Following the release of a novel, the question I’m most often asked is: How do you decide what to write about? Whenever this happens, I feel a pang of jealousy for those writers who have claimed a certain subject material as their own: Hemingway did fight in the Spanish Civil War, Graham Greene was an intelligence agent, Dick Francis used to be a jockey. The answer must be easy for them: Well, I was there, yeah? But for those such as myself, who write about any damn thing, the question is a harder one. I’ve written novels about wild animal trainers, about Romanian stowaways, about Russian Internet brides; none of these topics have anything to do with my own experience, which involved growing up neither poor nor rich in a predominantly white suburb. There is nothing interesting about that, except maybe in a tormented John Cheever sort of way, and Cheever regrettably got there before me.
All I can say is that I have a long list of things that interest me, and that this list is always floating around in my head. For instance: I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon known as ‘Mexican Radio’, which describes an era in which Americans built massive radio towers just over the border to get around broadcast regulations existing in the United States. These towers were so strong the signal could be heard all the way in Alaska, and it is said that Russians used to learn English listening to Mexican Radio, a claim that might even be true. When a radio signal is that strong, however, you can’t get away from it. It will broadcast through virtually anything metal: fencing wire, toasters, fork tines, weather vanes. Radio signals at that strength also glow, illuminating the night sky a bright kelpy green. (It’s a play of light known as a ‘corona.’ The fact that it has a Spanish name is not a coincidence.) Suffice to say, I’d always thought that a town with a border blaster, as these towers were also known, would be a funny environment in which to play out a three-act storyline: gringo builds a tower, the tower’s signal drives the town folk crazy, the town folk fight back.
Enter the con man. Like most people I know, I operate in an almost constant state of guilt. The fact that I don’t even know what it is I’m guilty of is a relentless frustration; one of my favourite novelistic inventions of all time was the recreational drug in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which exerted no pharmacological effect except to eliminate the modern urbanite’s chronic sense of having done something bad. Confidence men, being narcissists, do not experience guilt of any kind, even when they richly deserve to do so. So they fascinate me. Were it not for their habit of ruining the lives of defenseless seniors, along with their inability to experience the sensation of love, I’d envy them. The moment I decided to write Dr. Brinkley’s Tower was the moment I discovered that the entrepreneurs behind Mexican Radio were ‘doctors’ promoting sham medical treatments. In other words, they were con artists.
The first and most famous to do so was John Romulus Brinkley. While every account I read of his life differed slightly, the basic brush strokes were the same. Brinkley was born dirt poor in the mountains of North Carolina. Despite dreams of becoming a doctor, Brinkley worked as a letter carrier for Western Union in a number of cities before enrolling at the Bennett Medical College in Chicago, Illinois. Married and with children, Brinkley worked two shifts to pay for, and apparently finish, his studies at Bennett.
It was at this point that Brinkley’s life took a turn toward criminality. By the time his studies were over he owed the school so much money that they refused to grant him his diploma. Instead, Brinkley cobbled together what money he did have to send away for a degree from a phony diploma mill called the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University. This, I feel, is the central question regarding John Brinkley: was his career spawned by his own limited means? If he could have afforded the medical degree he actually studied for, might he have settled down and started a sincere, well-regarded medical practice?
I suppose it’s a moot point. Brinkley bounced around the States with his illegitimate degree, his second wife and their child in tow. He was jailed in Tennessee for practicing medicine without a license, and he served briefly in World War I. In 1918, Brinkley opened a clinic in Milford, Kansas, where he began selling a new treatment variously referred to as The Compound Operation and The Goat Gland Operation. To put it simply, he sewed slices of billy goat testicle into the scrotums of men suffering from erectile dysfunction. Brinkley flourished in Milford until 1930, when the state of Kansas and the fledgling American Medical Association began to scrutinize his medical degree just a little too closely.
Brinkley reopened his clinic in the border town of Del Rio, Texas. It was here that he had the second monumental idea of his career. Long a proponent of radio advertising, Brinkley decided to build his own radio station in Del Rio. To broadcast the signal, he then built a powerful tower just over the border in Villa Acuna, Mexico. Without American broadcast regulations to limit him, Brinkley eventually turned the signal up to a million watts, his intention to sing the praises of his glandular treatment across all of North America.
It worked. Men came in droves for both the miracle treatment and the Dr. Brinkley patented post-operative medicines. He became a millionaire in an age when millionaires were rare; the details of his exorbitant wealth in Doctor Brinkley’s Tower are researched and documented. With time, however, the Texan government, having received a slew of complaints, started looking into Brinkley’s practice as well. Brinkley responded by running for governor, and came perilously close to winning. Eventually, Brinkley was pursued by the Internal Revenue Service for non-payment of taxes, and the United States Post Office for mail fraud. Brinkley’s health began to wane during this period. He suffered heart attacks, and was ravaged by gout. Between his trial for tax evasion (he was penalized more than three million dollars) and his upcoming trial for mail fraud, Brinkley died penniless in San Antonio, Texas. The date was May 26, 1942.
Here’s where it gets interesting. During his trial for tax evasion, the directors of many national charities testified that without Brinkley’s donations they were not sure how they would continue to function. During the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, Brinkley had nursed many victims back to health in his Milford clinic; several beneficiaries of this selflessness testified on Brinkley’s behalf as well. Did these good acts mean that Brinkley was not a true con artist? Or was he like Tony Soprano, performing acts of vicious sociopathy one moment, and providing for widows and children the next? I do believe that Brinkely, who had the Compound Operation several times himself, believed in his own science. By the same token, more than a few of patients died following the procedure – a testimony to Brinkley’s surgical abilities. Countless others complained that the benefits were temporary at best, the hallmark of the placebo effect being that it tends to wear off quickly. Despite this, Brinkley continued to offer the Compound Operation, and built XER Radio to ensure that he had no shortage of clients. If he was simply misguided, he was at least guilty of being willfully so. Today, Brinkley’s mansion still exists in the town of Del Rio, Texas, though it is not open to the public. Likewise, the rusted and teetering remains of his radio tower can still be found outside the Mexican village of Villa Acuña. Though I have not been there, I understand there is nothing to indicate that, at one time, it was the most powerful radio transmitter that the world has ever known.