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The Great Testicle Thieves of 1920s Chicago

In the early 1920s, young men in the Windy City reported being attacked and drugged before waking up without their testicles. The crime wave was reportedly spurred on by a ‘testicle rejuvenation’ medical trend among wealthy men who believed acquiring younger men’s balls could ward off signs of aging

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

One hundred years ago, in Sing Sing prison, surgeons removed the testicles of an incarcerated man who’d been executed in the electric chair. The harvested testicles were then transplanted into the scrotum of another prisoner. When news of this bizarre testicle transplant surgery found its way into newspaper headlines, the prison warden had to answer for the dark surgical arts performed under his watch. 

According to the February 5, 1922 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Warden Lewis E. Lawes said the removal and preservation of the glands had not been reported to him, but he made plain that such a report would not have been necessary, as Sing Sing surgeons operated on their own authority and without reference to him, except in the case of minors.” 

But why would such an operation be necessary? It likely had a lot to do with “testicle rejuvenation therapy,” a medical trend of the early 1900s that led to a testicle-crazed media mania and may have inspired numerous attacks on the balls of young men in Chicago.

News of the first testicle theft in Chicago broke in October 1922. In two-inch bold print, the headlines screamed a warning to young men: There are thieves after your balls

The victim was a 34-year-old former beet farm laborer named Joseph Wozniak who had recently moved to Chicago. He told police he had no memory of the incident. “When I came to, my mind was befuddled,” Wozniak said. “I did not know I had been operated on. I thought I had a hangover. I had the taste of ether or chloroform in my mouth. I felt intense pain, and when I got home, I called Dr. Sampelinski.”

In an article in the Salina Daily Union, Wozniak’s doctor recounted his shocking story: “Wozniak told Dr. A. Sampolinski, who reported the case to the police, he was walking along a street when an automobile drew up, four men leaped out, threw a bag over his head and dragged him into the machine. He was chloroformed, he said, and when he regained consciousness, he found himself on a sidewalk under a viaduct. The operation had been performed –– with expert skill. It was believed by the police that some wealthy and perhaps aged man benefited by the criminal action.”

A day after the first headlines shocked the nation, newspapers were ready to offer premature explanations for the crime, and even suggested a larger epidemic of ball snatching. Meanwhile, the Sunday papers gave the thieves a new name: the “Gland Pirates.” 

The Chicago medical community was outraged that one of their own would perform such a morally and ethically compromised surgery. Local doctors swore they’d find the man who was surgically snatching cojones from the good people of Chicago. As the Buffalo Morning Express reported, “The medical profession of the entire city has united to hunt out the surgeon who operated on Wozniak, and will drive him from the city if found.”

Then another victim came forward. His name was Henry Johnson, an electrician who lived with his sister in Chicago. Like Wozniak, he also was in his early 30s, and he also had no memory of undergoing ball-removal surgery. The last thing he could recall was being on a streetcar. Passersby later discovered Johnson unconscious in a doorway of a building. He was so deeply drugged that no one could wake him. When he came to in a hospital bed, doctors informed him that he’d been castrated. Due to the skill required to remove someone’s testicles without severing the testicular artery, the surgeons who operated on him in the hospital believed they were finishing the work of another surgeon

Johnson’s assault took place four months before the news of Wozniak’s family-jewels heist hit newspapers. But it was only after Wozniak told police what happened to him that Johnson came forward — he’d been too embarrassed and traumatized to report the attack initially. Then a third, unnamed victim contacted the cops about the theft of his balls. Unlike Johnson and Wozniak, this man steadfastly refused to let his name be known. 

Since the news of the Gland Pirates was being syndicated in newspapers nationwide, the rest of the country was reacting at the same time as those in the Windy City. On October 27th, an editorial in the Texahoma Times asked what should be done about such testicular atrocities: “Where there are senile and dottering old fossils of wealth who crave to become young bucks again, there will always be found unscrupulous surgeons and gland pirates willing to serve them for a share of that wealth. The manhood of our young men must be protected at all hazards and at all costs.”

A few days later, over in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the newspapermen of the Independent warned its readers of the attacks in Chicago and described the Gland Pirates as “about the worst addition to the category of modern criminals.” After confirming that there were no such criminals in Elizabeth City, they noted that the thieves “could do a good turn for this community if they only plucked the glands of those who need such a plucking; we have some rejects here who would be better off sans glands.” 

Back in Chicago, police tasked with stopping the fast-spreading ball-snatching crime wave appeared to be following two theories. According to reporting from the Beckham County Democrat of Oklahoma, investigators were of the mind that “the operations had been performed through revenge,” or as others had speculated, “the life-giving glands had been taken by some physician to rejuvenate the waning vitality of some aged, wealthy man.”

Revenge was easy enough to understand. But how and why would the balls of a young man help rejuvenate the body of a rich old man? For that, the police turned to modern medicine for answers — particularly the work of Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard.

Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894) (Wikimedia Commons)
Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894) (Wikimedia Commons)

Brown-Séquard was a French physiologist who believed semen was the key to eternal youth — essentially, the bigger the load in a man’s body, the younger he felt. From there, Brown-Séquard jumped to the logical conclusion that doctors could add sperm to a man’s body to reverse the aging process. Which is more or less when he began injecting himself with semen — specifically, an admixture of semen, blood and “juice extracted from the testicles of dogs and guinea pigs.” The 72-year-old mainlined that mix and told anyone who would listen that he felt like a whole new man. 

He published his results in the British medical journal Lancet, which led other imitators and quacks to shoot themselves up with semen and ball juice, too. Like Serge Voronoff, a Russian doctor and lab director at College de France, who used his position to further the research of testicle-based rejuvenation for the purposes of generating a fountain-of-youth-like formula. But instead of dog and guinea pig balls, he opted for chimpanzee nuts

Human nuts came next. In 1914, physician Frank Lydston cut open the sack of a dead man and plopped the balls of the deceased in with his own. Then there was John Brinkley, a discount physician with a purchased medical degree who would soon become known as “the goat-gland doctor” for his insistence on the billy goat being the ideal source for testicle implants. 

Chicago, too, had a prominent physician, V.D. Lespinasse, who performed testicle rejuvenation therapy. There was one strange coincidence, though: Sometimes, in the days just before Lespinasse performed one of his testicle procedures, police would get word of a young man who was attacked and then woke up without his balls. 

To that end, on November 23, 1923, the L.A. Times reported on yet another “New Chicago Gland Theft.” Per the story, 28-year-old student John Powell was in a local hospital “after a mysterious attack in which he is said to have been mutilated by gland bandits.” He was the second victim to be castrated in less than two days’ time. And just as before, there were signs of a surgeon’s hand at play.

The other victim was a young man named Charles Ream who was snatched off the street by “two men in a large touring car, chloroformed and taken to a deserted prairie near 92nd Street, where the operation was performed.” The Chicago Police questioned Lespinasse’s latest patient, Henry Baurichter, a candy baron from St. Louis. The details of that conversation were made public by the St. Louis Star: 

“Henry Baurichter, 48 years old, president of the Park Avenue Confectionary Company of St. Louis, was questioned yesterday by Police Lieutenant Michael Grady in the gland theft from Charles Ream, a Chicago University student. Baurichter underwent an operation for rejuvenation Thursday, the day after Ream was attacked, chloroformed and mutilated. However, the police said today they were satisfied he had nothing to do with Ream’s case. Baurichter, twice married and divorced four years ago, had been under the care of a St. Louis physician who advised him to come to Chicago for a gland operation.” 

Basically, Baurichter pleaded ignorance, stating, “Where the gland to be transfused was to come from, I do not know.” (The price for the operation, according to Baurichter, was $400, or about $6,636 in today’s dollars.)

In his own defense, Lespinasse told detectives that their suspicions were misplaced. In fact, not only had he not arranged for the unfortunate attack of two young men just days before he performed a testicle rejuvenation surgery, but he insisted he had no need to — men were lining up to sell their testicles to him voluntarily. “It’s foolish for the police to entertain suspicion that a reputable surgeon would resort to theft in order to obtain glands for transplantations,” Lespinasse said. “Four or five men a day present themselves at the doors of this hospital willing to sell their glands for really small amounts of money –– sometimes $4 or $5.”

Police were satisfied, and neither doctor nor patient faced any charges.

The next year, Ream still sought justice for his stolen balls. On June 3, 1924, the L.A. Times reported that he had become a side player in the “Crime of the Century,” in which two wealthy students at the University of Chicago, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, had kidnapped and murdered a young boy. Realm told the media that he believed the two were also responsible for his assault.

As the L.A. Times recounted: “Charles Ream, 22 years of age, of 5217 Dorchester Avenue, a taxicab driver, positively identified Loeb as one of the two men who last fall kidnapped him at 54th Street and Dorchester Avenue, forced him into their automobile and drove him to a prairie at 109th Street and Avenue G, where they performed a gland operation on him. He said that the other kidnapper looked like pictures of Leopold.” 

Later, in court, Ream shouted, “That’s him.” He went on to explain, “He is the right size, wore the same cut of clothes and he has the same eyes.” 

But the court didn’t agree. Though Leopold and Loeb were both tried and convicted for the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, they never faced any charges relating to the Gland Pirate attacks. And as the headlines of the day shifted to other murders and scandals of the Progressive Era, the Great Testicle Thieves of Chicago were soon forgotten. No one was ever apprehended either, the cases remaining unsolved to this day.

The testicular rejuvenation mania within the medical community also eventually fell by the wayside. Over time, it became clear that shoving some extra nuts in a ballsack does absolutely nothing to aid one’s health. It doesn’t matter if those testicles are from a guinea pig, a goat or even another man.