America's Goat-Gonad Guru
File this one under: “The truth is [definitely] stranger than fiction!” You simply won’t believe this one. You’ll say this is just nuts and you’ll be right—goat nuts! Once upon a time, a poor, illegitimate shoeless boy from the Great Smoky Mountains—and the son of a mountain doctor and traveling old-timey preacher—had a dream to become a doctor. And he did. Well, sort of...He would get a doctor title anyway and would be a popular candidate for the governor of Kansas, was an early radio pioneer and the granddaddy of country music in America. And he became the creator of the infomercial. How all these crazy careers converged into one is even crazier: he got his start—and his fortune—as the inventor of the nation’s leading cure for impotence—implanting goat testicles in human men! And he was a believer in equal opportunity. Not only did he slice open men’s scrotums and tuck in goat balls, he eventually installed billy-goat bits into women’s ovaries to rejuvenate their baby-making plumbing.
While millions were losing their fortunes and livelihood and starving during the Great Depression, John Romulus Brinkley was raking in the dough to the tune of multiple mansions and massive hospitals bearing his name, fleets of Cadillacs and an extensive line of snake oil products sold on the most powerful radio station in North America—his own. His is a story of rags-to-riches-to rogue, of hoodwinking the American public with an ingenious formula of religion mixed with medicine, media and music.
Brinkley’s spectacular career as a physician of flimflammery began in 1907 when he posed as Quaker doctor in a North Caroline medicine show. Then he hocked elixirs and tonics in Tennessee. He enhanced his doctorly bona fides with a purchased mail-order degree from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University. Then he opened the Greenville Electro Medic Doctors clinic in South Carolina. His specialty was injecting patients with colored water for $25 (the 1912 equivalent of $600 today) to treat everything from gout to gonorrhea. His business lasted two months before he was run out of town.
Brinkley decided to go west—way west—to Milford, Kansas. It was here that he would begin his amazing career as a goat-gland grifter. A desperate man came to his clinic for impotence and Brinkley jested that goats had strong libidos and maybe he should sew goat balls on the man’s groin! The man begged Brinkley for help and agreed to try the “experiment” (albeit a ba-a-a-a-a-d idea!). He charged the man $150 for the experimental surgery (nearly $3,000 in today’s currency).
Brinkley decided to up his game by giving his impotence surgery a fancy name: zenotransplantation. And, what the heck. Why not say it was good for 25 other ailments, too, from flatulence, dementia or syphilis! Brinkley was now charging $750 (more than $9,000 today) for the procedure when a lucky patient actually did impregnate his wife. Brinkley was quick to use the man’s testimonial. And what did the goat-gland parents name their new kid? Billy, of course! Brinkley didn’t miss a beat. Soon, there were ads featuring Dr. Brinkley with the “Goat-Gland Baby” that had “blessed” the Kansas couple.
Brinkley was a marketing maven and aggressively used advertisements and mailers to promote his business. In 1923, he had an even more brilliant idea. He purchased a radio station—KFKB—and launched unique programming with cowboy orchestras, old-timey mountain music, fiddling, and country crooners. And he started a show called “Medical Question Box,” in which he would read letters from listeners, diagnose maladies, and prescribe treatments from his own Brinkley brand pharmacy. Soon he was raking in $200,000 weekly (in today’s value).
In 1930, Radio Digest declared KFKB the most popular radio station in America. But the proverbial manure was starting to hit the proverbial fan. That same year, the American Medical Association had declared that Brinkley had signed over 40 deaths certificates for his xenotransplants. Then the Kansas Medical Board revoked his license to practice. But Brinkley had...well...balls. Instead of skulking away with his tail and whatever else between his legs, he ran for governor of Kansas! And he nearly won. He was so encouraged that he ran again. But then Kansas revoked his radio broadcasting license too.
But the unconquerable quack was undaunted. He sold KFKB for nearly $100,000 (almost $1.5 million today) and went South—way South—to Mexico, where the Federal Radio Commission couldn’t touch him. He launched the new station XER, calling it the “Sunshine Station Between Nations.” Mexico gave him 50,000 watts, then 150,000 watts, then a million watts and he had the most powerful station in North America that could broadcast from Mexico to Canada. The signal was so strong, America’s bed springs sung, barbed wire hummed, and children’s braces buzzed!
The “border blaster” station belted out Brinkley’s new and improved programming to a massive, international audience. And this is where the goat-gland grifter inadvertently becomes the granddaddy of country music, too. He continued his medical shows mixed with preaching, autographed Jesus photographs, market news, and music, lots of music—hillbilly, country & western, roots music, fiddling, yodelers, crooners, and cowboy ballads. The most popular country acts in the nation filled his air waves: Gene Autry, the Carter family, Roy Rogers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patsy Montana, Minnie Pearl. Brinkley’s genius helped to foster a new genre of music. Not that he cared a goat’s patootie about the music. But it generated massive audiences, mountains of mail and moved his medical and religious merchandise.
His magnificent, malevolent empire finally came crashing down in the mid-1930s when Mexico revoked his broadcasting license and the American Medical Association began publishing exposes called “Modern Medical Charlatans,” in which Brinkley was the centerpiece. Then came malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits from his patients, and finally tax fraud investigations by the IRS.
Life didn’t end well for Brinkley. He died penniless. Fate caught up with him and got his goat after all....
PHOTOS: (1) Portrait of John Romulus Brinkley, one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful charlatans, who made his fortune first by transplanting goat testicles into men to treat impotance and sterility. (2) One of Brinkley’s “success stories:” Billy, the first “goat-gland baby” poses with “Dr.” Brinkley in one of his newspaper ads in the 1930s. (3) Photograph of Brinkely’s “zenotransplantation” surgery used in his ads and mailers. (4) A photograph of “Dr.” Brinkley with Billy, “the goat-gland baby.” (5) The cover of a 1938 brochure of Brinkley’s massive hospital empire at the height of his success. (6 & 7) Campaign button and poster from Brinkley’s 1930 Kansas governor campaign. He ran as an Independent write-in and won 30% of the vote. The Democratic candidate, Harry Woodring, won with 35%, in a very close race with Republican candidate Frank Haucke. But Brinkley would have won had it not been for last-minute write-in rules that precluded all his votes being counted! (8) Brinkley’s Mexican one-million watt “border blaster” station, XER, that broadcast to millions from Canada to Mexico and aired a powerful mix of programming that included fundamentalist religion, Brinkley’s medical advice and products, and country music of the nation’s most popular artists. ((9) The grave of John Brinkley at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the statue mounted at the top of his stone is a black angel.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted September 19, 2019
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