Last week I wrote about the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It’s called the most haunted hotel in America and it’s all because of one man. “Dr” Norman Baker. He bought the derelict old lady during the height of the Great Depression and turned it into The Baker Cancer Hospital. He claimed to have the cure for cancer. He didn’t. People died there. In droves. That’s why there are so many ghosts.
I’m going to steal from an interview I did for another blog last summer called Sweethears of the West. It tells the tale of Dr. Baker. See for yourself:
Dr. Norman Baker – 1882-1958
May he Rest in Peace and May God Have Mercy on his Soul
By Goldie Browning
Throughout history, people have yearned for a quick, painless cure-all for what ails them—and the quacks keep coming to meet those needs. During the 1800’s travelling medicine men were a common sight on the western frontier, selling tonics and elixirs with staggering alcohol content and salves that professed to cure just about everything. Even in this century, magazine ads and television infomercials make astonishing health claims that would infuriate your family doctor if you tried them.
In the early Twentieth Century, however, the modern technology of radio communication was still in its infancy and didn’t become widely accessed by the common people until just before the Great Depression. This was a time of hopelessness and despair. What better time to fleece the masses of what little money they had left? Like the booming, disembodied voice of the mysterious wizard in The Wizard of Oz, the voice over the radio held authority. Dozens of “radio doctors” began to descend on the airwaves.
One of them was a man named Norman Baker. He was born in Muscatine, Iowa in 1882, the youngest of nine. Precocious. Restless. A little man with a huge ego. Leaving school at an early age, he went to work in a button factory as a machinist. He soon invented an automatic button machine, but lacked the financial means to develop it. Disappointed, he changed direction and became a mentalist in a Vaudeville show, travelling the country performing a hypnotism and mind reading act. Finally, he struck it rich when he invented something called a Calliaphone, which is basically a calliope that runs by air, rather than steam.
But Baker wasn’t satisfied with his Calliaphone business. He decided to become a doctor. But he didn’t go to medical school. He simply opened up his own hospital in Muscatine, hiring doctors who held degrees, some of them questionable. He called it the Baker Institute and he claimed to have the cure for cancer. People began lining up to see Dr. Baker. As a side note, one of the “doctors” who worked for him in Iowa was named Harry Hoxsey, who learned his medical skills from his father, a veterinary surgeon. He later moved to Dallas and started his own, very famous cancer cure business, which is still operating from Mexico and on the Internet to this day.
In order to keep the beds full at his hospital, Baker needed a way to advertise. So he built his own radio station. KTNT. Its call letters were a double entendre—a suggestion that his messages packed the punch of dynamite, as well as the acronym for “know the naked truth.” He used this platform to preach his own brand of logic, which usually differed from the mainstream. Like an early Twentieth Century Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Baker feuded with the American Medical Association, calling it the “Medical Trust” and likening it to an octopus that monopolized the way medicine was practiced. He always felt that he was being persecuted.
It may be hard to believe in this day of television, videos, and Internet, but people in the 1920’s and 30’s actually travelled long distances to “see” Norman Baker’s radio performances. On holidays and summer Sundays, crowds that numbered in the thousands would gather to hear Baker’s radio talks and watch his troop of comedians and musicians. He even provided a restaurant, souvenir shop, and a gas station.
But one day he went too far. Before a crowd of 32,000 people who had gathered at KTNT, he performed a demonstration on a man named Mandus Johnson, who supposedly had cancer on the top of his head. The amazed crowd watched as a surgeon removed the top layer of Mr. Johnson’s scalp to show how Dr. Baker had cured the man of cancer, after only three treatments with his concoction of spring water, watermelon seed, and carbolic acid. After this stunt, the authorities shut down his radio station and Baker fled to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico to avoid arrest and to build an even more powerful, unregulated radio station just across the border.
When the authorities managed to shut down his hospital in Iowa, Baker purchased the derelict Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas in about 1936 and moved his patients there. Baker called it his “Castle in the Sky.” He reportedly boasted to his employees that he would “make a million dollars out of the suckers of the state” and in a mass mailing of over three million pamphlets sent nationwide, he advertised that he had a new paradise for cancer sufferers. The Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks, as the once-majestic hotel had been called, was now the Baker Cancer Hospital.
Norman Baker had an affinity for the color lavender. His trademark outfit was a white suit, with a lavender tie and purple suspenders. He even drove a lavender Cord convertible. When he remodeled the Crescent Hotel he put up purple blinds on the windows and painted the walls purple. He decked out the pillars and woodwork in bright red, yellow, and orange. He tore out the lovely old balconies and replaced them with concrete verandas to accommodate hospital beds so patients could “take the air.”
Later on, rumors abounded that Baker would take advantage of patients without families nearby. That he would get them to sign letters in advance to administrators of their estates asking for extra money, when in truth, the patient might already have died. Sometimes, it was rumored, a person might sign over their entire estate to Baker to pay for their treatment. His advertisements “guaranteed” cures without operation, radium, or x-rays, but his treatments consisted of phony concoctions that didn’t actually harm the patient, but did nothing to cure their disease. People were dying in large numbers. But he also catered to hypochondriacs, diagnosing just about anybody who came to him with cancer. Their successful discharges greatly increased his “cure” statistics.
After an aborted raid by authorities on Baker’s radio station in Iowa in which dynamite and gunfire were involved, he became more and more paranoid. He set up his Arkansas office just down the hall from the main lobby, but he erected a bulletproof panel to protect himself. Two machine guns hung within easy reach, and he had trapdoors and a tunnel built in case he needed to make his escape. But his preparations were all in vain.
Within three years, Baker and some of his employees were indicted by the federal court. He was tried and convicted of mail fraud in 1940. Interestingly, his chief counsel, who was named A. George Bush, appealed the conviction on the grounds that the jurors in the case had been drunk. Baker was sentenced to four years in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas and was fined four thousand dollars. He served three of those years and then bought a three-story yacht, where he lived out his days off the coast of Florida. Ironically, he died in 1958 of liver cancer. His former colleague, Harry Hoxsey, mentioned earlier, also died of cancer in 1974.
The Crescent Hotel has been fully renovated and is now a beautiful resort and venue for weddings and parties. But Dr. Baker’s legacy lives on in the nightly ghost tours that relate the legends and ghost sightings, and take you down into the bowels of the old hotel—to Dr. Baker’s morgue. You’ll hear the stories about how he and his doctors purportedly experimented on the bodies of patients who had died and then burned them in the incinerator—about how he locked away the ones who had gone insane in the padded walls of the annex asylum—about how years later, human skeletons were found in the walls and jars of human organs were found in a locked, secret room. None of these stories have been proven…but you can’t help wondering.
That’s how I came to write Night Journey. After taking the ghost tour, after hearing the stories about Dr. Baker and the other ghosts, and after having some uncanny experiences in the room where I stayed—Theodora’s room—I was inspired to write my novel. Reviewers have called it a “good old-fashioned ghost story where the ghosts help the romance in the past so the loving couple can be in the present” and “The Notebook meets The Shining.” Night Journey can be found on Amazon.com, or in the gift shop at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, or even directly from me
If you’re in the area (maybe visiting Branson, Missouri – it’s very close) you really should go stay at the Crescent. It’s the best place I’ve ever been where you’re almost guaranteed to meet up with “someone” from the other side. Next week, another haunted place!