The Drunk Nazi Surgeon Who Made Country Music Super Popular
John Romulus Brinkley was the GOAT of quacks, specifically when it came to testicles. He had few redeeming qualities, but the world is a somewhat better place because he grafted a goat's nuts onto a farmer's nuts. Allow us to explain.
Brinkley started out as a run-of-the-mill "doctor" (a term used much more loosely 100 years ago) with a traveling medicine show. But by 1913, he recognized the lucrative opportunities presented by men's preoccupations with their dicks. He wasn't the first and he certainly won't be the last, but living in the early 1900s came with the key advantage of nobody knowing precisely how anything worked, allowing him to charge $25 a shot to inject dye into people's asses to cure their impotence.
He was clearly making things up as he went along, and nowhere is that more evident than his greatest success. Brinkley got his big break when a Kansas farmer named Bill Stittsworth walked into his pharmacy complaining about the ol' droopy horn, wishing to be as "randy as a billy goat." Brinkley, in a display of improv that would impress Drew Carey, said it was funny he should use those exact words, because shoving goat testicles into his ball sack would clear that right up.
Brinkley somehow convinced Stittsworth to let him perform the operation, and even more amazingly, it ... worked? Two weeks later, Stittsworth's wife was pregnant. The kid was named "Billy," after his father. And possibly his surrogate father? He kind of hedged his bets there.
The operation captivated the nation. For $500 (or more -- he was a businessman, after all), patients could pick a goat they liked and let the snipping begin. Of course, sewing goat testicles into a man's scrotum has no real medical benefit. They just sat there while the placebo effect did the heavy lifting. Still, Stittsworth's story and Brinkley's pitch were so convincing that nearly 16,000 people got goats in their scrotes. His clients allegedly included celebrities like Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, Rudolph Valentino, and Woodrow Wilson. That's right, it's entirely possible that we had a part-goat president for a minute.
Brinkley charged a lot. After all, he didn't have a lot of repeat customers, can't exactly pull a Michael Scott here. He called anybody who went under his knife an "old fool," but many didn't get the chance to be old. Dozens died from gangrene, obviously, because it doesn't take a doctor to figure out that putting rotting animal innards in your body is a bad idea. And Brinkley was no doctor. He bought a fake degree from a scam school that nevertheless convinced the Kansas state government, which gave him his own radio show for good measure. On "Medicine Question Box," Brinkley gave terrible medical advice to hundreds of listeners, who took any pill he recommended, which often poisoned them. Killing your customers is rarely a good business model.
He also approached killing in a more deliberate manner -- he once took an axe to a neighbor's tire, shot at a patient, and allegedly bit a colleague's ear off. He wanted to open a city zoo, but the bear he bought was too loud for his liking, so he shot the bear. It seems redundant at this point to mention that he was a big fan of booze, but it also feels relevant. He was even known to chase his patients around the hospital with a butcher knife. Those aren't even used in hospitals. That level of cross-career madness takes dedication.
Between the deaths and drunken hijinks, Kansas finally had enough. In the span of a month in 1930, Brinkley lost both his broadcasting and medical licenses. Far from being chastened, he simply moved to Mexico and built his own (different) radio station, one powerful enough to kill people all over North America. It wasn't easy (or cheap) to broadcast a national radio show back then. Brinkley's million-watt signal, which was called XERA and cost him $200,000 in 1930s money, would have actually been illegal in the U.S. Nearby Texans claimed they could pick up the signal in their bed springs and barbed-wire fences.
Brinkley used this unprecedented power to continue promoting quack surgeries, but he also added a stable of hacky novelties. He hawked religious tchotchkes that included a Last Supper tablecloth, a John the Baptist doll that you could wind up until its head popped off, and autographed pictures of Jesus, who (and we'd have to double-check the Bible here) didn't really do autograph sessions.
Between infomercials for electric bow ties, Brinkley thought the show was a perfect opportunity to talk about how much he loved Hitler. Prominent leaders in the American far right, like Reverend Gerald B. Winrod and Father Coughlin, as well as more violent radicals like Silver Shirts founder William D. Pelley, were invited to join the conversation. XERA even brought on Fritz Kuhn, "The American Fuhrer" -- a nickname he didn't earn with his knack at painting. Brinkley was so down with fascism that he covered his pool in Nazi-themed tiles. (Repugnant, but more practical than a swastika-shaped diving board.)
As colorful as this content was, he needed to play something in between long-winded speeches for fascism. And like almost every other action he took, Brinkley put just about no effort into it. Apparently at random, he chose country music to fill the airtime. And that thoughtless decision changed the world.
For years, country was a regional genre, played mostly in Appalachia. When XERA's juiced-up waves carried it across America, it was the first time many Americans had ever heard such a thing. Dozens of country acts were either hired or popularized by XERA and its imitators, ushering in what is now known as the "Big Bang of country music." The Carter Family, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Red Foley, Eddie Arnold, Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Frod, and Sons of the Pioneers all got major breaks on these stations.
Directly inspired by Foley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley imbued early rock and roll with a country twang. Johnny Cash first heard June Carter sing on her family's program on XERA, three decades before he would marry her. Waylon Jennings' dad hooked up his truck to the house radio to catch XERA. Too busy worrying her babies would grow up to be cowboys, his mama failed to warn about goat men.
XERA was not long for this world. In 1941, Mexican president Manuel Avila Camacho seized control of the station, because public opinion had really turned on the whole Nazi situation. Brinkley did not live much longer himself. Following a libel trial, he was exposed as a fraud, and in the closest thing to karma this story has, his leg was amputated following a gangrene infection. His empire crumbled and he died penniless in 1942. Mere years later, country music exploded and subsequently entered a Golden Age in the '50s and '60s.
And from beyond Brinkley's grave, XERA would change music history one more time. The supercharged station gave disc jockey "Wolfman Jack" a platform to promote rock 'n' roll to a nationwide audience, just like Brinkley had done before. And so the legacy of animal hybrid DJs lived on.
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