As we’ve already announced, we are thrilled to be playing the title character in Edward Einhorn’s The Resistible Rise of J.R. Brinkley, October 12-28. October happens to be a fortuitous month for the production, for it was in October 1914 that the titular quack first moved to Kansas to finish out his medical studies, such as they were, and October, 1917 that he moved to Milford, Kansas, where he launched his empire.
John Romulus Brinkley (1885-1942) is just the kind of character we love to write about here, so we delight in sharing a thumbnail sketch of his life. Like many of my own ancestors, he hails from the Smokey Mountain region of North Carolina, literally raised in log cabins in the woods. His father was a non-credentialed healer who’d been a medic in the Confederate army. His mother was a relative of one of Brinkley’s father’s four wives, who was living with the couple for a time. Brinkley was orphaned by age ten, raised by “Aunt Sally”, the woman who was married to his father when he was born but not his biological mother. J.R.’s early schooling was scattershot, attending one-room schoolhouses three months a year. By the time he was a teenager he was working as a mail carrier and a telegraph operator, and had even spent a little time working at the latter career in New York City and nearby New Jersey.
But what he really wanted to be was a doctor, although he was full of eccentric ideas about the science. He and his first wife Sally posed as Quaker doctors and traveled through North Carolina with a medicine show, selling patent medicines. He also partnered with a shady Dr. Burke hustling such medicines on the streets of Memphis. For a time he studied “Eclectic Medicine” in Chicago, and spent several years investigating this herb-based alternative medicine practice with various shady schools, eventually receiving a “diploma” in the field that allowed him to practice in eight states. It was while he was in Chicago that he hatched his theories about the potency of glands. For two months, in partnership with another charlatan, he ran a clinic in Greenville, S.C. called “Greenville Electro Medic Doctors” where they injected patients with colored water they claimed was Salvarsan, for treating syphilis and sleeping sickness. They skipped town leaving their bills unpaid. Fleeing to Memphis, Brinkley then bigamously married his second wife Minnie (played by Jenny Lee Mitchell in our show), having broken with his previous wife and children without the formality of a divorce.
Milford, Kansas was where Brinkley set up shop and began touting his cure for impotence — injecting goat testicles into men as a treatment for virility. By the early 1920s he was on the way to becoming rich and nationally famous. The Los Angeles Times gave him huge publicity; he started his own radio station, KFKB (“Kansas First, Kansas Best” or “Kansas Folks Know Best”.) The station was a 24/7 infomercial for his clinic and his patent medicine products, punctuated with folk and country music, spiritualists, and other such programming. He became so well known that the phrase “goat gland” became idiomatic. In the early days of sound film, the phrase was used in Hollywood as slang for “injecting” talking scenes into silent films to beef up their box office value. There was even a Brinkley Goats baseball team
All the while, Brinkley was harried by press and genuine medical professionals who wanted to bring him down. In the crucial year of 1930, he was stripped of both his medical and radio licenses. He responded by running for Governor of Kansas, nearly winning. Nothing daunted, he then moved to South Texas and opened a new radio station across the border in Mexico that put out million watts, allowing him to reach the entire United States. He operated this station though 1934, when Mexico took away his licence, at which point he simply bought air time on another Mexican station. By 1938, he was incredibly wealthy, living in a mansion with a private plane, several limousines, etc etc etc. It was at this point that a man named Morris Fishbein, head of the American Medical Association, finally used public opinion and the courts to bring him down. Sick and penniless, Brinkley died just a few years later.
This is just the most gossamer of sketches of a guy who’s weird life story contains much more fascinating detail. Googling him, I promise, is a rabbit hole — you will find documentary films, podcasts, articles, photos. But above all, I hope you will check out the show. Details here.