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Penny Lane on Nuts!, Her Documentary About 'Goat Gland Doctor' John Brinkley

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According to his biography, the thing that made John Romulus Brinkley famous wasn’t even his idea. In The Life of a Man, Clement Wood writes that in 1917, Brinkley, a doctor running a drug store in Milford, Kansas, was talking to a farmer struggling with impotence when he jokingly referenced goats going at it nearby. “You wouldn’t have any trouble, if you had a pair of those buck glands in you,” he said.

“Well,” replied the farmer, “why don’t you put ‘em in? Why don’t you go ahead and put a pair of goat glands in me? Transplant ‘em, graft ‘em on, the way I’d graft a Pound Sweet on an apple stray.”

Brinkley balked at first, but eventually—after arguing with the farmer about it until 3 a.m.—he was persuaded to perform the surgery, for which he was paid $150. Within the next few months, he performed the operation several more times. Each time, according to The Life of a Man, the surgery worked. Impotence was cured. Babies were being conceived. 

By today's standards, of course, we know that this is pure bunk—Brinkley was clearly a quack. His xenotransplantation surgery could never have worked. But in the early 20th century, this fact was not so clear, and Brinkley’s renown—and his fortune—grew. Soon, the doctor was charging $750 per surgery, performing them by the thousands, and working with celebrity clientele. He was even mocked, on film, by Buster Keaton. Brinkley and his wife, Minnie, and their son, nicknamed Johnny Boy, lived like kings, first in Milford, then in Del Rio, Texas. During the Great Depression, while much of the nation struggled, Brinkley sold other cures at a rate of $100 a treatment, raking in $1 million a year.

As unbelievable as it may sound, a goat testicle–based cure for impotence was just the beginning for Brinkley. He was an early adopter of radio, pioneered the advertorial, and conducted a write-in campaign for the governorship of Kansas. And, of course, he had his fair share of enemies, including the Federal Radio Commission and the American Medical Association. But it was his own hubris, not his enemies, that would eventually bring Brinkley down.

When she first read about Brinkley in Pope Brock’s biography of the doctor, Charlatan, documentary director Penny Lane (Our Nixon) knew she had to turn the doctor’s incredible (and ultimately tragic) story into a movie. “I just immediately was taken by the story,” Lane tells mental_floss. “It seemed ready-made for a film.” Lane’s documentary about Brinkley, Nuts!, premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Once she had decided to make a documentary about Brinkley’s life, Lane dove right into archival research. Using Brock’s sources in Charlatan as a starting point, “I just started flying around the country and going to these small county historical societies,” she says. “I actually found a number of just private individuals who were interested in John Brinkley and had their own personal collections that they’d collected on eBay over the years—photographs, his advertisements, brochures, and home movies.” Trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper articles also served as important sources.

Lane spent two years traveling to collect archival materials. One key piece she found was The Life of a Man. Wood, she says, “was a hack—he would write whatever you paid him to write.” Brinkley paid Wood to write The Life of a Man, then published it at his own publishing house in the 1930s; he gave copies away as promotional items. “The book is so crazy—it’s full of the most insane purple prose you’ve ever read,” Lane says. “It’s just over the top: Comparing Brinkley to Jesus, and Galileo. I was so taken with the tone of it—it just cracked me up.”

The book provided an artistic breakthrough: Lane knew she wanted it to be the center of her documentary. “It’s kind of the inspiration, because the book cloaks itself in a kind of authority,” she says. “It’s a biography, and you’re like, ‘OK, I know what biographies are. They do a bunch of research and they tell the truth.’ But it’s not a biography. It’s full of lies. The writer had no compunction about just making stuff up. I loved that! I was amazed at how you could look at something and think you know what it is, and not realize that you’re just being duped.” Parts of The Life of a Man are used as narration throughout Nuts!.

Other important archival finds included Brinkley’s home movies and transcription discs Brinkley had recorded. “I was lucky,” says Lane, because “it wasn’t common for radio operators to do that at the time.” (The discs were actually pre-recorded radio spots that Brinkley had created to get around Federal Radio Commission laws.) Still, she couldn’t use much of those discs: Brinkley’s recordings “must’ve been considered really seductive and convincing in the 1930s,” she says, “but if you listened to him on the radio now you’d be like, ‘This is not seductive and convincing. This is actually just creepy and weird.’ So I didn’t get to use very much of his radio stuff.”

Her best find was a 1922 film Brinkley had created called Rejuvenation Through Gland Transplantation. “It looks like a science film—it’s got illustrations of the human testicle, and it shows how the procedure works, and photos of some of the people that ended up having this procedure,” Lane says. “Of course it’s not a science film, it’s an ad they made to look like a science film, which is perfect.” The film was discovered, by chance, at the Library of Congress, where it was mislabeled. “No one really knows where it came from,” Lane says. “It really gave me the kind of material that you’d want for a film like this—you want to be able to show the cross section of the testicle and how it works. It was totally a score.”

With her materials assembled, Lane began to piece her documentary together—but because of how she wanted to approach it, she found herself in somewhat unfamiliar territory. “I had this risky idea, at the beginning, that I wanted to create this film in a way where I’m creating the maximum possible chance that a viewer could fall for Brinkley’s bullshit,” she says. “I wanted to be manipulative, and then I wanted to, obviously, unravel that in the film. But I thought, ‘Well, can I do that? Is it really possible to pull that off?’”

She had plenty of archival material to work with, though not as much as she'd had in her previous documentary, Our Nixon (which mental_floss discussed with the director at SXSW in 2013). “With Nixon, I had almost 4000 hours of candid audio tape, and it really made it possible for me to construct actual characters,” she says. “With Brinkley, I had enough stuff to do a film that was chock full of awesome archival material of all kinds, but I didn't have any candid audio, so it was much harder to figure out how to make him a character.”

What she needed, Lane realized, was a script—not something a documentarian normally has to think about. “For Brinkley to be seductive and feel real, I needed to script him and create scenes from his life,” she says. So she brought in writer Thom Stylinski, who helped to craft the narration and penned reenactment scenes that were later animated. “I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence even to do it without him,” she says. “I was like, ‘How do you write a script? I don’t even know.’ It was just really outside the realm of what I had done before.” The animation for each chapter of Brinkley's life was created by a different company and was partially funded on Kickstarter.

It took eight years for Lane to craft Nuts!, which follows Brinkley’s life from his humble beginnings in Milford to the openings of Brinkley hospitals in several states and the creation of “Formula 1020,” which Brinkley claimed was a distillation of goat glands that would cure everything from impotence to insanity. Lane says the most fascinating and outrageous thing about Brinkley was his ability to stay one step ahead of the people who wanted to bring him down. “It was this fun cat and mouse game,” she says. “Watch people try to stop him, and then watch him outsmart them, over and over again. Con men—we just love those characters. Even if you know they’re the bad guy, it’s really fun to watch the one who just keeps winning ... You can’t help it. It’s very appealing.”

The prime example was when authorities shut down Brinkley’s powerful and popular 5000-watt Kansas radio tower. “He was like, ‘Well, no problem. I’m going to go to Mexico, and I’m going to build a new radio station. It’s not going to be 5000 watts, it’s going to be a million watts, and you’re really going to regret ever having shut down my radio station in Kansas,’” Lane says. “I think that was the most amazing move of his entire career. It was brilliant.”

But it all came tumbling down when Brinkley sued the American Medical Association’s Morris Fishbein for libel in 1939. (In “Modern Medical Charlatans,” a two-part article published in Hygeia, a magazine from the American Medical Association, Fishbein had written, among other things, that “In John R. Brinkley, quackery reaches its apotheosis.”) Once Brinkley was in court and on the stand, he was exposed as a fraud—he wasn’t even a real doctor (he had received his degree from a diploma mill).

In short order, Brinkley was sued by former patients for malpractice and investigated by the IRS for tax fraud. By 1941, he had declared bankruptcy. Soon after that, he was investigated for mail fraud. He died of heart failure in 1942, leaving his wife (who supported his claims that the goat gland surgery was legit until she died) and his son penniless.

“It’s a really tragic story—ultimately, a very American tragedy: These complicated characters who are geniuses, who are born with nothing, on the outskirts of society, apply themselves and become very successful and famous, and then go down really badly, in a way because of their own hubris," Lane says. "If he hadn’t sued the AMA for libel, Brinkley probably could’ve just kept going—but he actually dragged himself into court, and that’s what destroyed his credibility and his career.”

Still, despite his misdeeds, it’s hard not to feel bad for Brinkley. “He’s not just the stock villain—I think he’s an interesting, real human being,” Lane says. “But at the end of the day, it’s just irrefutable that he was a con man. A lot of people love him because he did a lot of charity, and that's great. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a con man.”

Nuts! premieres at Sundance tonight. Click here to find out when and where it’s playing at the festival.

All images courtesy of Nuts!.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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