacks, and newspapers began publishing skeptical takedowns of Brinkley’s miraculous claims.
In response, Brinkley recast himself as a proselytizer for Christianity, good health, and good government. He would mount no less than three write-in campaigns for governor of Kansas, and might have even won one of them, if thousands of votes hadn’t been tossed out on technicalities. Along the way, he crafted political gambits of the sort that remain common today, crisscrossing the state in his own plane and motorcade to give promise-laden speeches.
For all his lucrative bluster, Brinkley’s run in Kansas came to an abrupt end: In 1930, the Kansas Medical Board revoked his license to practice, and the Federal Radio Commission shut down his station.
To Texas, Mexico, and Beyond
Brinkley then decamped to Del Rio, Texas, next to the Mexican border, and built a hospital to continue his sketchy surgeries. Meanwhile, he established a new radio station in Mexico, XER (later XERA), that would be his ultimate revenge. Unhindered by U.S. authorities, XER was one of the first of the famous “border blasters”—stations with enough juice to transmit throughout the United States and into Canada.
Through the station, Brinkley again pitched cure-alls, and the lucre from patients and mail-order meds began to flow again. He built another hospital in Arkansas and hired protégés to expand his medical empire. Back on top, the once-barefoot mountain boy made no secret of his financial fortune: He built a gaudy mansion in Del Rio where exotic animals like penguins, monkeys, and tortoises from the Galápagos roamed and upper-crust Texans gathered for lavish parties. He cruised around in one of his dozen customized Cadillacs while draped in diamond jewelry, and spent considerable time on his three yachts.
Back to Jackson
In his mid-1930s heyday, Brinkley grew nostalgic for home and began renewing ties to Jackson County. To attract listeners to his powerful radio stations, he’d started to give airtime to rising traditional musical stars, including not only the legendary Carter Family but also lesser-known talents from Jackson, including balladeer Samantha Bumgarner and fiddler Harry Cagle, who found a national audience thanks to Brinkley.
In 1935, Brinkley returned to Jackson and was pleased to find he was a hometown hero. He built a summer house in East LaPorte, just down the road from where he’d been raised. Today his old property, on a stretch of state road 107 next to a bend in the Tuckasegee River, still bears his name and self-conveyed honorific in two walls of river stones: “DR. JOHN R. BRINKLEY.” He also emblazoned his name and physician status on marble monuments he erected for his Aunt Sally, who raised him, and his mother, Sarah Burnett, who died when he was five.
A year later, Brinkley bought 9,000 acres of Jackson mountain land, including the high peaks of Black Rock, Waterrock Knob, and Yellow Face. It would prove to be one of his last buying sprees.
The Bitter End
By 1940, Brinkley’s medical schemes were in ruins. He spent his days battling and succumbing to foreclosures, lawsuits, tax agents, and the dissolution of his businesses. Even his potent Mexican radio station was shuddered. The failed physician’s health then faltered, as Brinkley suffered three heart attacks and lost a leg to amputation. When his heart stopped for good on May 26, 1942, in a San Antonio hospital, the 56-year-old Goat Gland King, aka Prostate Man, aka the Kansas Ponce de Leon, was penniless and mired in debt.
For all of his fraud and failings, Brinkley’s rags to riches to rags saga continues to fascinate. A 2008 biography by Pope Brock, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, sparked a new wave of interest. In 2010, Grammy-winning storyteller David Holt followed with a variety show dedicated to Brinkley, Goat Glands and Banjo Bands. And just last year, filmmaker Penny Lane debuted a documentary that came with a title so apt and surgically precise that perhaps even Brinkley would have appreciated it: Nuts!
Sex, Lies, and Snake Oil: The Strange Career of Dr. John Brinkley
A multimedia presentation by WNC magazine Senior Editor Jon Elliston
January 25, noon, free
Pack Memorial Library
67 Haywood St., Asheville