Dr. Brinkley seemed to glow like an April Christmas tree

Posted by | April 13, 2009

Please welcome guest blogger Gary Carden.

Gary CardenCarden’s autobiographical “Mason Jars in the Flood” received the AWA Book of the Year Award in 2001 and his dramatic monologue, “Prince of Dark Corners” (Neal Hutcheson’s film about the outlaw, Lewis Redmond) is currently on PBS. In addition, he has been awarded the N. C. Folklore Award in 2004 and an honorary doctorate by Western Carolina University in 2008.

Sometime around 1940 on a warm spring day, my grandfather took me on a ride in his ailing Dodge up the Tuckaseigee River to Cullowhee.

I was five years old, dressed in short pants, a sailor bib and my aviator cap with goggles – my Sunday best. I remember a mountain string band, dinner on the ground, a field full of parked cars and the raw smell of a freshly constructed oak platform complete with fluttering banners. There was much hustle and bustle, laughter, barking dogs and loud talking until a well-dressed group of men arrived and marched self-consciously to the platform.

I guess they were important folks like perhaps the president of our little teachers’ college, some board members and several local ministers. When the crowd grew suddenly quiet, my grandfather hoisted me onto his shoulders where I sat astride his neck, my chin resting in his curly, black hair and my feet in his coat pockets. “Pay attention,” he said with something akin to reverence. “This is a very important man who was born and raised a few miles up the road.” I tried my best.

The man glittered. Standing on the platform with the sun shining on his white beard, his gold-rimmed spectacles, his rings, watch-fobs, cuff-links and a diamond tie-pin, he seemed to glow, wink and twinkle like an April Christmas tree. And, could he talk!

Dr. John R. BrinkleyDr. John R. Brinkley in 1941.

As he paced back and forth, he shouted, laughed, sang, gestured and whispered. Sometimes, he would halt and point directly at a member of the audience and demand agreement with what he had just said. Then, he would suddenly spread his arms as though trying to embrace the surrounding mountains, proclaiming that this was his home. We hung on every word, struck mute, our mouths agape like the audience at the Ritz Theatre on Saturday when Roy, Dale and the Sons of the Pioneers sang “Blue Shadows on the Trail.”

The glittering man was magical, and his words were wonderful, and I didn’t understand any of it. When he finished speaking, the admiring crowd surrounded him, and people struggled to shake his hand or touch his tailored coat sleeve. My grandfather remained where he was. “I’d like to shake his hand, but I’d best not even try,” he said, like maybe he was unworthy.

On the way home, I asked, “What did that man talk about?”

“He told us how to make a million dollars,” my grandfather said, “It’s a shame you couldn’t understand him. He said he usually thought of at least three ways to get rich before breakfast each morning.”

“What does he do?” I was riding standing up in the car seat, my left hand on my grandfather’s shoulder.

He didn’t say anything for a while, but finally he smiled and said, “Well, for one thing, he can make the dead bough quicken and turn green again.”

And so, I was left thinking that the speaker was a tree doctor.

However, by the time I was in the second grade, I knew who the man was. He was Dr. John R. Brinkley, and my grandfather had been listening to him on the radio for ten years.

The powerful XERA (and other stations that Brinkley owned) boomed through Jackson County and was rumored to make the dishes rattle in the cabinet all the way to the Canadian border.

Dr. Brinkley and his son, Johnny Boy, answered questions from write-in listeners about anything from astronomy to religion. Local mountain musicians, Harry Cagle and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner drove all the way to XERA to play for their mountain neighbor.

The Carter Family at XERA 1939The Carter Family at XERA in 1939.

Between the music and the “educational lectures,” Brinkley sold everything from Kolorbak (“scientifically imparts color and charm to gray hair …”) to a wind-up John, the Baptist doll (It would walk around until it’s head fell off.) Eventually, I would learn just how Brinkley could make the “dead bough turn green again” since the “Doctor’s” goat-gland operation was a favorite topic of conversation in the United States. Indeed, elderly gentlemen who wanted to be “sweetly dangerous among the ladies again,” paid Brinkley in excess of $12 million.

A favorite joke of the time concerned a fellow who sued Brinkley. In court, he was asked, “Are you suing because the operation was
a failure?”

“No,” said the fellow, “I’m suing because I smell so bad.”

At the height of his career, Brinkley’s wealth became legendary. His mansion in Del Rio, Texas had all the gaudy spectacle of a Las Vegas showplace, complete with cascading fountains, peacocks and ornate Italian statuary.

What my grandfather and I did not know on that spring day in Cullowhee in 1940, was that Brinkley was in trouble. Even as he spoke to us, his vast fortune was dwindling due to lawsuits, charges of malpractice, Federal injunctions and Federal Communications charges.

Even though his recent campaign for governor of Kansas had almost succeeded, the yachts, planes, the fleet of Cadillacs, the vast estates, vacation homes and jewelry were being sold or bartered away.

In the end, shortly after suffering a leg amputation and while desperately attempting to save a fraction of his holdings for his family, he collapsed. Brinkley died May 26, 1942, at the age of fifty-six, leaving the lawyers and heirs to sort out the details.

In addition to the debts, Brinkley’s patriotism was suddenly in question by a host of politicians. In those final years before World War II, Brinkley had befriended several unsavory folk, (most of them soliciting contributions from a man noted for his generosity) including William Dudley Pelley, the Asheville founder of the Silver Shirts (pro-Nazi) and the anti-Semitic Father Charles E. Coughlin, who had his own radio show. However, before the
Un-American Activities Committee could issue either a summons or a reprimand, Dr. John R. Brinkley had passed beyond their call.

Even after Brinkley had been judged a charlatan and a fraud by the New York Times; denounced by the AMA and the Federal Trades Commission, my grandfather remained his stalwart defender.

Certainly, I didn’t understand why. I don’t think my grandfather was ever in need of Brinkley’s “rejuvenation” operation (he couldn’t have afforded it, anyway), and never bought any of the lotions, nostrums and panaceas advertised on his radio program, yet his devotion remained undaunted. I finally asked him why. His answer was characteristically direct and simple.

“He amounted to something,” he said.

Gary+Carden Dr.+John+R.+Brinkley medical+quacks appalachia +appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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