“Where Sick Folks Go to Get Well”: The Interesting Past of the Crescent Hotel

Nestled high in the hills of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, rests the Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks: The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa. She is a Grand Old Lady with her lush lawn, white pillars, and purple accents. It’s natural to speak of the building as though it’s alive because, well, she is. 

Being a midwest gal, I grew up in and around the Ozarks. My favorite thing as a child was hearing my grandmother’s ghost stories, such as the house where she heard what she thought were drums in the basement and heard men talking about the Civil War to the tale of the Spook Light, a place just over the Missouri border in Oklahoma where a strange, spectral light can be observed on just the right night. Oh, how I spent many a summer night in high school visiting the light with fellow classmates.

But most notably, I grew up hearing stories about the haunted hotel in Eureka Springs and the story of “Dr.” Norman Baker, the man who practiced “medicine” and scammed his patients out of their money – and their lives.

To understand the history of the Crescent, one must understand the history of the town itself. Located in Northwest Arkansas, this tiny town boasts all kinds of fun and unusual attractions from their many festivals  to their quirky shops (one in particular employs rabbits to help at the register) to their other haunted hotel, the Basin Park Hotel, with its cave room that was used during Prohibition (which is funny as Carry Nation, with her glorious hatchet, settled down there. You can still visit her house today).

Healing Waters

Once upon a time… A Sioux Princess suffered from an eye affliction which had taken away her sight. The young girl bathed her eyes in the waters of Basin Spring, and within a short time, her eyesight was fully restored. Her people were overjoyed, and they told the story far and wide until it reached the ears of the first white men exploring the region” (Source: Eureka Springs Arkansas: City of Healing).

Though the town was officially founded and named on July 4, 1879, the area was already known to several Native American tribes for the power of its healing waters. Today, there are about 63 springs within the city limits.

The first white settler to discover the springs was Dr. Alvah Jackson, who used the waters to heal his son’s eye condition in 1856. From there, the water was used to help treat Civil War soldiers, then eventually sold for profit. To this day, the bottling company, Ozarka Water, is still in business.

The hotel finished construction in (you guessed it) 1886. The total cost of building her was a whopping $294,000For the first fifteen years, the hotel was host to the rich and famous as well as high-ranking politicians of the day. But unfortunately, she began to fall into disrepair. She was shuttered and reopened again in 1908 as the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women.

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Students of the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women. Source: Evolution of a Hotel, Eureka Springs History.com

Eventually, the Great Depression forced the school to close in 1934 and operated as a hotel only in the summer months. But in 1937, she would be born again as the infamous Baker Hospital.

“Dr.” Norman Baker

Norman G. Baker was born on November 27, 1882, in Muscatine Iowa. After attending a “mind reading show,” he decided to create one himself. The Madame Pearl Tangley traveling show boasted that Baker could read minds and hypnotize audience members. There were several Madame Tangleys – even one that Baker eventually married (though it was brief).

He invented the calliaphone, an organ that used air rather than steam. In addition to his passion for inventions, he was also an entrepreneur. His endeavors included a radio station called KTNT for Know the Naked Truth. During its run he promoted his businesses as well as supporting politicians, such as Herbert Hoover, and attacking his critics. His work in radio led him to the print business (he started The Midwest Free Press and published a Naked Truth Magazine).

Despite never having attended medical school, Baker began to fancy himself a doctor. Not only a doctor but a doctor that could cure cancer. His first foray into the cancer healing business came in the form of the Baker Muscatine Cancer Hospital, which opened in 1929. The word quickly spread about this miracle hospital and drew patients from across the nation. To convince his critics, he held an open to the public demonstration of his cure:

“In May of 1930, Baker drew a crowd of 17,000 people to Weed Park to witness him and his medical team demonstrate how the cure worked. The medical team removed part of Mandus Johnson’s skull, administered the ‘cure’ and claimed he had been healed” (Source: Norman Baker struck snake oil).

The “cure”? It was nothing more than clover, corn silk, watermelon seeds, and water. This “cure” was poured directly on the brain of the patient. Needless to say, his method was quickly criticized by the American Medical Association and resulted in the loss of his radio station. He sued the AMA but lost. Feeling the sting of defeat, he quickly relocated to Mexico.

An Opportunity Presents Itself

In 1937, Baker bought the now run-down (by then) Crescent Hotel. Sitting 2,000 above sea level, as if keeping watch over the town of Eureka Springs, she was about to be reborn again as the new Baker Hospital.

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Advertisement for the Baker Hospital. Source: Evolution of a Hotel, Eureka Springs History.com

Here, Baker promised that cancer patients would not only a cure, but they would be able to take in “the world’s most beautiful health resort.” Not only that, they wouldn’t have to have surgery, but rather a series of injections with his “cure.” The problem was – the cure did nothing to slow the effects of cancer. At best, these were just experiments. He was running the same medical scams that got him ran out of his home state.

Once again, patients from around the country flocked to Eureka Springs not only for the healing waters but the miracle cure offered but nothing more than a snake oil salesman. According to legend, Baker would have patients write three letters before being admitted to the hospital. The letters would praise Norman’s treatments and be sent to relatives of the patients. Once the patients would pass away, and after he took all their money, he would inform the families of their deaths. But where were the bodies?

The number of deaths due to Baker’s quack medicine is not currently known. There have been rumors for years that when the hotel was bought and remodeled in the 70s that human remains were uncovered as well as jars of preserved specimens. I have not found any articles that can confirm this. But it is said that most patients that passed away in his care were incinerated.While some patients endured injections, some were not as fortunate.

Patients with brain tumors were said to have been treated just Mandus Johnson on that day in 1930: they had their skulls opened in the basement operating room where Baker would apply a paste of his treatment. Once the patients were awake, they would be in agonizing pain. These patients were confined to the asylum wing where they would live the rest of their short days, screaming in agony while Baker collected more money, hired more staff, and incinerated more bodies.

The first time I went on the ghost tour at the hotel (yes! more on that in a bit), our tour guide sadly mentioned that the wing in which I was currently had been a pediatric wing.

Busted

Eventually in 1939, after a quiet investigation, Norman Baker was arrested for mail fraud:

“In January of 1940 Norman arrived at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary to serve a 4 year sentence. One investigator wrote ,’Our investigation indicates that Baker and his associates defrauded Cancer sufferers out of approximately $4,000,000. Our investigation further shows that a great majority of the people who were actually suffering with cancer who took the treatment lived but a short while after returning to their homes from the hospital. We believe that the treatment hastened the death of the sufferers in most cases. It appears to us that the sentence of four years which Baker received and the fine of $4000 was an extremely light penalty under the circumstances.’ He was no longer Norman Baker, millionaire business man, and cancer maverick. Now he was simply known as inmate 58197” (Source: Pure Hoax: The Norman Baker Story)

After serving his sentence, he was released in 1944. He relocated to Florida and remained there until his death in 1958.

The cause of death?

Cancer.

They Checked In, But Never Checked Out

Today, the Crescent Hotel is still gorgeous and draws guests worldwide. I have stayed there about five (or six) times. My favorite thing about the hotel (aside from the cats on staff) is their ghost tour. The ghost tour is long and there is quite a lot of walking, but the guides have a passion for telling the story of the Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks.

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Casper, of Casper & Jasper, The Crescent Hotel Cats.

The hauntings don’t just involve the ill-fated patients of the Baker Hospital, but that of its previous incarnations. In season two, episode thirteen of SyFy’s “Ghosthunters,” the team behind the show detected a presence.

The energy surrounding the grounds is unique. I myself have experienced several occurrences there. On my honeymoon in 2015, during the tour, I volunteered to use a monitor in the morgue (the morgue! there’s a morgue! in the basement! what!) that went off several times in one spot. True, if you aren’t a believer in ghosts, then the tour might not be your thing. But it’s the storytelling alone that makes it worth the price.

On a visit with three of my girlfriends in 2009, my pal and I woke up one night to see the shadow of a woman in a high collared dress pass by the window. Could it have been Theodora, one of the more famous ghosts from the Baker era? Or one of the young ladies from its previous past?

The guides give some advice for the guests that brave the spirits for a stay in the still luxurious hotel:

“When you leave, before you walk down the steps, you must say out loud, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t come with me. You have to stay here‘.”

And even to the living, that is undoubtedly tragic.

 

Author’s Note: There are several, several ghost stories about the Crescent Hotel as well as the surrounding town. Though I wanted to recollect all of them, for the sake of the length, I could not. But don’t fret!  You can read more at the links below.

Further Reading & Sources:

1886 Crescent Hotel

Crescent Hotel History

Eureka Springs.com

Evolution of a Hotel

Norman Baker struck snake oil

Pure Hoax: The Norman Baker Story

 

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