The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 7

Welcome to Part 7 of the 20 Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We’ve counted down from number 20 (Buckminster Fuller) to number 1 (Howard Hughes). Now I’d like to present a small list of honorable mentions, 10 people who were either weird but not quite great enough, or great but not quite weird enough. Like the top 20, these weirdos were born in the United States and made most of their fame during the 20th Century. You will notice a few Woot weirdos in this post (designated with an *), which is where I first heard of most of them (thanks, Woot!). Anyway, so here goes:

John R. Brinkley* (1885-1942)

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You can’t cure nothin’ in this world without a pair of good ol’ goat testicles. Or so thought “Dr.” John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley is best remembered a quack doctor who found his fifteen minutes of fame during the 1920s due to his assertion that he could cure impotence and other ailments by transplanting goat testicles into humans. Men, women, didn’t matter. He received his medical degree from a shady diploma mill and was known to operate while inebriated and often in less-than-sterile environments. Brinkley was also a radio advertisement pioneer and constantly promised to enhance one’s, um, sexual prowess on air. This, combined with his natural showmanship, helped attract patients worldwide and earn him a fortune.

Welcome to Part 7 of the 20 Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We’ve counted down from number 20 (Buckminster Fuller) to number 1 (Howard Hughes). Now I’d like to present a small list of honorable mentions, 10 people who were either weird but not quite great enough, or great but not quite weird enough. Like the top 20, these weirdos were born in the United States and made most of their fame during the 20th Century. You will notice a few Woot weirdos in this post (designated with an *), which is where I first heard of most of them (thanks, Woot!). Anyway, so here goes:

John R. Brinkley* (1885-1942)

JohnBrinkley

You can’t cure nothin’ in this world without a pair of good ol’ goat testicles.

Or so thought “Dr.” John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley is best remembered as the quack doctor who found his fifteen minutes of fame during the 1920s by asserting that he could cure impotence and other ailments by transplanting goat testicles into humans. Men, women, didn't matter. He received his medical degree from a shady diploma mill and was known to operate while inebriated and often in less-than-sterile environments. Brinkley was also a radio advertisement pioneer and constantly promised to enhance one's, um, sexual prowess on air. This, combined with his natural showmanship, helped attract patients worldwide and earn him a fortune.

After his medical license was revoked in the early 1930s, Brinkley managed two failed but respectable bids for the Kansas governorship. To help his campaigns he relocated to Del Rio, Texas and opened the first border blaster radio station in Mexico. Along with his indefatigable medical huckstering and campaign speeches, he played country music, enhancing the careers of genre greats such as Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. It is said his signal was so powerful you could hear it in Canada. He also considered running for President, but thankfully a psychic's reading convinced him otherwise.

Things came crashing to a halt in the late 1930s when Brinkley was exposed as a charlatan by the American Medical Association. The malpractice lawsuits flooded in, as well as federal investigations for tax fraud. Brinkley declared bankruptcy in 1941 and died a year later. Weird, and somewhat important if only for his and country music as well as for shepherding the Del Rio economy through the Depression. In the end however being a great charlatan does not a top 20 weirdo make.

Howard Finster (1916-2001)

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Folk artist, outsider artist, naive artist. Howard Finster was best known by the world as one of these. To his congregations, however, he was a passionate fire and brimstone Evangelical preacher who claimed he saw visions. This started at 3 years old when he had a visit from his dead sister. When he was 60, he received another. “Paint sacred art,” it said. Despite having no training whatsoever, that's what Finster did, embarking on an odd and noteworthy career that got him on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and his work on the covers of a Talking Heads album and an R.E.M. album.

He made over 10,000 paintings in his career, most of which focus on religious outreach. Today, Finster originals can fetch thousands on the internet. The weirdness bleeds into his sculpture gardens, which he made out of junk. He built an eight-foot concrete shoe and on it wrote a verse from Ephesians, “And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” Also displayed is a jar with a boy's tonsils. So there's that. Finster was certainly odd and quirky. The visions make him weird, for sure. But he'd have to be Picassoesque to crack the top twenty. Instead, he's Finsteresque. Check out his work here.

Henry Ford (1863-1947)

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Every school child in America knows why Henry Ford is considered a great American. What they don't know, however, is that with just a little more weirdness, Ford would have been considered a great American weirdo as well. Ford's claim to greatness goes beyond obvious and almost into the tautological. Before Ford, automobiles were expensive playthings for the rich. After Ford, well, we're still living the After-Ford era in which geographic separation between people and where they want to be isn't quite the hurdle it once was. Really, with his innovations in the moving assembly-line which produced the first affordable automobile (his Model-T), few in history have had such a profound and positive impact on humanity as Henry Ford.

But was he weird? He was eccentric, certainly. Sure, there was the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford that was available at every Ford Dealership worldwide. Ford famously published many of his anti-Semitic essays in the Dearborn Independent, as well as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There was also his lunatic management style. During an 8-hour day, workers at the Ford Auto Plant received 15 minutes for lunch as their only break. They were also forbidden to talk, sing, whistle, or sit during the day. Ford did pay about double the going rate with his famous $5 a day pledge, but did that give him the right to hire a sociological department to inspect the homes of employees and interview their friends and neighbors? Ford seemed to think so. Toss in his belief in reincarnation, his surrounding himself with thugs in his later years, as well has the pathological undermining of his unfortunate son Edsel, and you begin to wonder about Ford.

Perhaps Ford’s biggest claim to weirdness is Greenfield Village. On one hand it was a perfectly honorable outdoor museum containing transplanted or recreated historic buildings such as Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the Wright Brothers’ workshop. On the other hand, it was a time capsule for Ford’s childhood. He recreated the house he grew up in down to almost perfect detail, including his mother's china. Schools and shops too. It was where he would go to escape. Ford would also hire people to live in Greenfield Village to make it seem like he really was reliving his past. He would even have them act out scenes from his childhood for his amusement. If Henry Ford had been poor, his grand obsessions probably wouldn't have manifested at all, and he would have seemed normal. But since he was rich and could indulge in whatever creative pastime he wanted, normal is not exactly the word one would use to describe the man. Henry Ford is a great example of how eccentricities can creep into weirdness when you have more money than God.

George Ellery Hale (1868-1938)

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A pioneering solar astronomer and professor of astrophysics, Hale was very close to cracking the top twenty. He certainly was great enough. He invented a solar telescope called the spectrohelioscope and with it discovered solar vortices. He was also the first to determine that sunspots were magnetic. Hale had a thing for telescopes, and he liked 'em big. In 1908, he built a sixty-inch telescope, and nine years later constructed one that was 100 inches. Both were the largest in the world at time. He also oversaw the construction of what would be the 200-Inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego. Although he didn’t live to see it completed, it was the world’s most productive research telescope for forty years and was instrumental in expanding our knowledge of the universe. Hale also founded many significant observatories across the country as well as various astronomical organizations and journals.

He was a rare breed of scientist: pathologically energetic, highly imaginative, talented in research, and a genius at raising money. No history of 20th century astronomy can be complete without a chapter dedicated to the prodigious contributions of George Ellery Hale. The weirdness of the man can be seen in how he treated astronomy almost like a religion. Hale referred to himself as a “sun-worshipper”. He referred to the observatory he build in Mount Wilson as “the Monastery” and embellished the place with Egyptian symbols. He and his astronomers would hold rituals there. Of course, women were not allowed. He was often institutionalized later in life due to his chronic nervousness and odd behavior (he'd hear voices and refer to his physicians as “wizards” or “Satanic holinesses”). It is said he also claimed to receive frequent visits from an elf who would advise him on personal matters.

So if he was this great and this weird, why didn’t Hale make the top 20? For one, he knew he had a problem and tried to rectify it. For the most part he voluntarily entered sanitariums. That alone suggests he was more normal than weird. Also the mention of an elf occurs in a single letter, and there is doubt whether he meant it literally or figuratively. Hale's first biographer indicated it was literal, but many later suggest otherwise. So with doubt comes the benefit, and Hale stays out of the pantheon of weirdness.

Carrie Nation* (1846-1911)

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I was really glad to see that Woot included Carrie Nation in their list. If you paid attention in your high school American History courses, you'd probably remember an anecdote or two about a crazy woman on the forefront of the temperance movement who liked to storm into saloons and smash bottles of alcohol with a hatchet. That woman was Carrie Nation.

Of course, this was all religiously inspired. She claimed she was the personal bulldog of Jesus, yapping at whatever He didn’t like. She experienced visions of the Good Lord instructing her to admonish the sinful with her “hatchetations”. Sometimes she’d lead a gang of women into these lecherous lairs. Other times she’d go it alone. Jail never deterred her since she could always afford bail with money she earned from her speaking engagements and from selling mementos of herself. At nearly six feet tall, she was one fearsome woman. It is said that former heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan would run and hide whenever Carrie Nation crashed into one of his watering holes.

It’s true that she spent most of her life in the 19th century, but Carrie Nation didn’t really get going as a one woman prohibition crusade until early in the 20th. That’s pretty much when weirdness got serious. Suspecting that President William McKinley was a closet alcoholic, she publicly approved of his assassination in 1901. Yes, she was that weird. And with the historical importance of being forever associated with the Temperance and Prohibitionist movements, you’d think she’d make the top twenty, yes? Well, the 18th Amendment which enforced prohibition in 1920 was repealed in 1933, so her historical impact is more a history for history’s sake kind of thing rather than something we can still feel today. Plus, I didn’t think it was right to put someone in the top twenty simply because she liked destroying things and barking at sin, even if she defended it with a fearsome mean streak and visions of a vengeful God. This, in my opinion, isn’t enough to warrant a place in the rarefied air of the top twenty weirdos.

Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)

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Yes, the “gonzo” journalist. Sports writer. Firearms enthusiast. Pyromaniac. Political hack (you-to-pieces) reporter. The “least factual and most accurate” writer on the campaign trail. All around party animal. Friend and foe alike refer to this man both as an asshole and a weirdo. The first part might be right, but the second might be taking things a bit too far. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a meandering tale of drug abuse and (some would say astute, others puerile) ruminations on the decline of American culture first saw print in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1972. Those who were mourning the end of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s had found a new hero in Thompson. Basically, Thompson couldn't stop acting irresponsibly in entertaining ways. He also couldn't stop beating the snot out of his dead hobby horse Richard Nixon. This, and a brutally cruel yet effective sense of humor turned him into an icon for cynical hipsters the world over.

But was he weird? Well, that depends on whom you ask. He liked to blow things up on his Colorado compound. The local sheriff's office can attest to that. So can actor Johnny Depp who once stayed with Thompson and learned that his impromptu bedside table was in fact a crate of dynamite. Thompson invented the game of shotgun golf and liked to autograph his novels with bullet holes. He was always drinking, smoking, or doing something. He also loved a good practical prank. He was famous for spitting fire at parties. To celebrate Jack Nicholson's birthday, Thompson showed up at Nicholson's door firing a gun in the air while playing a cassette recording of a pig being eaten alive by bears. Also involved were a million-watt spotlight and a frozen elk's heart. So, yes, a case can be made for Thompson's weirdness.

On the other hand, this behavior can be described simply as that of a man who loved his vices, refused to grow up, and had a pathological disdain for anything conservative unrelated to the Second Amendment. Perhaps he was simply trying to live up to that gonzo reputation he constructed for himself. Perhaps he reveled in all the attention. Hunter S. Thompson was definitely excessive to the point of leaving normal in the dust. But much of his antics appear rather boilerplate compared to the more genuine weirdos in the top twenty.

Rube Waddell* (1876-1914)

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Rube Waddell was a strange, childlike, oaf of a man who just happened to be one of the greatest Major League Baseball pitchers who ever lived. He led the American League in strikeouts from 1902 to 1907. In 1904, he struck out 349 batters, still a record for American League lefthanders. He currently ranks 10th on the Major League Baseball all-time Earned Run Average (ERA) list (2.16). He is also 19th in shutouts (50). Waddell’s fastball was crushing, but his curve was something else entirely. Legendary baseball manager Connie Mack once said that Waddell had “the fastest, deepest curve” he’d ever seen. Waddell was so confident in his abilities he would invite his outfielders to sit down and watch him strike out the side.

Such was Waddell’s weirdness, however, that teammates and management were always glad whenever he was traded away. He would often fight with teammates. He'd show up minutes before a game and remove his street clothes while still on the field. He never did wear underwear. He poured ice water on his arm before pitching out of fear of burning the catcher's glove. During games, his mind tended to wander. It is said he could be distracted if his opponents held up puppies or shiny toys. He also loved fire engines and had to be restrained by his teammates from leaving a game every time one drove by the field. Off the field, he was just as weird. Of course, he drank too much. He claimed to have lost track of how many women he'd married. In the off-season he would wrestle alligators. Commentators today speculate that Rube Waddell suffered from everything from autism to ADHD to mental retardation. Regardless, no one was quite sure what he would do next. Eventually coaches and players had had enough. He was kicked out of the majors in 1910.

Rube Waddell is a celebrated baseball pitcher, and his prowess on the mound could match anyone's. This makes him as great as he was weird. So why did he miss out on the top-twenty glory? The complicated answer is that it would be counter-intuitive and anti-thematic to include one such as Waddell who placed minimal importance in advancing mankind in its inexorable quest for truth or beauty. Simple answer: he was too dumb.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

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Andy Warhol was one of those artists who inched past being merely eccentric. So he wasn't quite as weird as one would think, given his controversial output and lifestyle. On the other hand, he's Andy Warhol, so he deserves a honorable mention. Along with Grandma Moses, Jackson Pollack, Norman Rockwell, and Georgia O'Keefe, Warhol belongs on that Mount Rushmore of great 20th Century American painters. His work upended the art world at the time of his arrival in the mid-1950s with their preoccupation on material things, on celebrity, and on sex. There is a kind of mass-market cheapness to his work. At the same time, however, Warhol belied a unique ambition, painting objects and people in ways no one had ever thought of before, ways that really should be beneath the attention of a serious artist. Except not anymore, thanks to Andy Warhol. No one person personifies pop art better than Andy Warhol.

Today, his works are nearly priceless. All this and the Velvet Underground make Warhol one of the greats. But was he weird? Well, he was an openly and obsessively stylish gay man who was also a practicing Orthodox Catholic. Certainly less weird now than in the 1950s when it caused a big splash. He claimed he was a virgin, but for some reason had to be treated for STD's. He also made weird movies, such as the appropriately named Sleep, which was 321 minutes of nothing but a man sleeping. Academy Awards were not exactly forthcoming.

Warhol’s biggest claim to weirdness, however, was his compulsive hoarding. Warhol kept a box next to his desk where he would place all sorts of objects. He would seal and date the boxes at the end of each month. The contents of these boxes include all sorts of strange items including a mummified foot and Caroline Kennedy’s birthday cake. There are 610 of them in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Warhol also kept a massive collection of objects such as biscuit jars, taxidermy items, perfume bottles, cowboy boots, dental molds, white wigs, and God knows what else. Yes, he loved to wear white wigs. It is said that at the time of his death, only two rooms of his five-story Manhattan home were habitable. What surprised me the most about Andy Warhol's personal biography however was how dull it was it. He really wasn't terribly weird. He just had enough money to feed his eccentricities and to appear weird to many. By the 1980s he was making his paintings to sell for big bucks like any good American. That there was anything but weird.

Ed Wood* (1924-1978)

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Ehhhhhh. Ed Wood was a talentless hack of a filmmaker who is barely noteworthy enough to make it as an honorable mention. The only reason why he is remembered today is because of Tim Burton's excellent 1994 biopic of Wood. Yes, Wood was weird. He was a heterosexual cross dresser who had a fetish for angora fabric. While fighting the Japanese during World War 2, he'd wear a bra and panties under his uniform. Performing for the circus he would act as the bearded lady, pumping his nipples full of air to affect breasts. Whenever you saw him out on the town in full drag, it wasn’t him. It was his alter ego Shirley. But one cannot attain glory on weirdness alone.

In his day, Wood was pretty much ignored and then forgotten. He had no talent, you see, and he was not great. I'm sorry, but Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, his two best known films, are amateurish and dull. And no amount of posthumous kitsch-cult revisionist fandom is going to change that. Still, he was ahead of his time with the subject matter of Glen or Glenda. The docudrama was essentially a plea for sexual tolerance, inept as it was. It took an intrepid spirit to make such a film in 1953. So there's that. Ed Wood's legacy lives on as well in the Church of Ed Wood, a legally recognized religion with over 3,000 baptized adherents who claim Ed Wood as their savior. The religion started as a joke, but now, who knows? They claim to be serious, although somehow I doubt it. It is this recognition along with his cult status that squeezes Ed Wood into the honorable mentions of the Twenty Greatest Weirdos of the 20th Century.

Father Yod* (1922-1975)

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James Edward Baker. Interesting guy. Really interesting life. A decorated marine during World War II. A stunt double in Hollywood. A jujitsu expert. After taking out two guys in self-defense it is said that Baker had his hands registered as deadly weapons. By the 1960s, however, he got seriously into the mystic. He became a Vedantic monk and later a follower of Sikh yoga practitioner Yogi Bhajan. By the late 1960s, Baker changed his name to Father Yod and founded a religious commune in Hollywood Hills, California known as the Source Family. He also opened one of the world's first vegetarian organic restaurants on the Sunset Strip, which he used to finance his sex farm, er, religious activities with the scores of nubile young beauties who just happened to wander into his groovy world. You see, the aforementioned Mister Yod began to suspect that the Y in his name really should a be a G. And if God wants to marry 13 of these nubile young beauties, who’s going to stop Him? In fact, Father Yod believed he was the father of the impending Age of Aquarius. Perhaps that's what got him cracking on populating New Age one baby at a time (it's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it).

They say throughout the 1970s his commune was teeming with women who were either pregnant or nursing. It was a three bedroom house, yet over a hundred lived there. Sleeping arrangements resembled beehives. Father Yod led his acolytes in rituals which involved mediation, sex magic, and, of course, worshipping Father Yod. It will come as a shock to some that this involved copious amounts of marijuana. Remember how Man gave names to all the animals? Well Yod gave names to all of his followers. First names included such far out examples as Isis, Sunflower, Orbit, and Prism. The last name was always Aquarian. Middle names were brief and to the point. They never ventured beyond “The.” Except for Father Yod’s. In the early 1970s, he rechristened himself YaHoWa. He also started a psychedelic rock band called YaHoWa 13. Yeah, I don’t know where he came up with the number thirteen either.

Anyway, they recorded 65 LPs, released 9, and Allmusic.com deems all but one to be mediocre. So here’s a guy who maybe wasn’t weird or great enough to crack the top twenty but had enough chops in both categories not be ignored. Father Yod deserves credit for starting the organic food craze which is still going strong. Further, his cult, if you can call it that, preached not just peace and love, but healthy living, kindness to animals, and an undeniably positive spiritualism. We take it for granted that many Californians are like that now. They weren’t before Father Yod.

Next up, Part 8: the weirdos that weren’t. All the people I considered and rejected for weirdo glory.