Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man
Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam
by Pope Brock
Today, they call it “erectile dysfunction.” In the fall of 1917, a 46-year-old Kansas farmer visiting a rural medical clinic used blunter language to describe his condition. “I’m a flat tire,” he told John R. Brinkley, the clinic’s head quack. “Too bad I don’t have billy goat nuts.” Brinkley was always open to new ideas. Two nights later, he strolled into his operating room carrying a pair of fresh goat testicles. Two weeks after that, the farmer returned to the clinic with the scars on his scrotum healing and his problem apparently solved. Brinkley had pushed lucrative scams before, but goat glands were a breakthrough. Before his medical empire was shut down for good in 1941, he pocketed millions, rewrote broadcasting history, and very nearly won election as a write-in candidate for governor of Kansas.
Pope Brock’s “hugely amusing” new book makes clear that Brinkley was a born huckster born at an opportune time, said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. Science and technology added years to the average American life in the decades between the two world wars, generating hopes that made many citizens easy marks for charlatanry. But Brinkley was more than just an ingenious and unscrupulous pitchman. The harder critics and regulators came after him, the stronger he bounced back. Hounded in Kansas, he tried building a hospital in Los Angeles. Chased out of L.A., he began dispensing medical advice on the airwaves back in Kansas. Soon he built America’s most popular radio station. Almost incidentally, he introduced listeners from coast to coast to American country music.
Brock’s “fast-moving, light-stepping book” is no one-man show, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. In Charlatan, Morris Fishbein, then the American Medical Association’s executive secretary plays “an Ahab to Brinkley’s Moby Dick,” and the reformer finally wins the battle by goading Brinkley into filing a suicidal libel suit. The whole affair is recounted with “uproarious brio.” To Brock’s credit, though, he never plays Brinkley’s amazing story as pure comedy, said David Gates in Newsweek. Brinkley’s various flimflams didn’t just pick people’s pockets; many of his customers died because of his suspect drug and surgical treatments. Yes, his ambitious schemes “changed American culture.” But they also established him as one of the worst serial killers in the nation’s history.
The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox
by Stephen Budiansky
There was a time and place in American history when elections were decided through terror. Surveying the politics of the South 14 years after the close of the Civil War, one North Carolina state judge observed that opponents of racial justice had “reversed the verdict of Appomattox.” By then, every state government chosen in open, biracial elections had been toppled by a violent resistance movement, says historian Stephen Budiansky. Between 1868 and 1876 at least 3,000 freedmen and their white Republican allies were murdered by whites determined to chase blacks away from the polls and out of public office. Incredibly, Budiansky says, the terrorists saw themselves as the victims. “We had to shoot Negroes,” said one leading South Carolina politician, “to get relief from the galling tyranny to which we had been subjected.”
Budiansky’s barely disguised rage at such rationalizations does not immediately inspire confidence, said William Grimes in The New York Times. Though the myth that Reconstruction pillaged the South was retired a generation ago, Budiansky “blasts away with both barrels at this straw man” before finding a more rewarding vein. He wisely devotes the bulk of The Bloody Shirt to linked portraits of five men who risked their lives to create a just, biracial society in the South. “If Profiles in Courage had not already been taken, it would have made the perfect title” for this vivid, multipronged narrative about a valiant battle bitterly lost. In the book’s best passages, the author simply “lets the appalling facts, and the words of the participants, speak for themselves.”
The problem is that Budiansky doesn’t always seem in control of his material, said David W. Blight in The New York Sun. The author’s excerpts from the letters of one of the book’s heroes, onetime Mississippi Gov. Adelbert Ames, provide “some of the best insights into why Reconstruction failed.” Budiansky needs to better explain, though, why the violence we’re seeing in individual snapshots unfolded precisely the way it did. Even so, his “horrifying and shameful tale” serves as a reminder that the Southern rejection of Reconstruction was hardly just about states’ rights, said Eric Fettman in the New York Post. “It was about the murderous repression of an entire race of people—and it would continue for another century, long after even the events in this book were a distant memory.”