J. R. Brinkley Becomes a Legend
The Rise and Fall of the Nazi Goat Gland Doctor
Q: “What’s the fastest thing on four legs?
A: “A goat passing Dr. Brinkley’s Clinic.”
-Joke from the 1920s
John R Brinkley Becomes a Doctor
John Romulus Brinkley was born an illegitimate son, the product of his father and the niece of his mother in a small town in Western North Carolina. His father, a physician, died young and Brinkley had to support his family starting from when he was 11 through a series of odd jobs. When he was 20, he married Sally Wike who also lived in town and they began to put on plays to draw people in and then sell them herbal medicines.
Not content for the small time, Brinkley went to Chicago to enroll in the unaccredited Eclectic Medical College which specialized in plant-based cures but he began to drink heavily and abandoned his family. He hopscotched around to different towns and the map below shows his journey.
Knoxville and Chattanooga — Brinkley branded himself as a men’s specialist and began to see patients and consult on issues such as male virility
Greenville — 1913 — Brinkley became an “Electro Medic” doctor where impotent men would pay $25 and he would inject colored water into their butt. When his customers realized that this didn’t cure them, they became angry and ran Brinkley out of town
Memphis — Here Brinkley met a new woman and promptly married her 4 days later. He continued his bit but couldn’t keep up with his debt and was thrown into jail for bad checks and practicing without a medical license. His new father-in-law bailed him out of jail and paid off his debts
Judsonia — Brinkley and his new wife made their way over the Mississippi and settled into Judsonia, a Baptist haven that attracted many Northerners. Here Brinkley began to call himself a disease specialist though this time focusing specifically on women and children. He established roots here for a bit and his reputation began to rise so he took another shot at medical school, going to another branch of the Eclectic Medical University in Kansas City. The stories here conflict a bit on whether he dropped out but later allegations that he paid $100 for a diploma seemed to hold water
Milford — Rather than return to Arkansas, Brinkley moved a bit further west and in 1916 settled in Milford, Kansas where he would stay for a bit and begin to make his mark on history.
For the first few years, he actually tried to go legitimate and had a 16 room clinic where he treated people with the flu. The next part is probably heresay and just a story, but Brinkley claims that one of his patients had a low sex drive and joked that he wished he had the same libido as one of his goats. Brinkley saw dollar signs and convinced him to insert the testicles of a goat into his scrotum. That patient’s wife, according to the story, was pregnant when he returned two weeks later and the kid was named, “Billy.” Brinkley was excited and went to Chicago yet again to take a class in surgery. He failed the class but told the professor, “I have a scheme up my sleeve and the whole world will hear of it.”
Brinkley became a local legend and was soon performing 50 of these surgeries a month for $750 a pop and would eventually fund a little leage team which was renamed to the Brinkley Goats which would go on to win a tournament in Denver in 1926.
He might have stayed an oddity in Kansas but Harry Chandler, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, wanted him to give the surgery to one of his editors and Chandler really bought into the effects, He gave him a full story claiming 1,200 successful operations and invited him to L.A. He went around performing the operation on several important political figures and also offered inserting goat ovaries into women but they weren’t biting and he performed far fewer of these.
The fame went straight to Brinkley’s head and he returned to Milford with the eyes of the world on him and he intended to milk this opportunity for all that it was worth.
John R Brinkley Becomes a Superstar
Brinkley believed that the next step to peddling his surgery and cure-alls was to spread the word over the airwaves, at this time largely unregulated. In 1923, he applied for and purchased a radio license for KFKB, which stood for Kansas First, Kansas Best. Brinkley’s station made its cash from advertisements but hosted a diverse array of features from music and sports, to lectures, politics, and the weather. Three times a day Brinkley himself would take over and answer listener questions with prescriptions and surgeries, a lot of which he had exclusive domain over. The Milford, Kansas radio station is below and he would later expand into another high-powered tower in Wichita called KFDI as he became more successful. Brinkley would provide a platform here to a lot of the early greats in bluegrass music.
Brinkley gained national fame as his audience expanded, allegedly receiving over 3,000 letters a day which prompted Brinkley to provide the funds for a new post office. He also became a magnet for controversy and rumors, almost none of which I could find corroborations for, aside from the fact that he was likely a raging alcoholic. So was his wife and when she was arrested for selling alcohol, prohibited in Kansas, he took the blame and pled guilty to three counts of bootlegging. Some of the others are a bit more outrageous, such as:
· One of Brinkley’s patients was President Woodrow Wilson
· Brinkley used an axe and chopped the tires of a Milford resident who spoke out against him
· He chased one of his patients out of his hospital with a butcher knife
· He bit the eat off of one of his fellow doctors because of a, “misunderstanding,” though others say it was because he had tried to prevent Brinkley from stabbing a patient randomly
· Would drunkenly show up with a firearm at the home of people he operated on demanding they settle their debts
Brinkley’s freewheeling radio style was not unique to others of the time, though he was much more prominent. It became enough of a concern that the federal government decided to act. In early 1927, by voice vote, Congress passed the Radio Act which established an independent Federal Radio Commission that had the power to deny broadcasting licenses and assign the power allotted to each station. The Progressive wings of each party, different than the modern term which focused a lot more on government intervention in morality and corruption, had a lot of influence over this bill and explicitly wanted to police what was being said on radio. This was all prompted by a decision by Calvin Coolidge’s Attorney General that the Commerce department did not have the appropriate tools to enforce the first Radio Act of 1912, and Congress saw an opening before new licenses were given out or old ones renewed.
Concerned that Brinkley had tied his radio stations to his hospital and was prescribing phony or harmful treatments, the Federal Radio Commission decided to deny him a renewal on his radio license when it expired at the end of November 1929. A few months later, Brinkley would appeal and hearings were held in May, a delay that would become crucial only months later. Finding that his business interests dominated too much airtime and were tied too closely to his broadcasts, especially the listener advice segment, a Kansas court denied his appeal and his license in Milford was gone for good.
John R Brinkley (Basically) Becomes a Governor
Brinkley was incensed by having his medical license revoked and decided to make a run for governor. He was too late to get on the ballot and decided to mount a write-in campaign. Tapping into populist rhetoric during the Depression, he promised free books for schools, pensions, and “a pond on every farm.” He began to blast this over the airwaves as well as play victim of the medical board. A campaign ad below blames “Organized Medicine” and called himself a prophet. He also made up service during WWI where the ad says he, “offered his life for his country.” In reality, he was a medical officer for only 10 weeks, half of which he called out sick before being discharged.
Brinkley’s message was extremely popular and one event was even said to draw 20,000 voters. On Election night, Brinkley, as a write-in candidate, managed to take 3rd place with 29.5% of the vote, as shown in the chart below from USElectionAtlas. The total recorded vote was 621,235 votes, which exceeded the 596,709 and 577,381 vote totals for both of the Kansas senate seats that were up for re-election at the same time.
Brinkley did his best in the central areas with the Democrat Harry Hines Woodring doing well in the more populous East and ultimately winning. However, Brinkley probably really won the race. Attorney General William Smith, who led the team that stripped Brinkley of his license in the first place, ignored a 1923 state statute to allow for voter intent and threw out any ballot that didn’t specifically say “J.R. Brinkley” on them. Brinkley didn’t ask for a recount, most likely not wanting to take off these expenses.
Brinkley’s best counties in dark green were Geary county (Northeast quadrant) and Sedgwick county (South central). He not only won these races but got over 50% in the counties and Sedgwick made up over 13% of the total votes. The map below shows only Brinkley’s share on a gradient with little cartoon radio towers over where Brinkley owned stations. Clearly his use of radio and its spread helped Brinkley win over voters and get his message out. Radio and mass media were becoming a powerful tool for political gain.
John R Brinkley Becomes a Perennial Candidate…And a Nazi
After his close loss John Brinkley ran to Del Rio in Texas, on the border with Mexico, which had contentious relations with the United States but things had begun to recently thaw out. Under a new ambassador, Dwight W. Morrow, had just negotiated an end to internal Mexican turmoil and they were extremely grateful. Brinkley would almost singlehandedly ruin all of that when the Mexican government gave him a license for a 150,000-watt tower called a “Border Blaster.” On this new show, he would continue to peddle fake cures and his goat gland operation, but also began to air a lot of country music. The collection of yodelers, orchestra, and other country music basically created the genre of “roots” music accidentally.
Brinkley had long railed against the intellectuals that he believed had kept him from being able to operate and make money. He leaned into this and found an audience that let him rail against communists and liberals while preaching the Bible, taking a page (or stealing the whole book) from Father Coughlin. Brinkley began to host American Nazis such as Fritz Kuhn and William Pelley. Brinkley himself would toe the line more but it clearly was not all business; he had swastika tiles added around his personal pool.
With all of this, Brinkley decided to launch another run for governor of Kansas, even though he didn’t live there. Brinkley registered as an Independent, set to take on both incumbent Democrat Harry Woodring who beat him the first time and oilmen and leader of the liberal Republicans Alf Landon. In the midst of the Depression, Landon ran as someone who could balance the state’s budget and get the economy going again.
Brinkley would once again get close to the governor’s mansion, probably a bit too close this time. His campaign was endorsed by Wichita preacher Dr. Gerald N. Winrod who railed against other races, Prohibition, and an international Jewish conspiracy. He broke 30% and Republican Alf Landon would win in a nail biter. The results are shown below.
The next map is only Brinkley’s performance. He still did well in Geary county but actually saw a decline around Wichita and was a lot more reliant on the rural Western parts.
Where Brinkley really suffered was getting under 20% of the vote in the populous and more urban parts of the state and especially in Ellis County, outlined by a red circle. These areas were a bit weaker for him in 1930 as well but really stand out. The map below offers a hint of why that might be.
Almost every area where Brinkley did extremely poorly contained large German populations, likely turned off by his sermons and playing footsie with the American Bund and other of Hitler’s admirers. In Kansas, the Germans that came to America had been settled for awhile, and actually came from the Volga region when they were still considered Prussians and not the heartland of Germany. Though they spoke German and identified Germans, it was distinct from the contemporary nation. I wrote about why they came to the US and their bloc voting patterns before. The endorsement of Winrod may also have hurt, as they did not want a candidate that would try to crack down on brewers and the beermaking industry. The Nazis also looked down on German-Americans, saying that they had abandoned their heritage and, “are completely uprooted creatures who do not deserve to be called German.” They also, it seems, were the last bulwark in 1932 from a populist Nazi looking to settle scores from taking charge in Kansas.
A few years later in 1934, angry at Brinkley and others with unfettered access to the airwaves (that also reportedly caused disruption to other radio stations and caused cars to shake nearby), Congress decided to amend the Radio Act of 1927. So the Communications Act of 1934 was born which included an amendment commonly known as the Brinkley Act. This provision made it illegal for broadcasters in the United States to be connected to a transmitter based out of Mexico and cracked down on it due to the powers allowed in the Commerce clause.
Brinkley would run one more time, this time as a Republican working to primary popular governor Alf Landon. The map below shows both the total votes in the primary and Brinkley’s share in green.
Going one on one against Landon, he would only get 20.1% overall of the vote doing well in his base of Geary country and to the east, the larger Shawnee county. Shawnee was the base of the judge who had originally revoked his license all the way back in 1930. This would be Brinkley’s last run for office but Landon would go on to win the general before being recruited to run for president in 1936, where he lost in a landslide to FDR.
John R Brinkley Becomes Disgraced
By now Brinkley had begun to wear out his welcome but there was now a slew of wannabes behind him. Others began to perform his signature goat gland procedure at lower prices and facing legal pressure, copied Brinkley by setting up border blasters in Mexico. Seeing their repeated attempts at legislation fail, the United States pressured Mexico into forcing Brinkley out, and soldiers appeared at his station to escort him out. Brinkley briefly went to Colombia before returning to the United States and settling in Mexico. Here he conducted vasectomies and other procedures and bought a 16-acre compound with a mansion, exotic animals, and a dozen Cadillacs.
This would all come crashing down in 1938 when Morris Fishbein, investigator of The Journal of the American Medical Association became determined to put Brinkley out of business. He published a 2-part article in the journal Hygeia detailing the ineffectiveness of his procedure as well as questioning his character. Incensed, Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel but the judge ruled against him, concluding the Brinkley, “should be considered a charlatan and quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words.” More lawsuits poured in and Brinkley’s fortune was drained until he had nothing and declared bankruptcy. He would go on to die a few years later before he could see the mail fraud case being prepared by the government against him. His alleged final words were, “If Dr. Fishbein goes to heaven, I want to go the other way.”
The New York Times’ obituary warned about the power of radio and mass media and Brinkley ushered in a new age of information. He delivered to the people what they were looking for and was able to that reputation to essentially win the governor’s office as a write-in and almost won it for real as a third party. It’s also a powerful story of fact checking and the tricky use of regulation to control what people see and hear, a fight that continues to this day. The legacy of Brinkley looms large over modern issues and campaigns and he provided entertainment on the national scale to the end.
John J. Dwyer, “The End of US Intervention in Mexico: Franklin Roosevelt and the Expropriation of American-Owned Agricultural Property.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 28.3 (1998): 495–509.