A nightmare of medical fraud in Kansas from decades ago inspired a movie currently in pre-production

MILFORD, Kan. — With fall finally here and Halloween right around the corner, it’s time to look back at one of the spookiest, strangest, and most disturbing series of events that’s ever happened in Kansas. One man’s curiosity around goats and emerging technology reveal some of the horrors of a lack of regulation in the early 20th century. The goat gland operation tales are just as disturbing as the ghouls, vampires, werewolves, and mummies that haunt on Halloween, if not more so.

Without proper regulation, public radio became a pubic health crisis for Americans as con artists used airwaves to spread false information, such as the healing power of goat glands. Scammers gained a large amount of wealth off early radio from advertising revenue. These tales from decades ago may sound eerily similar to other events in our modern time with our social media craze, but at the same time, one man’s goat dream is several times removed from our zeitgeist.

John R. Brinkley. The goat gland specialist.

There is no one quite like John R. Brinkley. He lived from July 8, 1885 to May 26, 1942. He practiced medicine in Kansas and even launched two campaigns for governor. The fraudulent practitioner received international recognition for his fertility surgeries involving… goat gonads.

Widespread quackery, malpractice, misinformation, and greedy ghouls

Back in the late 1880s to 1930s, fraud doctors took root in several cities and towns across the United States. In 1937, Norman Baker, a quack doctor and con artist used the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas to open up a cancer hospital and health resort. He learned about an alleged cure to cancer by Charles Ozias of Kansas City, and he got excited by the prospect – despite all five of the test subjects dying from the treatment.

The Crescent Hotel | Eureka Springs

Baker first went to Muscatine, Iowa to create a cancer center. His injections were expensive and made out of common substances: corn silk, watermelon seeds, clover, water, and carbolic acid. Carbolic acid is poisonous if someone touches or swallows it.

Baker had no cure for cancer, but patients flocked to his second cancer center: “Bakers Hospital” in Eureka Springs. The famous Crescent Hotel is rich with ghost stories and other haunted tales to this day. Staff at the hotel claim many of the ghosts there used to be the fraud doctor’s patients.

Dr. Norman Baker

Dr. Baker kept a morgue in the basement. His staff moved deceased patients in the middle of the night from their rooms, so others wouldn’t see them. He took advantage of people during the Great Depression: the hospital cleared an estimated $500,000 in one year. His booming business turned sour and fell apart after federal authorities arrested him in 1939 on a mail fraud charge. Court records indicate that he asked each patient to write home at least three times asking for more money.

Baker also mailed his “miracle elixir” around the country. Some estimates find he conned as much as $4 million out of hopeful patients. He served five years in Leavenworth and then moved to Florida where he died in 1958.

Out in San Francisco, during the same time-frame as these quack doctors, Albert Abrams was advocating his life-changing machines. He claimed the inventions could cure any cancer, ailment, or disease. The American Medical Association didn’t take his claims seriously and pushed back on his promises.

Abrams invented such machines as the Oscilloclast and the Radioclast.

How did they work? The doctor, or others, wired a patient to the oscilloclast. The patient was insulated from the surroundings with his or her feet resting on upturned drinking glasses — a good thing, because the patient would have likely been electrocuted by the mechanics of the device. The threat of electrocution may have led to the development of the much safer Micro-Oscilloclast, a box that connected to essentially nothing.

Both the osciolloclast and the radioclast came with tables of frequencies designed to attack specific diseases. Clients needed to undergo several treatments if they hoped to cure their illnesses.

John Romulus Brinkley’s tale puts him in the same camp as these quack doctors. One of them was actually his rival, but first let’s take a look at how he came to dream of goats.

An empire around goats and men’s health

Brinkley’s fame to claim was that he promised he could cure male impotence. He also claimed he had a panacea for a wide range of ailments, both terminal illnesses and minor bodily inconveniences. He operated clinics and hospitals in several states, despite serious concerns around his practices.

Critics from the medical community quickly discredited his methods. But Brinkley was a charismatic man making it difficult to stop him. He befriended people in local communities and used emerging mass media in his cons. He died practically penniless as a result of the large number of malpractice, wrongful death, and fraud suits brought against him.

The fraud doctor is credited with starting the era of Mexican border blaster radio. Mexico was upset that the United States took control of radio frequencies without consulting Mexico, leading to unregulated shows getting on the airwaves.

The border blaster radios had broadcasting signals far more powerful than U.S. stations. Along the Mexican border, blasters could be heard over large areas of the United States from the 1930s all the way to the 1970s. This irritated American radio stations which couldn’t overpower the blasters.

John R. Brinkley’s early history

The fraud doctor grew up to a poor mountain man who practiced medicine in North Carolina. His father served as a medic for the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. His mother died of pneumonia and tuberculosis when he was only five years old. His father died when he was ten. He finished schooling at the age of 16. Brinkley worked as a mail carrier and learned how to use a telegraph. Records indicate even in his early youth he dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Brinkley met Sally Wilke sometime in late December 1906 or early January 1907. She comforted him after another one of his relatives died; they got married quickly. The newlyweds traveled around the country posing as Quaker doctors, going to rural towns to put on medicine shows. The couple spent time in Knoxville – where he hawked virility “tonics” with a man named Dr. Burke.

The couple eventually moved to Chicago. Brinkley enlisted in the Bennett Medical College, an unaccredited school with a focus on Eclectic medicine. It was a branch of American medicine which focused on botanical remedies and other substances, along with physical therapy practices. The last Eclectic Medical school closed in Cincinnati in 1939.

Sally gave birth to a daughter almost nine months after the couple’s wedding.  After two years of studying, and a large pool of debt, Brinkley doubled his summer workload by taking two shifts at Western Union, the railway company. He came home one day and realized his wife had left him and that she had taken their daughter.

Sally filed for divorce and child support. Two months later she kidnapped his daughter and ran away to Canada. The couple eventually reunited, but Sally would leave him again two more times. She  finally had enough sometime in 1913. Brinkley refused to give up his goal of becoming a doctor, and Sally was tired of the debt and other marital problems.

On August 23, 1913, after a four-day courtship, Brinkley married Minerva Telitha “Minnie” Jones at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. They honeymooned in Kansas City, Denver, Pocatello, and Knoxville – where police arrested Brinkley for practicing medicine without a license and for writing bad checks. He eventually weaseled himself out of this mess to be hit with a bigamist claim from Sally, who hadn’t officially divorced him.

The dream of medical practice unfolds… in garish epiphanies

In October 1914, the Brinkleys moved to Kansas City. John enrolled in the city’s Eclectic Medical University. He only needed one more year in school to finish the education he started at Bennett.

Brinkley focused his studies on the prostate gland in elderly men. He graduated on May 7, 1915. His diploma from Eclectic allowed him to practice medicine in eight states.

Brinkley took a job as the doctor for the Swift & Company meatpacking plant. He patched minor wounds and studied animal physiology. Talking with workers, he learned that the healthiest animal slaughtered at the plant was the goat. This gave him an unprecedented epiphany of sorts following his research on the prostate.

In 1917, Brinkley served about two months in World War I as an Army Reservist. He spent most of his time in the armed services sick. He had at least one nervous breakdown before he was discharged. In October of the same year, Brinkley and his wife moved to small town Milford, Kansas. They had spotted a newspaper ad looking to recruit a doctor to the area.

Milford, Kansas is about 145 miles west of Kansas City. About 540 people live there now. The town had a lumber mill in its early days.

The next year, Brinkley opened a 16-room clinic in Milford. He won over the locals by paying good wages, invigorating the local economy, and making house calls on patients afflicted with the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. His work started out as virtuous to the community. His work to nurse flu victims back to health gave him a positive reputation that took decades to damage.

The infamous goat gland operations

The doctor somehow came to the conclusion that transplanting goat testicles into men would solve impotence. One of the first patients actually begged Brinkley to try the operation on him; he was willing to pay $150. According to an inflation calculator, $150 in 1918 is equivalent to $2,548 in 2019.

The patient’s son later told the Kansas City Star that Brinkley had offered to pay the man to go along with the experiment.

At his clinic, Brinkley performed several operations he claimed would restore male virility and fertility through implanting the testicular glands of goats in his male patients at a cost of $750 per operation. A value of $12,740 today.

The goat gonads failed to graft into the body. They were placed near sexual organs in both men and women.

Patients frequently complained Brinkley was intoxicated, that the setting was less-than-sterile, and of infections following the surgeries. An undetermined number of patients died. The doctor signed at least 42 death certificates during his time at the clinic. Several wrongful death lawsuits were filed against the quack doctor between 1930 and 1941.

Goat gland operation

Soon after Brinkley started his practice in Milford, he created an advertising campaign that received national attention from newspapers: he claimed the wife of his first goat gland transplantation patient gave birth to a baby boy. According to the book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, Brinkley promoted goat glands as a cure for 27 ailments, ranging from the serious, like dementia, to less concerning problems, like flatulence.

The American Medical Association didn’t take Brinkley lightly. His burst of publicity and brazen claims attracted the association’s attention. It sent an agent to the Milford clinic undercover.

The agent’s findings weren’t pretty. The AMA representative found a woman hobbling in circles at the clinic. She had surgery to get goat ovaries as a cure for a spinal cord tumor. Brinkley was then permanently on the AMA’s radar.

Doctor Morris Fishbein: had no empathy for malpractice

One doctor – Morris Fishbein — spent a huge chunk of his career exposing Brinkley’s medical frauds. Fishbein was the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association from 1924 to 1950.

Fishbein campaigned for the regulation of medical devices. His book Fads and Quackery in Healing debunks a wide range of practices from homeopathy to radionics. He is vilified in the chiropractic community for his campaign to end the practice as a profession.

Quackery appealed to curiosity, despite legitimacy

It wasn’t only about the goats in that time. Brinkley got jealous of one surgeon he thought was stealing his limelight.

Serge Voronoff was known for grafting monkey gonads into men. In 1920, Voronoff did a demonstration of his technique in front of several doctors at a hospital in Chicago. Brinkley showed up uninvited. He was barred at the door.

The media found out about Brinkley showing up at the Chicago hospital, and his profile in the press eventually led to his own demo at a hospital in the Windy City.

Brinkley transplanted goat testicles into 34 patients, including a judge, an alderman, a society matron and the chancellor of the now-defunct Chicago Law School. Despite the goat glands showing any success at healing, people sought after the procedure. The con man would likely be deemed a serial killer by today’s standards.

While on a tour in Los Angeles, Brinkley spent time at KHJ, a radio station. He fell in love with the idea of radio and the power to broadcast any message. He saw radio as a way to advertise and market his services; at this time in the United States, advertising on public airwaves was discouraged.

John R. Brinkley.

By 1923, Brinkley had enough capital from his medical practice to build KFKB (“Kansas First, Kansas Best” or sometimes known as “Kansas Folks Know Best”). He aired whatever he wanted — without sources or confirmation. It was a fake news propaganda machine.

Brinkley talked on the radio for hours daily. His first goal was to promote his goat gland treatments. He capitalized on men and women’s fears based around their lack of virility and fertility.

In between Brinkley’s advertisements, his news station included a motley crew of segments: performances by military bands, French lessons, horoscope readings, Hawaiian music, old-time string bands, gospel choirs, and early country music. It seemed charming to the listeners but was all a ploy.

The same year, the St. Louis Star published a critical expose on medical diploma mills. The Kansas City Journal Post followed suit.

The journalistic coverage brought unwanted attention Brinkley’s way. In July 1924, a grand jury in San Francisco handed down 19 indictments to people responsible for granting fake medical degrees and for doctors who received the diplomas.

Brinkley was indicted for his questionable application for a California medical license. Reviewers said his entry was fully of lies and discrepancies. Agents from California came to arrest Brinkley, but the governor of Kansas, Jonathan M. Davis, refused to extradite the doctor. Davis claimed Brinkley made the state too much money.

Davis’ term as the 22nd Governor of Kansas from January 8, 1923 to January 12, 1925 was fraught with error. After his term ended, police arrested him. He was indicted twice for bribery, tried twice, and acquitted both times.

Brinkley’s last leg of medical practice in Kansas

Brinkley had a hold on Milford. The advertising on his radio station kept his bank account healthy. He would use that money to keep Milford residents smitten to him; he paid for a new sewage system, sidewalks, installed electricity, built a bandstand, and built apartments for his patients and employees. He also bought a new post office to handle his mail.

The quack doctor was a hometown hero. The Kansas Navy named him an “admiral.” Brinkley also sponsored the Milford baseball team, aptly called the Brinkley Goats.

John R. Brinkley

AMA editor Morris Fishbein sought to put an end to Brinkley’s regime. Fishbein wrote dozens of articles about people who got sick or died following the goat gland surgeries. But his readership was limited to other doctors; meanwhile, Brinkley’s fake news radio station poured directly into his viewers’ ears at their homes daily.

The Kansas City Star at the time owned a radio station that competed with Brinkley’s. The Star ran an unfavorable series of reports on him to end the craze.

In 1930, the Kansas Medical Board held a hearing and decided ultimately to revoke Brinkley’s medical license. The medical board stated Brinkley “has performed an organized charlatanism … quite beyond the invention of the humble mountebank.”

Six months later, the Federal Radio Commission didn’t renew his station’s broadcasting license. He was found guilty of advertising, which violated international treaties. The FRC also claimed Brinkley aired obscene material, and his Medical Box Question series was “contrary to the public interest.”

Quack doctor almost becomes the Governor of Kansas

The quack doctor tried to make a comeback, both with his medical and radio career, by launching a gubernatorial campaign. The political position in Kansas would have allowed him to appoint people of his choice to the medical board. This would have helped him to reopen his practice resuming the goat gland operations.

The governor campaign kicked off just three days after he lost his medical license. He used his radio station to advertise himself. Brinkley was a write-in candidate. He lost the race to democrat Harry Hines Woodring.

The goat gland transplantation specialist almost won the election. The state only counted ballots with J.R. Brinkley written in, disqualifying tens of thousands of written ballots with other variants, like John Brinkley. He would have won if all the ballots had been counted.

Brinkley ran again in 1932 as an Independent, receiving 244,607 votes (30.6 percent of the vote). He lost to Republican Alf Landon, who later was the Republican nominee for President in 1936. Landon lost to incumbent president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The quack doctor gave up. He sold his KFKB station to an insurance company. He kept his Milford clinic open. Two of his proteges took over the clinic’s operations. He then relocated to Del Rio, Texas, a town just across a bridge from Mexico. The city is about 160 miles west of San Antonio.

The second age of Brinkley’s malpractice

Brinkley continued to perform goat gland transplants while he lived in Texas. His practice did shift; he mostly focused on performing vasectomies and something called prostate “rejuvenations.” He charged $1,000 for each operation, which amounts to about $19, 735 today.

The fraud doctor also prescribed his own invented medicine for after-care. He also found a way back to radio.

By 1936, John Brinkley became one of the wealthiest people in America. He built a mansion on 16 acres of land for his wife and himself.

Minnie Brinkley with her son

The couple owned a dozen Cadillacs, a greenhouse, a fountain garden surrounded by thousands of bushes, and exotic animals imported all the way from the Galapagos Islands.

Brinkley ran the circuit there happily, until a certain rival doctor cut into his business: the elusive Norman Baker.

Baker also used the radio to advertise for his quack industry. He claimed to be an inventor and a pioneer. Baker operated the border blaster XENT in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.

The quack doctor rivalry started when Baker offered to do similar procedures for a lower cost than at Brinkley’s practice. Del Rio’s city council refused to put the competitor out of business – so Brinkley closed up shop and started practice in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas.

Baker then moved to Eureka Springs where he built his infamous cancer center. Eureka Springs is about 150 miles northwest of Little Rock.

In 1938, AMA editor Morris Fishbein targeted Brinkley yet again. He published a two-part scathing series called “Modern Medical Charlatans.” It included a thorough review of Brinkley’s work.

Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and lost. A barrage of lawsuits followed the jury verdict. The IRS also investigated Brinkley for tax fraud. He declared bankruptcy in 1941, the same year the U.S. and Mexico reached an agreement on allocating radio bandwidth and shut down his blaster station XERA.

On May 26, 1942 Brinkley died penniless. He suffered from heart failure while in San Antonio. A mail fraud case involving Brinkley hadn’t gone to trial yet.

Vandals defaced Brinkley’s grave in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee in early 2017. Someone stole the winged angel atop the column marking where he was buried.

The Reply All podcast did an episode on the quack doctor: it’s episode #86, “Man of the People.” A film based on the episode is in development now. Director Richard Linklater will helm it, and it will star actor Robert Downey Jr. IMDb lists the movie as an untitled John Brinkley biopic.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.