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In our ongoing Sense of Place series, we bring you stories of years gone by here in the Ozarks. In the spirit of Halloween, KSMU’s Emma Wilson visited a historical hotel with a history of haunts.
It’s a clear night in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. A crescent moon hangs perfectly over America’s most haunted hotel. The Crescent Hotel has been around for almost 125 years and has a long history of hauntings. I’m here to go on the “Ghost Tour” which is given almost every evening.
“There’ve been ghost stories ever since Michael fell in 1885 or 1884. So I’m taking a wild guess that there have been haunts here since the first brick went down.”
That was Jack Moyer, the vice president of operations and development at the Crescent Hotel. He is referring to the hotel’s most famous ghost, Michael, an Irish stone mason who fell to his death during the construction of the hotel in the 1880s. The stone masons were hired by the Eureka Springs Improvement Company, a company founded by the governor of Arkansas at the time. That company was also responsible for bringing the Frisco railroad to the area.
“And to do that they had to have some sort of place of preeminence to invite people to. The former governor, named Powell Clayton, decided to build the Crescent Hotel, aptly named, as we are sitting on top of a crescent-shaped mountain.” Moyer says.
For a while it was just a hotel in the summer and a conservatory for girls during the rest of the year. But for nearly all of its history, the Crescent has operated as a hotel in some capacity. The only exception is perhaps the creepiest bit of the building’s history and the reason there’s an old morgue in the hotel’s basement. Keith Scales led the “Ghost Tour” of the Crescent on a recent evening. He told the story of Norman Baker, a con-man who bought the hotel in the thirties.
Scales says, “His claim was that he was a doctor who had discovered a cure for cancer and if you could afford it he could cure you--it was infallible. Fact was, he had never set foot in medical school in his life and he never cured anyone of cancer and the likelihood is that he killed a lot of people while he was here with this phony cure that he claimed he had.”
In the few years he occupied the hotel, Baker made a fortune by taking advantage of dying, desperate people. He was the consummate showman and was able to maintain the appearance of a working hospital to the relatives of his “patients” as well as to the community, Scales says.
“[You know] those verandas upstairs? What he would do when the hospital was here, he would hire people to sit out there in the afternoons--play cards and dominos and canasta and drink cocktails--so that people passing by down below would look up and say ‘Look at all those healthy people in the hospital, that must be a great place to go.’ In fact that was sheer theater, and what was going on inside was a very, very different story.”
The so-called “cure” he was selling consisted of clover, watermelon seeds, water from the springs, corn silk, carbolic acid and a large helping of opiates, which had the effect of making most patients feel nothing at all. Dr. Baker also experimented extensively with organ transplant during a time when hardly anything was known about it. He would send letters in the names of his patients, sometimes even if they were deceased, asking for money from their relatives and fabricating evidence that his “miracle cure” worked.
“If a person had a cancerous arm he took it off, replaced it with a cadaver’s arm, took a photograph, sent it to the relatives and said ‘I just cured this person of cancer’”, Scales says.
The FBI caught up with Baker in 1940 and arrested him for mail fraud, which ended his practice. After several years of vacancy, the Crescent Hotel was purchased and turned back into a resort. It’s changed hands several times since then with many of the owners downplaying the stories of ghosts in the hotel. Since it was bought by the current owners, the Roenigks, the hotel has embraced its “haunted” image by offering ghost tours and has labeled itself “America’s most haunted hotel.” This image was solidified when the Syfy Channel show “Ghost Hunters” did a feature on the Crescent Hotel, during which they captured a full-body apparition on a heat sensing camera.
[Sound of creaking steps]
On the Ghost Tour, we walk down a flight of stairs to the basement where we pass the spa and make our way down a long, cinderblock hallway.
[Sound of keys jingling, guide muttering under his breath, door opening]
“And this is the morgue” Scales says, opening the door.
The morgue is where the “Ghost Hunters” producers said they captured the full image of a man in a military-style hat. The walls are partially covered with corrugated metal; Dr. Baker’s autopsy table is still in the morgue and an attached refrigerated room was used to store bodies. Scales says that there are varying numbers of how many patients died during Norman Baker’s time at the Crescent but there are at least 300 patients that they know checked in to the hospital but were unaccounted for after that.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.