#86 Man of the People
January 19, 2017
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PJ VOGT: Thomas and Kevin have been married for years. When they first met, they fell in love over this very strange coincidence. They were introduced to each other at a party, they got to talking, and they realized both of them had spent time in Del Rio, Texas as kids. And as little kids, both of them had gotten really, really interested in this run-down mansion in town. Weirder still, they’d both been obsessed with the widow who lived in the mansion. And weirder still, they had both struck up friendships with her, as children. Thomas’ started when he just called her one day.
THOMAS: You could just call the Brinkley mansion and she would answer the phone, and she would talk to anybody, and she was very warm, and, and I just said, you know, “My grandfather lives around the corner and —”
KEVIN: “Can I come visit?”
THOMAS: “and I tr-” I did! ‘Cause I said, “I’d love to write a paper on your school,” and she was delighted. And so I went to the Brinkley mansion, opened the giant gates that said “Dr. Brinkley” across them, and, uh, walked down the sidewalk, and walked into the house.
PJ: So Thomas would go visit, hang out, chat with Mrs. Brinkley and then separately, on days when Thomas wasn’t there, Kevin was doing the exact same thing. Going to the Brinkley mansion, talking to Mrs. Brinkley. This woman in her sixties who always wore modest cotton dresses and thick horned rim glasses. They were both fascinated by her.
THOMAS: Mrs. Brinkley, she had had, uh, skin cancer removed, and so she had to have part of her nose cut away.
THOMAS: And of course —
KEVIN: The nostril on the right side, and then —
THOMAS: And so —
KEVIN: She couldn’t afford the reconstructive surgery, so she’d just put a cotton ball there. Well, you can imagine as a little boy you were fascinated with that cotton ball.
THOMAS: (laugh-whispers) Right.
KEVIN: (quietly laughing) [indistinct] —
THOMAS: So on one side it was- on one side it was something like out of a very scary movie, but she was such a warm person. And she was entirely entertaining and captivating.
PJ: On the one hand, she seemed like the wealthiest person in the world. She lived in this house that felt more like a palace. There were rooms filled with exotic treasures from all over the world. On the other hand, Mrs. Brinkley couldn’t afford to turn on the heat in the house. In the winter she slept on her bed, piled underneath a bunch of old fur coats.
THOMAS: And so she still had one Cadillac that ran, and it was this... just seemed like a block-long car. Uh, she had two last servants that basically weren’t getting paid anymore but had a free place to live. And so the chauffeur would drive her principally to the liquor store on a daily basis to pick up alcohol. And I learned later from the owner of that store that actually, uh, she’d come in personally to kind of guilt him into giving them liquor on credit, that they couldn’t afford.
PJ: It's probably just as well that Kevin and Thomas had no idea who they were talking to. This sweet old woman, Mrs. Brinkley, she’d been an accomplice to one of the largest, deadliest scams in American history. The mastermind of the scam was none other than her husband. He’d taken control of an experimental new piece of technology and then used it in this way that nobody else saw coming. This week, the story of the terrifying Dr. John Romulus Brinkley.
[REPLY ALL THEME]
PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All I’m PJ Vogt. And the story you’re about to hear: it takes place in 1917, but almost everything that happens in it, it feels like it could have happened this week, basically. It starts with this young doctor, John Brinkley, he’s just married the love of his life, Minnie, and they decide to go find a place where they can just settle down. He’s gonna be a town doctor.
PENNY LANE: And then they set out for Kansas, because they see an advertisement that says, "Milford Kansas, population 3000, we need a doctor." And they're like, "OK, we'll go west." So they travel west, they get to Milford and 3000 was a typo. And in fact it was population 300. Which is to say —
PENNY: — it’s like the middle of nowhere. There’s like nobody there.
PJ: This is Penny Lane, she’s a filmmaker. She made a documentary about John Brinkley. So the Brinkley’s move to Milford and they set up shop.
PENNY: This elderly farmer named Bill Stitsworth comes into the office and, you know, after much hemming and hawing kind of manages to spit out his problem which is that he's a flat tire. Um, get it? Get it? You know, and finally that Brinkley is like, "Oh you're impotent. OK, gotcha. I'm so sorry, we have nothing for that." Like, "Modern medical science has not solved that problem. I'm very sorry."
PJ: According to Brinkley, what happens next is that he and the farmer get into small talk, and they start talking about goats. They talk about how goats never seem to be impotent. They’re always virile. And the farmer says something to Brinkley that will change his life.
PENNY: And he says, "gosh it's too bad I don't have Billy Goat nuts." And then Brinkley kind of laughs and then, after hours of Brinkley saying, "No! I didn't learn that in medical school! That's not how we do things, uh, that might not work and could be dangerous!" The farmer refuses to leave until Brinkley agrees to try to fix his impotence by giving him goat testicles.
PJ: That is the strangest —
PJ: ...eureka moment.
PENNY: (laughs) So then, of course, he tries it and it works.
PJ: It works according to Brinkley. Brinkley tells the world that he has created the goat gland cure. Meaning, he will take goat testicles, he’ll insert them into your scrotum, and you’ll be healed. And not just of impotence either. He says it’ll cure flatulence, emphysema, stomach cancer; he’s got a version for women, which he says will female infertility. I talked to this writer Pope Brock, who wrote a book about Brinkley called Charlatan. He said that when patients came to Brinkley to get the surgery, it was set up so that the patients would know that they were getting exactly what they paid for.
POPE BROCK: Right, so, um, the patient was, um, it was local anesthetic so that he could be assured that he was actually getting the goat, you know.
PJ: (slight gasp)
POPE: And then, uh, Minnie Brinkley, usually, uh, Brinkley's wife, would do the, uh, snipping on the goat, they would bring the goat balls over, open the guy up, toss them in, sew him up and send him out.
PJ: So just to be clear, this surgery is bogus. Utterly bogus. And privately, Brinkley knows this. But he’s extremely good at convincing the public that he believes in what he’s selling, that goat gland surgery really works. It helps that he looks extremely professional. He’s got a three-piece suit, he’s got round glasses, this neat blonde goatee — he’s everybody’s idea of what a smart doctor looks like. And so they start showing up at the clinic, these nervous guys, ready for the surgery, their own goats in tow.
PJ: Like you'd bring the goat that you (laughing) wanted the testicles of?
POPE: Exactly. So, you know, just sorta clutched in your arms and you’re pounding on the door, you know.
PJ: (laughs with sharp inhale)
POPE: Um, but pretty soon he, uh, he, he got his own herd out back. Because it was, you know, it was a volume business by that point, the, the patient would come out, browse the herd, and, um, pick one. You know, the goat with which he felt the most, uh, connection, you know. Whatever goat he felt simpatico with. That's the goat he, he chose.
PJ: Like a lobster at a restaurant.
POPE: Exactly. Exactly! Exactly.
PJ: So business is booming. Brinkley has found a great scheme. Because what happens is there are men who are impotent, who get this surgery, and because their impotence is psychological, the placebo effect saves them, and they thank Dr. Brinkley. And for the men that it doesn't work on, they're generally too ashamed to say anything about it. So no matter what, he wins. And maybe it would've just continued like that. Maybe he would've just been a moderately successful scammer. But then fate hands Dr. Brinkley the biggest, plumpest opportunity imaginable. OK, so November 2nd, 1920, Pittsburgh.
[crackly radio transmission]
ARCHIVAL: This is KDKA of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We’d appreciate it if anyone hearing this broadcast would communicate with us, as we are very anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching, and how it is being received ... [transmission continues under narration]
PJ: What you're hearing is the birth of commercial radio. For the first time in human history, one person can now talk directly to a huge, infinite crowd of strangers across vast distances.
[transmission fades out]
PJ: There’s a person behind every great technological breakthrough. A visionary inventor with lofty ideas about how what they've made is going to change the world. John Brinkley is not that guy. John Brinkley is the other guy. The guy who shows up right after the visionary inventor. The guy who looks at this wondrous new piece of technology and thinks, “This idiot just invented a weapon, and he has no idea.”
John Brinkley writes a letter to the government and says, “Hey, uh, can I have a radio license?” They tell him, "Sure." He is set up to broadcast.
J.R. BRINKLEY: And ladies and gentlemen, you’re again listening to the voice of Dr. J. R. Brinkley, out of the Brinkley hospitals. We have two lovely hospitals, and we have patients, many patients, in both hospitals —
[transmission continues under PJ Vogt's narration]
PJ: He starts his station, KFKB, out of Milford Kansas. And Brinkley, from the beginning, is a natural. He knows how to talk on the radio before anybody else can figure it out.
BRINKLEY: I try to tell you the truth in every statement that I make. Nothing misleading in any way. [transmission continues under narration]
PJ: He’s not yelling and squawking in some weird 1930s radio announcer voice. Instead he’s conversational, he’s gentle, he talks directly to you.
BRINKLEY: You know your prostate’s infected and diseased. And you know that unless some relief comes to you, that you’re going to be in the undertaker’s parlor on the old cold slab being embalmed for a funeral.
[transmission continues under voice and narration]
POPE: His trademark was to sound like your best friend across the table.
PJ: Brinkley understands something about authenticity. About how to fake authenticity, that is gonna take his new radio audience years to figure out.
BRINKLEY: Come at once to the Brinkley Hospitals, before it’s everlastingly too late. [end of radio transmission]
PJ: Brinkley's entire radio station is dedicated to one thing: convincing more people to put goat testicles into their bodies. And at first, his range of influence isn't that big. Picture a broadcast area the size of a small town. But pretty soon, he upgrades.
POPE: 5 thousand watts, shot out across the Great Plains. You know, he would just improvise for hours about your health and, um, sentimental Victorian, uh, descriptions of his childhood. People would lie awake at night and listen to this sort of, sort of roll into their ears.
PJ: Every day, every night, Brinkley is on the air. But there’s a problem, which is that he can only talk so much. And he wants to make sure that whenever people turn on a radio, they are getting goat testicles advertised to them. So he needs other people to fill in for him. And he just starts grabbing people. He hears about a cowboy who accidentally blinded himself while chopping wood; he gives that guy a show. He knows that his listeners really love country music, and he knows that other radio stations won't play country music, and so he puts country musicians on.
[singing voices on crackly radio, country music]
PJ: And as that station gets more popular, Brinkley's lie about his goat testicle surgery, his lie keeps spreading like a virus. Every day, trains arrive in Milford carrying hopeful men who are ready to pay obscene amounts of money to be healed. And so Brinkley, who grew up in poverty, as an orphan, Brinkley the adult is now getting very rich. To the point where, in Milford, Kansas, it's almost like Brinkley is a god. He pays for the sidewalks, the sewers, the electric lights. He buys the town a new hospital. The Little League team tells him they needs new uniforms and so Brinkley buys them. They rename themselves the Brinkley Goats, they put a little goat on the uniform. He decides the town needs to have a zoo, so he goes and buys a bear to start a zoo. And then when the bear annoys him by growling at night, he shoots the bear. No zoo. He tells to town, “You should name the church after me! It should be the ‘Brinkley Methodist Church.’” They have to gingerly, carefully, explain to their new patron that actually, that’s not really allowed. And as Brinkley gets bigger and bigger, his message reaches more and more people. And it's not just reaching potential patients, it is also now reached the ears of the man who will be Brinkley’s lifelong nemesis: Doctor Morris Fishbein. Fishbein is the opposite of Brinkley. He's this short, rumpled bald guy. He doesn't really care about people liking him, he just cares about telling people the truth. He's a know-it-all. And he despises hucksters and scammers; the Brinkleys of the world drive him crazy.
PENNY: Fishbein was completely lifelong driven to stamp out quackery. And he thought he could.
PJ: Fishbein is the face of this tiny, upstart doctor's organization called the American Medical Association. And Fishbein believes in the power of rules and regulations.
PENNY:. He was like, “We have this association, we are respectable doctors, people should trust us and not these, like, randos who, like, pretend to have medical degrees, who don't, who like make stuff up and lie. People should believe us! Like, we are experts and we have degrees and you can tell ‘cause we wear suits.”
PJ: Fishbein sets his sights on Brinkley. And Brinkley is a juicy target because Brinkley breaks so many rules. For instance he has a sketchy diploma from a diploma-mill in California, a fake school. That’s against the rules. And so the State of California issues an indictment against Brinkley.
It seems like an open and shut thing. But when the authorities show up in Kansas to extradite Brinkley, the Governor intervenes. He tells them quote, “We people in Kansas get fat on his medicine. We’re going to keep him here so long as he lives.”
The Governor has made a terrible mistake. He’s looked at Brinkley. He’s seen his greed & he’s missed everything else. He does not realize the extent of what Brinkley is capable of. Brinkley goes on the radio and he crows about how Fishbein and all the other losers at the AMA, they can’t stop him. He claims that they’ve spent $150,000 trying to destroy him and for nothing. And then, Brinkley ups the ante. He invents a new radio show.
PENNY: He had a show called Medical Question Box, where you, P.J., have an illness and you write a letter to him, and he reads it on the air and he prescribes a medicine to you over the radio, but it's like his, you know, proprietary medicine. So he'll say like, "Go to the pharmacy and ask for Brinkley Number 35.”
PJ: Oh wow.
PENNY: And then you and everyone else that hears the letter that feels like maybe they have that problem, goes to the pharmacy and asked for Brinkley Number 35. That was an incredibly popular show. Everyone loved that show.
PJ: All across the state and in neighboring states, people are going to their local pharmacies and buying Brinkley’s drugs. Some of what he’s prescribing over the radio is basically harmless. It’s not gonna hurt anybody, but it’s not gonna help them either. But, now and then, he’ll actually recommend medicines to people, that they actually shouldn’t be taking, and in those cases, he’s giving people poison — poison that can be potentially deadly. In 1930, Fishbein is finally able to get the Kansas Medical Board to review Brinkley’s license. And they actually take him to court. At the trial, Brinkley's defiant. He insists that nobody has been harmed by his surgery.
POPE: He was denying that were there— had ever been any problems in his clinic and, uh, the, um, representatives of the, uh, Kansas Medical Association brought out 42 death certificates that he had signed on patients who had died at his clinic. Some who had been perfectly healthy going in, you know, there was various kinds of documentation. So, that's 42 dead people right there.
POPE: Um, beyond that, you can only imagine and extrapolate.
PJ: The 42 death certificates, they only represent people who died in Brinkley's clinic, who Brinkley kept paperwork for. That doesn't include people who went to Brinkley's clinic, went home, and then died the day after. It doesn't include people on the radio who either took poison because Brinkley told them to, or who just didn't get medical treatment they needed because they trusted the radio doctor instead. What becomes clear in the trial is that Brinkley has probably killed hundreds of people at this point. He has become one of the most successful killers in American history. And he's done it in public view. In front of everybody. What is nuts, is that, according to Brock, even though everybody knew this, Brinkley actually could not be tried in criminal court.
POPE: At that point, the medical laws, if you killed people while you were practicing medicine, it wasn't illegal.
PJ: But what Kansas can do is they can take Brinkley's medical license away. And they do. Brinkley loses the case. He cannot do surgery in Kansas anymore. And to top it off, the federal government strips Brinkley of his radio license. He’s told he’s gonna be off the air completely in just a few months. Fishbein is elated. He's won. But what he doesn’t know is that Brinkley has come up with one last way to use his radio station to try to not only destroy the Kansas medical board, but take over the entire state of Kansas. And a few more months of free airtime is all he needs to do it. So, three days after losing his medical license, he unveils his new scheme.
PENNY: And it's September, you know, and the election’s in November, and he just decides he's going to run for governor. (laughing) There's like no time for him to put together a campaign, what's his platform, no one knows. So he uses his radio station to run for governor. None of the real candidates have a radio station. None of the real candidates have a private plane, which he has.
PENNY: None of the real candidates are super tight with a bunch of, like, really popular country musicians —
PJ: (whispers) Right!
PENNY: —and preachers, which he has because they all are on his station. So he just travels around by private plane putting on, like, super cool concerts, you know, and being like, "Vote for me!"
PJ: And when he first announced, did they think it was... did they take it seriously? Like, did they —
PENNY: No. No one took seriously.
PJ: What did they think?
PENNY: ‘Cause how— he has no political experience, he's a con man, he has no grasp on reality —
PJ: Right, and everybody they know probably sees it that way.
PENNY: Absolutely, yeah.
PJ: Another reason people don’t take Brinkley seriously is because he’s acting like a lunatic. In his speeches, on the radio, he’s going on and on about how he’s this big martyr who’s been persecuted by the elites who are afraid of his medical miracles. He compares his medical board hearing to the Garden of Gethsemane. He compares himself, repeatedly, to Jesus Christ.
PJ: And what did he say he was gonna … what was his platform?
PENNY: He was like ... you try to nail down his, like, (laughing) political ideology and it's really confusing. Um, you know, he's railing against FDR and the New Deal on the one hand,
PENNY: —and he's like, "This is all bad,” you know, “people should should work for what they have." But on the— literally in the same speech, he'll say, "And I'm going to give everyone free healthcare."
PENNY: And I'm going to put a lake in every county in Kansas —
PJ: Wait —
PENNY: —’cause that's good for rainfall."
PJ: A lake?
PENNY: Yeah cause they were having a drought. And so they said, “If you had a lake in every county there'd be better rainfall and be better for the farmers.”
PJ: Can you do that?
PENNY: I don't know. But he said he would.
PJ: To Brinkley’s opponents, his ideas seems obviously really silly. But, it doesn’t matter because Brinkley has the ability to reach thousands and thousands of people, directly in their homes, unfiltered, with nobody to contradict him. And his audience, they love him, they trust him, and they start showing up at his rallies in droves. At one stop, there’s a crowd of 20,000 people. Nobody’s ever really seen anything like that before in Kansas politics. In the final weeks of the election, it becomes clear that Brinkley has become the frontrunner and so the Kansas Attorney General comes up with a plan to stop him.
PENNY: The Attorney General of Kansas decrees, in some way, that, um, the only ballots that will be counted for Brinkley are the ones that have his name spelled exactly correct.
PJ: The thinking being.. his, he's a radio person with undereducated constituents, so they won't spell his name right?
PENNY: This is the law he passed, or the decree he made, um, 10 days before the election.
PJ: Oh, wow.
PENNY: And then, um, 56,000 votes for Brinkley were thrown out for misspellings. And if those 56,000 votes had been counted, he would have won.
PJ: Brinkley does not get to be governor of the state of Kansas. Which is fine, because of course, he already has a new plan.
Coming up after the break: Brinkley decides to really get ambitious.
[REPLY ALL THEME]
Welcome back to the show. It’s 1931, we’re in Del Rio, Texas. It’s this sleepy little west Texas town, nothing ever happens there. Until the day the new guy shows up. He says that he’s a doctor, but nobody’s ever really met a doctor like this. The guy builds this huge mansion with a pipe organ in it, a two-story pipe organ. And then he wires speakers all around the outside of the house, and at night he blasts music into the town.
The new guy is in love with his own name. He writes it on the wheels of his Cadillac, on each of his three yachts, in neon lights in the sky at night: BRINKLEY. Thomas, the guy from the beginning of the story, who used to visit the mansion as a kid, he said he heard this story from a woman in town who went to a party at the Brinkley mansion once.
THOMAS: When she was a girl, she went to the Brinkley mansion for a pool party and she said she put on her bathing suit and she was going across the grounds and there was this giant tortoise that she said looked like the size of a VW bug to her. And she said when it began to move, she was terrified, she said she thought it was a statue and she said it began walking and she just screamed—
THOMAS: No one had ever seen anything like that in West Texas.
PJ: The people of Del Rio are pumped that this rich guy’s decided to set up shop in their town. But it’s not clear why. What does a guy like this want in a place like Del Rio? Brinkley knows the answer. He can see the answer when he looks outside his bedroom window. His house in Del Rio is four miles from the Mexican border. Which means that he can set up a radio station in Mexico, outside of U.S. law, and he can use that station to broadcast into America.
PENNY: He had this whole, like, really high tech setup with a remote control line from his phone line so that he didn't have to leave his mansion in Texas to be able to broadcast his lectures on the station – which was, like, over the border in Mexico, ’cause he wanted to sit in his house.
PJ: Now he can reach everybody.
BRINKLEY: And ladies and gentlemen, you’re again listening to voice of Dr. J.R. Brinkley out of the Brinkley Hospitals. [transmission continues under narration]
PJ: He doesn’t have to deal with the U.S. government’s laws about how powerful his station can get. Broadcasting from Mexico, Brinkley can basically say whatever he wants on the air. He can now hawk his new goat serum, no surgery required. But he also rents out his space to other scammers with other scams.
SCAMMER: Especially nowadays, when it’s so easy to get rid of grey hair. That every one of—[transmission continues under narration]
PJ: He’s got people selling crazy water crystals—
SCAMMER 2: Thank you and hello friends. Thanks for the many letters. Telling us about—
[transmission continues under narration]
PJ: Electric bow ties, autographed pictures of Jesus. And all these scams, they are now reaching so many more people than Brinkley ever could in Kansas. In Kansas, there’s a limit on how strong his transmitter can be, it can only broadcast to 5,000 watts. But in Mexico, he’s able to do 10 times that. Which means that his new station is reaching the entire United States.
POPE: Of course it drove Fishbein and the American establishment, the government just absolutely crazy, because they're like running up and down the shore on the other side, tearing their hair, trying to figure out what am I gonna, you know, what are we going to do about this?
PJ: Fishbein is scrambling to try to figure out some way to stop Brinkley, but he can’t. And in the meantime, Brinkley’s new station just gets bigger and bigger. It hits a million watts. And the musicians, the musicians that Brinkley had started finding in Kansas just to fill time, they are now playing for the biggest audiences that have ever existed, and so they become huge!
[montage of country music]
PJ: These are people like the Carter Family. Gene Autry. Hank Williams. Red Foley.
John Brinkley, just, by accident, is turning country music from this fringe thing into American pop music. His transmitter itself is so powerful now that locals in Del Rio report that when it’s powered on, their bed springs will hum. The headlights of their cars will turn on randomly. And these broadcasts, they’re now so strong that they leave the United States. The rest of the world is hearing John Brinkley’s shows.
PENNY: I have seen physical mail from, like, the Philippines and stuff directed to the radio stations saying like, "I loved your segment on astrology or whatever." It really did reach all around the world.
PJ: John Brinkley is now an international celebrity. So is his wife, Minnie, she has her own show.
[sound of radio transmission]
MINNIE: I’d like to know nice people. I’m happy with nice people. And I don’t go near the other kind.
PJ: So is his kid.
[sound of radio transmission]
BRINKLEY: Now listen, Johnny, Daddy wants to tell you this. Always tell the truth. Never tell a lie under any circumstances.
[end of radio transmission]
PJ: Fishbein is tearing his hair out. The U.S. State Department tries to negotiate with Mexico to take Brinkley off the air, and Brinkley just gets the Vice President, the Vice President of the United States, to tell the State Department to knock it off. Brinkley cannot be contained by law.
Brinkley’s so famous that he goes to the Gone With the Wind premiere and in a room with Clark Gable, reporters are asking Brinkley questions. Now that Brinkley’s at his most influential, with the biggest following he’s ever had, his interest in politics, it takes a dark turn.
POPE: He was anti-Semitic already. Uh, that was fueled, as much as anything else, by his hatred of Fishbein.
PJ: But then, he takes a vacation to Europe. He goes to Germany.
POPE: And he saw Hitler's Germany, he saw those flags and all that marching and it caught his fancy, you know?
PJ: He starts giving over his airwaves to other prominent Americans who either sympathize with the Nazis, hate Jewish people, or are just pro-Fascism. One of them's really famous, this guy, Father Coughlin, who’s drawing huge crowds at these rallies.
FATHER COUGHLIN: We are Christian insofar as we believe in Christ’s principle of love your neighbor as yourself, and with that principle I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me that he does not believe in it.
PJ: Brinkley has started to go kind of nuts. He thinks he's some sort of Superman. He starts asking his psychic if he should run for president.
POPE BROCK: I don't know if any of us can actually live inside a mind like that that just, uh, [inhales] you know, becomes swollen like a tick at a certain point, you know, that's just completely, um, completely out of touch with, uh, who he really is, what the rational boundaries really are.
PJ: Fishbein has tried to use the rules to stop Brinkley a million different ways, and it’s never worked. At one point, the federal government passes a law that everybody calls “The Brinkley Act.” And all it does is criminalize having a telephone line from your [laughing] home in Texas to your station in Mexico and using it to broadcast programs in the United States. The Brinkley Act. They pass it, Brinkley says, “OK, whatever.” He starts running tapes over the border, which completely circumvents the whole law. It’s always like this. Fishbein finally realizes that no rule, no law, no regulation, is gonna stop this guy. He realizes that the only thing in this world that can stop John Romulus Brinkley, is John Romulus Brinkley. And so Fishbein sets a trap.
He writes an article called “Modern Medical Charlatans.” And this article is just one long slap in the face of John Brinkley. He insults his wife, he talks about how much money he’s got, what a liar he is — And when Brinkley sees it, Brinkley’s excited because... it’s libel.
And if Fishbein has libeled him, it means that, finally, the tables have turned. Brinkley decides to sue Fishbein for a fortune, this is his opportunity to shut Fishbein up forever. Even better, the trial will take place in Del Rio, the town that loves Brinkley. It’s his home field.
Trial starts on March 22, 1939. It's a Monday. Brinkley shows up in his custom-built Cadillac, driven by Mrs. Brinkley, it’s fire engine red with his name inscribed on it in 13 different places. He is feeling confident.
POPE: He went in believing that, uh ... I don't know, I was about to say God was on his side, I'm not sure that was it, but God didn't have to be on his side [laughing], because he was so filled with his own sense of- of power.
PJ: Just by walking into the courtroom, Brinkley made himself very vulnerable. Because Fishbein’s entire defense is that, according to him, everything he said is true. Brinkley is a phony, he is a fraud. Which means that the court is now going to debate not Fishbein’s reputation, but Brinkley’s reputation. Now, Brinkley’s lawyers know that this is gonna be part of it. And so this doesn’t rattle them yet. They have a plan. They have packed the courtroom with Brinkley’s supporters— with people who love him, with people who’ve gotten the surgery and who say it worked.
And so, they bring up one of these happy customers and they start to ask questions, and then Fishbein’s lawyer jumps up with an objection. He says to the judge, “They’re not experts. They’re patients. They can’t say whether Brinkley is a quack or not.” And the judge agrees. All the happy customers that Brinkley’s lawyers had planned on using to defend him are kicked out.
POPE: So all of a sudden, Brinkley is far more vulnerable and isolated than he, uh, than he thought he would be.
Since patients can't testify because they're not medical experts, well then who can testify? Medical experts. So they get up, one by one, and very specifically and thoroughly, um, debunk various practices that Brinkley was, uh, was performing.
PJ: They destroy him. They prove that his surgery is just nonsense; that the medicine he’s sold over the radio is just colored water. But the moment most damning moment comes when Fishbein’s lawyer asks Brinkley this off-hand question. It’s about his process for putting together his famous elixirs. He says you know when you were preparing this formula, did you measure it by weight, or did you measure it by volume? Simple. Weight, or volume? Brinkley’s asked this and he goes completely quiet. He turns away from the lawyer and just stares out the window.
Finally, he answers. He says quote, “I wouldn’t rightly know that. I don’t try to know all the details of what’s in the stuff.”
To nobody’s surprise, the court finds Morris Fishbein not guilty of libel. And John Brinkley? Now everybody knows it. John Brinkley is a quack.
PJ: When you look at his story, what do you feel like? Why are we vulnerable to this? Like [laughs] why is American as a country — what is it about a liar like him that we have a hard time dealing with?
POPE: (exhales) Don’t you want to be rescued? I know I do. [laughs] You know? When somebody stands up and says, “You know what? Bring me your anguish, bring me your problems, and I will fix them. I will make it alright.” You know, that puts Brinkley in a line of demagogues going back to the dawn of time, right up through today.
PJ: But what I don’t understand is why we don’t get better at it, like why. There’s almost a playbook, you know? You tell big lies, you never admit defeat, and you try not to have too many statements that are fact-checkable — like, why aren’t we better at stopping this?
POPE: Well, it — there is no “we” to learn. It’s not as though the people that Brinkley scammed were all alive today and say, “OK, god, I remember now back in the ‘30s I fell for that thing. I’m not going for Trump now, ‘cause I learned,” you know? It’s a whole new bunch of people. People are scammed, and they die. [laughs] New people come in with those - those needs, those fears, and it starts all over again. And once it’s learned, it’s too late.
[car ambience, turn signal clicking]
PJ: In November, I went down to Texas to see what’s left of Brinkley’s empire. Kevin and Thomas gave me a tour of Del Rio. And we started to see signs of Brinkley before we even reached his mansion. We pass the lumber yard that he built because he was convinced the locals were cheating him on wood prices. We pass his church. And then suddenly, we’re in front of the house.
THOMAS: So, here it is.
PJ: Oh my god. So it still stands out; it’s like an enormous pink house, surrounded by palm trees with a fountain in front, a big gate.
THOMAS: And so, the cars would line up at night to see this home, all lit, and they would park here with picnic baskets and have dinner and watch the light show.
PJ: So, I’d heard about this before, but when I’d pictured it, I hadn’t realized how close Brinkley had let everybody get to him. The mansion’s right there, like right next to the road. People could stand across the street, and they could just look into his window and see him standing there, waving back at them. He would’ve seemed so close, so approachable.
PJ: In the yard, the fountains are still there, but they don’t fire enormous jets anymore. I tried to find the swimming pool that Brinkley had tiled with tiny swastikas after his trip to Germany, but that’s long since been filled in.
[Knocking on door]
Thomas and Kevin actually lived in the house for a while in the 90s. They bought it, renovated it, sold it to somebody else. They’re friends with the couple that lives there now.
DONNA: Hello —
THOMAS: Donna, hello.
DONNA: How’re y’all?
THOMAS: Donna, can I introduce PJ Vogt?
PJ: Hey, nice to meet you.
DONNA: Hi, PJ, nice to meet you.
PJ: So we go into the house. And inside the house, Brinkley seems less like a man of the people and more like a man who is very, very scared of people.
[sound of climbing up the staircase]
PJ: The walls are covered in these giant, expensive-looking wood panels, they’re really beautiful. But what I don’t realize at first is that a lot of these panels hide secret passageways. Places for Brinkley to hide himself, or his stuff, if people ever came for him.
THOMAS: Um, yes, so do you want to see if you can find any in here?
PJ: Yeah! OK… is that one there, that panel?
THOMAS: Actually, it’s the one above it, the two at the top.
PJ: And what happens when you press them?
THOMAS: It’s called a fur drop, and the idea was if you had, uh, j- jewels and furs, this bottom...right, OK here I’ll show you. It’s spring loaded and so you press it and that’s where you could drop your fur quickly. And then there was this one here at the bottom right had a safe in it, and you could put your jewels there and your fur there to hide them so that they didn’t get stolen.
The furs and jewels are long gone. Within two years of losing the Fishbein trial, Brinkley was bankrupt. He died of a heart attack a year after that. 56 years old. Everything he built has disappeared. The clinic shuttered, the radio station torn down, his name's been taken off the gates of his own mansion. The whole time that I was trying to understand Brinkley, I'd have this weird feeling that I would try to push down, which is that he didn't feel real. He felt like like a monster from a fairy tale. I never felt like I could get a glimpse of him as a person, and even in his own house, walking in his bedroom, it still felt like he was eluding me. And then, we walked into the room where Brinkley used to record his radio shows. All the equipment is gone, but the organ is still there. The organ that accompanied all of Brinkley's lies. It's huge. It takes up the entire wall.
THOMAS: It’s 1,063 pipes, and its name is Opus 444.
PJ: Opus 444.
Thomas: So, this would often open Brinkley's shows, when you listen to this, it sounds kinda like a celestial, very delicate sound, like a music box.
PJ: Thomas said that we should try to play it.
PJ: The back room’s humming, which is making me optimistic that it might work.
[creaking sound, weak sound of organ, jiggling]
[weak sound of organ]
PJ: It’s so, um, spooky like this.
[discordant organ sounds, indistinct voices, sound continues under talking]
PJ: Thomas told me one last story about Brinkley. He met a guy who grew up in Kansas in the '60s. And late one night, his dad came into his bedroom with a question. He wanted to know, have they taught you about Dr. Brinkley yet, in history class. The kid said no, I don't know who that his. And he asked his dad, "who was he?" His father just said "nobody," and walked out of the room.
PJ: If you want to know more about John Brinkley, there is so much more craziness to his story that we couldn't include. If you're curious, you should absolutely go pick up Pope Brock's Book about Brinkley, Charlatan. It's great, it's amazing. And Penny Lane's documentary about Brinkley is also great. It's called, appropriately, Nuts.
Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We're produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. We're edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Production assistance this week from Thane Fay and Sangita Rayasam. We are mixed by Rick Kwan.
Special thanks this week to Gary Carden, Sean Williams, John and Donna Weston, Thomas McInear, Thomas Nyman, and Kevin Parman, the best hosts in Texas. Matt Lieber is a cure for what ails you. You can find more episodes of the show at itunes.com/replyall or wherever you get your podcasts. Lately, I’ve been checking out the NPR One app, it’s pretty good. Our website is replyall.soy. Thanks for listening. We'll see you in two weeks.
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