Old Smoke: The Subtle Knife

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Several obituaries of June Carter Cash referred to her early years as part of the Carter Family, singing over XER, a border blaster, one of the extraordinarily powerful radio stations broadcasting to U.S. audiences from south of the Rio Grande. XER was founded in 1931 by Dr. John R. Brinkley, whose scalpel made, as one admirer said, "the dead bough quicken and turn green again." Brinkley took roughly $12 million between 1917 and 1942 from aging men who wanted to be "sweetly dangerous among the ladies once more." His secret: goat glands, transplanted into the scrotums of some 16,000 men.

As early as the 1840s, according to David M. Friedman’s A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, German physiologist Arnold Berthold was experimenting with transplanting rooster testicles. Shortly after World War I, Russian surgeon Serge Voronoff began transplanting testicles obtained from apes into elderly men who reported "renewed vigor." He eventually performed more than 1000 procedures at $5000 a pop. Gene Fowler, the Hearst journalist who organized the first known American monkey gland transplant as a publicity stunt to increase his newspaper’s circulation, had feared being unable to find "a man who will permit a doctor with a knife in his hand to start fooling around with his swinging trinkets." Thousands of limp and flaccid men soon proved him wrong.

Although his autobiography varied from telling to telling, John Romulus Brinkley consistently claimed a birthday of July 8, 1885. He claimed to have been born in a log cabin and graduated from high school in Tuckasiegee, NC. In 1908, while a Western Union telegrapher in Chicago, he began attending Bennett Medical College. He dropped out before his senior year. Four years later, Brinkley obtained a Tennessee license to practice medicine as an "undergraduate physician"–apparently some kind of learner’s permit. He worked for one Dr. Burke, who was a "men’s specialist," his office furnished with papier-mache models of the male organs that depicted the results of indiscretion. Once a prospect had been terrified by the possibilities of tertiary syphilis, selling him a treatment was easy. Then Brinkley opened a medical office in Greenville, SC. He advertised in the local daily, asking "Are You a Manly Man Full of Vigor?" The suckers came in droves. The Doc gave them injections directly into the hip at $25 a shot. He claimed it was salvarsan or neo-salvarsan; it was really distilled water. Two months later, Brinkley skipped town, stiffing both landlord and newspaper.

In June 1913, Brinkley resurfaced in St. Louis, MO, where he received an M.D. from a diploma mill, the National University of Arts and Sciences, for a few hundred in cash. It fooled Arkansas, which licensed him as a physician; the Arkansas license, in turn, persuaded Kansas to license him, too. Doc later obtained a second M.D. from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, MO, whose proprietor, Professor Date R. Alexander, once denounced a reporter for an article claiming that Alexander sold medical diplomas for $200. "That’s a deadly insult," he said. "I never sold one for less than $500."

Brinkley’s WWI career was brief: one month and five days on duty and one month and three days in hospital, followed by release as unfit, partially due to multiple rectal fistulas. Former Lt. Brinkley finally drifted to Milford, KS, which had no sidewalks, electric lights or water system. However, he was down to his last 23 bucks. So he rented an old drugstore for $8 a month and began a general practice.

One night, a man came in, a self-described "flat tire" who claimed to be "All in. No pep." Somehow, the subject of goats came up. "You wouldn’t have any trouble if you had a pair of those buck glands in you," Brinkley said.

The man’s reply: "Well, why don’t you put ’em in?"

Brinkley performed the operation in his back room. His procedure involved administering a local anesthetic and opening the scrotum by incision from both sides. As he later wrote, he then placed "the glands of a three weeks’ old male goat…upon the non-functioning glands of a man, within twenty minutes of the time they are removed from the goat." Within two weeks, his first patient had "regained his pep." Within a year, the man and his wife had a healthy child, named Billy to honor the goat. Then another man came in, claiming the same…kidney problem. Brinkley whetted his scalpel, and the second patient reported complete rejuvenation. Thousands would follow, and Doc had found his metier.

The medical establishment held that a recipient’s immune system would either encapsulate or entirely reject animal glands. Nonetheless, Doc blandly claimed goat glands renewed their recipients’ physical and mental vigor; indeed, he eventually asserted his procedure transformed its beneficiary into "the-ram-that-am-with-every-lamb," while curing insanity, acne, influenza and high blood pressure. Numerous patients publicly swore the procedure worked. Soon, the Doc was charging $750–in advance. The patient selected his own goat.

By 1923, Brinkley was also running a radio station. KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best) broadcast weather reports and live country music. The Doc starred in "Medical Question Box," in which he read letters from listeners, mostly women, on their ailments and complaints, and prescribed medications over the air. These prescriptions were coded, i.e., "Dr. Brinkley’s No. 101," and only druggists that carried Brinkley’s products could fill them (kicking back $1 to the Doc for each prescription). He was perfect for radio, with a warm, down-home-sounding voice and a knack for providing questioners with the answers they wanted to hear.

Despite his affability, the Doc was amazingly vain. Sadie Luck, a librarian, later said, "He autographed everything with his initials. I counted them on his Cadillac once and, hubcaps and all, his initials were on that car 17 times!" In 1938, vanity finally overcame common sense. Hygeia, the American Medical Association’s magazine, called him a quack. Brinkley sued for libel and lost. The AMA then denounced him to the Kansas Board of Medical Registration and Examination, which revoked his medical license for immorality and unprofessional conduct.

Worse, the Federal Radio Commission yanked his broadcasting license after a hearing on June 20-22, 1930, holding his operations were not serving the public interest. Some argued that Brinkley’s candor about sex was fatal; others noted the politically influential Kansas City Star’s radio station was losing advertisers to KFKB. Of course, the commission might have simply thought him a fraud and swindler.

Nonetheless, KFKB had made Brinkley famous. He believed his licenses might be regained through political influence. Although only 42 days remained until election day, and it was too late to have his name printed on the ballots, Brinkley announced his write-in candidacy for governor. As his attorneys had appealed the commission’s decision to the federal courts, the actual suspension was delayed until the appeal could be heard. Thus, he stayed on the air throughout his campaign. The Democrats and Republicans thought him absurd. His name wasn’t even on the ballot and his platform promised something for everyone: free school books, free auto tags, lower taxes, better times for the working people, lakes in every county and increased rainfall.

But Brinkley was a great salesman, with a knack for anti-establishment rhetoric in a state sliding into the Great Depression. After several hours daily on the radio, he stumped the state in his 16-cylinder Cadillac limousine and his private plane. He drew enormous crowds to mass gatherings that mixed "elements of a fundamentalist revival meeting with the mood of a state fair." One witness wrote, "The man glittered. Standing on the platform with the sun shining on his white beard, his gold-rimmed spectacles, his rings, watch-fobs, cuff-links and tie-pins, he seemed to glow, wink and twinkle like a…Christmas tree. And, could he talk!… We hung on every word, our mouths agape... The man was magical, and his words were wonderful. I didn’t understand any of it."

In the last days of the campaign, the state attorney general ruled that only ballots bearing precisely the words J.R. Brinkley would be counted for the doctor. This saved Kansas for the system. On Election Day 1930, as many as 50,000 ballots bearing variations on his name, such as Dr. Brinkley or John Brinkly, were discarded. Even so, the vote was Woodring (Dem.), 217,171; Haucke (Rep.), 216,920; and Brinkley, 183,278.

Brinkley relocated to Del Rio, TX, just on the Rio Grande. In the neighboring town of Villa Acuna, Mexico, Brinkley built a transmitter with towers some 300 feet tall. XER ("The Station Between the Nations") went on the air with 100,000 watts on October 21, 1931. Eventually, thanks to the Doc’s lobbyists in Mexico City, the station began using 500,000 watts, then one million watts (by contrast, the most powerful U.S. stations were limited to 50,000 watts). XER thus blanketed North America, unrestrained by U.S. regulations.

XER broadcast folksy lectures from Doc, who answered questions from listeners about anything from astronomy to religion. Brinkley held forth on his special "x-ray and microscopical as well as chemical examinations" designed to diagnose properly "the disease that’s in your body, the disease that’s destroying your earning power, the disease that’s causing you to keep your nose to the grindstone and spend every dollar that you can rake and scrape." He pleaded with those listening, "You men, why are you holding back? You know you’re sick, you know your prostate’s infected and diseased... Well, why do you hold back? Why do you twist and squirm around on the old cocklebur...when I am offering you these low rates, this easy work, this lifetime-guarantee-of-service plan? Come at once to the Brinkley Hospital before it is everlastingly too late."

XER was also the first major national radio station for country music, from the Carter Family to Hank Williams. It had Bible-thumping preachers and astrologers. Entrepreneurs pitched get-rich-quick schemes: oil wells, real estate deals, lottery tickets, all spectacular opportunities for enrichment, and 100 percent guaranteed. Frank the Diamond Man sold genuine simulated diamond rings. There was The Lord’s Last Supper Tablecloth, and the man who sold false teeth by mail; cures for hemorrhoids, flatulence and rectal itch.

During the late 1930s, Brinkley, who increasingly blamed his legal troubles on Jewish doctors, began broadcasting rabblerousing anti-Semites such as Father Charles Coughlin and the Reverend Gerald Winrod, the Kansas Hitler. In 1938, while staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, Doc met William Dudley Pelley, chief of the fascist Silver Shirt Legion of America, and gave him $5000.

Amidst the early days of WWII, the Doc opened a flight school. Its XER advertisements falsely claimed its students would receive draft deferments. Hustling to the end, the Doc died on May 26, 1942, at the age of only 56. One of his patients summed him up: "I knowed he was bilking me, but that’s okay. You see, I liked him anyway."

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