ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE real American West, which might have been anyplace people were uprooted, undefined or emotionally underfed, there was seldom heard a word of any kind.
Even now, survivors dwell on that experience best remembered for its intolerable loneliness and the absence of all but the most basic human inputs. Young men would stand at their gateposts all day long for just a glimpse of settlers’ wagons heading west. People tended simply to hunker up in a warm place and hope for something to happen: a Bible reading, a laconic exchange, a fragment of correspondence or printed journalism. It could not be long endured, of course, and yet it was—right up until free enterprise, culture, and technology combined to effect a rescue of sorts for all those devastated folks out there on the wretched edge of Western Civilization.
And what was the first message likely to have leaked through by the miracle of radio transmission? Incline your ears to wisdom and rejuvenation:
“Fred’s shaking is so much better, friends…That old prostate really hurts when it is cold up there in North Dakota.”
Who was it? What was it? That mesmeric, almost Oracular voice trembling with urgency and unction:
“Folks…Friends…And all who are weary and oppressed. This is Dr. J.R. Brinkley speaking to you from my home in Del Rio, Texas, with a message for all humanity…”
The message, more often than not, dwelt on “the derelictions of this robber gland, the male prostate…90 per cent of all males suffer from the enlarged gland which, if cancerous, eats out the bone marrow and leads to an agonizing end.”
Brinkley had hospitals in Del Rio and, later on, San Juan, Texas: “San Juan for your rectal problems! Del Rio for the prostate!” He also provided a straight-from-the-hip pocket accounting of available services: a Business Man’s Treatment, the Average Man’s Treatment, and (as a “humanitarian gesture”) the Poor Folks’ Treatment. The deal offered businessmen was pegged at $1,000 and was a combination of medical and surgical procedures for relieving “loss of pep and coated tongue.” Patients were guaranteed a free urinalysis every six months for the remainder of their lives.
The Doctor’s credentials were not impressive by contemporary standards. Gerald Carson, one of his biographers, pointed out that a mail order diploma mill—the “Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, Mo.”—had certified Brinkley in Kansas, and from that point he operated on reciprocal certification in all of eight states. His principal mode of accreditation came through publicity from something they called “goat gland transplantation,” which was precisely what it implied.
“So far as I know,” he had said, “I was the first man that ever did this operation of taking the goat testicle and putting it in the man’s testicle. The glands of a three weeks’ old male goat are laid upon the non-functioning glands of a man. These goat glands do actually feed, grow into and become absorbed by the human glands, and the man is renewed in his physical and mental vigor.”
He was cautious enough to disclaim any notion that his operation was in any sense a cure-all, but it was indicated for a remarkably wide range of problems—impotency, insanity, arterio-sclerosis, prostate, high blood pressure, skin diseases, prolonging life and rebuilding the body. His patients were even more impressed, citing success in treating conditions such as “sexual apparatus…eye-sight…influenza, youthful indiscretions, melancholia, hernia, dizzy spells” and such esoteric complaints as “husband acted queerly,” or “seemed to be floating through space.”
The ether over most of North America was very shortly turbulent with the babble and burble and atmospheric hiss of much of the Republic’s long suppressed derangements: mental, emotional, musical, or mercantile. There were hustlers and carny pitchmen, hillbillies and nostrum promoters, minstrels and mindreaders and displaced vaudevillians and lunatic whoopers from the First Testament. There were tips on horses, astrological revelations, stock market scams, occult intuitions, even a down-home strategist on the hatching of baby chicks.
But always, inescapably, there was Brinkley. He had in fact been broadcasting four times a day since 1923, four years before creation of the Federal Radio Commission, the first broadcast regulatory agency. He had always owned his own stations, the first of them in Milford, Kan., a tiny village which nonetheless boasted one of the most powerful signals in North America.
Brinkley had been there from the beginning—loud, clear, cantankerous, and ultimately outrageously rich from his hospital in Milford and a radio prescription dodge which exploited studio-to-patient consultations. He prescribed his own patent elixirs “from any druggist selling my remedies.” His earnings on prescriptions alone averaged $14,000 weekly or $728,000 a year—and he managed to keep the whole improbable hustle going for 13 years!
The right to operate a radio station was easily secured in those days of freewheeling enterprisers, and Brinkley’s original vision seemed modest enough, giving little hint of the grandiose reality that would soon materialize. He had already made a name for himself at a time when “rejuvenation fever” swept the country. More than 700 surgeons, charlatans, mentalists, necromancers and religious healers were hustling gland therapies of one sort or another to trembling, under-powered aging Americans. Brinkley had also made $12 million on transplants.
Among the early Brinkley clients was Harry Chandler, owner of The Los Angeles Times. Early in 1922, Brinkley was on the West Coast renovating the libidos of Chandler and his circle of friends. The visit coincided with construction of the Chandler-backed KHJ, first radio station in Los Angeles. Brinkley was intrigued, and said so:
“I thought it would be a nice thing to entertain my patients (back in Milford) by having a radio station