Dr. John R. Brinkley, the most notorious quack in America, filed for bankruptcy in a Texas court on Jan. 17, 1941 in a last-ditch attempt to fend off creditors and lawsuits.
Traditionally susceptible to health-care charlatans, Americans between the World Wars seemed especially vulnerable to con men in white coats. But no one came close to Dr. Brinkley, who in less than 20 years fleeced the faithful for $20 million.
A lowly railroad relief agent in his youth, the future master of the flimflam dragged his wife and three children from town to town. Searching for more than a hand-to-mouth existence, he enrolled in medical school around 1908. Unable to endure the academic grind, he dropped out and never set foot in another classroom.
After abandoning his destitute family in 1913, Brinkley bought a medical degree from a “diploma mill” in St. Louis. An itinerant preacher assured him that he did not have to be a bona fide sawbones to cure the ills of the world.
Several lean years later, Dr. and the second Mrs. Brinkley settled at the obscure Kansas crossroads of Milford. Inside a month, he completed his first goat gonad transplant, and the aged recipient subsequently fathered a baby boy named Billy.
In Brinkley’s day, such off-the-wall fads were common, and the most popular was the rejuvenation craze sweeping Europe and the U.S. The amazing advances of medical science made trusting laymen sitting ducks for the preposterous claims of fast-buck artists.
Following the original goat-gland treatment, word-of-mouth referrals kept Brinkley busy. Glowing testimonials, some retouched by the good doctor and others the product of his active imagination, gave the thriving practice a huge boost.
Business was booming by the summer of 1918, when Brinkley proudly cut the ribbon for his private hospital in Milford. He staffed the facility with unsuspecting townspeople as well as oddball characters tainted by track records as sordid as his own.
The oddest by far was Horatius Osborn. When not pushing a broom as the hospital handyman, he wielded a scalpel as chief surgeon. A forgiving soul, the dimwitted flunky stayed on the job even after his boss chewed off his ear in a drunken rage.
The gratitude of prominent personalities spread the fame of the self-made medicine man. The Los Angeles Times publisher and the chancellor of the Chicago Law School took the Brinkley cure and swore by the results. The media mogul provided invaluable free publicity, while the renowned professor declared, “I am a new man.”
While others dismissed radio as a passing fad, the Kansas quack recognized the novelty as an effective merchandising tool. In 1923 Brinkley built a broadcast station at Milford, and every crystal set between the Mississippi and the Rockies picked up KFKB, “The Sunshine Station in the Heart of the Nation.”
Blessed by another brainstorm, Brinkley introduced the “Medical Question Box.” Reading letters on the air, he diagnosed patients sight unseen. Organizing a network of corner drug stores throughout the Brinkley Belt (Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma), he prescribed by numbered code his special brand of concoctions.
Listeners identified the described affliction as their own and hurried off to the nearest pharmacy for the recommended remedy from Dr. Brinkley’s line of expensive elixirs. Druggists were only too happy to kick back the mandatory dollar per prescription, and for 13 years the brazen scam netted Brinkley $10,000 a week.
Finally in April 1930, the Kansas Medical Society moved for revocation of his license, and the new Federal Radio Commission started an investigation of KFKB. After losing protracted battles on both fronts, Brinkley headed south.
Setting up shop on the Rio Grande in the fall of 1933, he was permitted by the obliging Mexicans to hike the output of his renegade transmitter to half a million watts making XER the most powerful radio station on the planet. Once again, it was long green and gravy for the smooth-talking doctor.
The loss of a libel suit Brinkley initiated himself and cut-rate competition from a hometown practitioner eventually soured him on Del Rio. He tried moving his operation to Little Rock, but his shaky world was falling apart.
Brinkley paid $200,000 in back taxes and also settled judgments totaling $1.2 million. Nevertheless his cash flow suddenly dried up, and in a frantic effort to dodge a multitude of pending lawsuits, he filed for bankruptcy in January 1941.
No matter what he tried, the jig was up. The unpredictable Mexicans padlocked his radio station and dismantled the tower piece by piece. The stress was too much, and within a year the good doctor suffered three heart attacks and the emergency amputation of a leg.
Dr. John R. Brinkley was under federal indictment in May 1942, when he died in seclusion at his San Antonio home. Death came at the age of 56 for the King of the Cons.
The unrepentant fraud would be happy to hear, however, that his lavish pink hacienda in Del Rio is still standing and has been designated a Texas Historical Landmark.
Bartee’s four books “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan,” “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” and “Unforgettable Texans” available at barteehaile.com or by mail at P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77389.