That night, an electrical storm comes crashing through the Ozarks.
The hallways of the Crescent Hotel flash and glow with all the drama of the first scene in a horror movie.
It’s a full moon.
I’m huddled with 2 dozen aspiring ghost hunters in the basement next to “the Morgue.”
Around me, cell phones blip and squeak with the sound of tornado warnings.
I vow to resist beginning my article with “It was a dark and stormy night.”
My drive into Eureka Springs, Arkansas might prelude any dark fairytale.
It’s winter. Barren trees claw at the sky like the arthritic, outstretched fingers of a wicked witch.
Nestled in the serrated bluffs of the Ozarks, the Crescent Hotel looms beneath a canopy of theatrical clouds.
A plague of vultures flies over the haunted mansion. The shadowy birds settle in the oaks to cackle among themselves.
I’ve never been to Arkansas. I don’t trust my eyes. “Excuse me, are you local?”
“What are those birds?”
“You mean vultures?”
She looks amused. “We call them buzzards. Something must have died.”
“Doctor” Norman Baker: Separating Myth from History
Well, yes. Something definitely did die at the Crescent Hotel.
At least 44 people died at the Crescent Hotel during its era as a “health retreat” according to death records.
In February of last year, while digging around the property, the groundskeeper discovered over 500 apothecary jars of buried out back.
CSI and HAZMAT crews were called in to clear the scene, and the University of Arkansas took the jars for testing.
As of this writing, the results are still pending.
But the popular theory is that the jars may contain human remains.
A few specimens remain on site behind glass.
Guests of the hotel cock their heads curiously at the strange bottles, which contain mysterious liquids in bright shades of toxic-green and devilish red.
No one seems especially surprised by the discovery.
Local historians believe the jars were the work of the notorious medical charlatan, Norman Baker.
Baker preyed on terminal cancer patients by promising to cure them with his infamous “Formula #5”—a combination of corn silk, watermelon seeds, clover, water and carbolic acid injected up to 7 times a day into his trusting patients.
But Baker was never a doctor.
Making of a Maniac.
When I meet Keith Scales for the first time, I feel vaguely as though I just stumbled upon a cheerful leprechaun in an enchanted forest.
A local historian, actor and writer, Scales arguably knows more about Norman Baker than anyone else.
Scales spent years researching the diabolical circus charlatan to enrich the guided tours at the Crescent Hotel.
His account of Baker’s life is both chilling and riveting.
The Purple Man
Before Baker’s stint at the Crescent, the charlatan doctor spent 10 years working as a vaudeville illusionist.
He specialized in “mesmerization” (fraudulent mind-reading) and stage magic.
Perhaps he should have stuck with his talent for making burlesque performers appear to levitate.
When he moved to Eureka Springs, he paraded about town like a demented cartoon character.
Skidding around town in a purple convertible, he wore flashy lavender silk shirts and ties.
His bizarre obsession with the color purple even earned him a nickname in the local press: “The Purple Man.”
Baker’s carnival-like reputation continues to fuel local lore over 80 years after federal authorities arrested him for mail fraud—perhaps the least of his crimes.
Every shop owner in town spins their own spectacular version of Baker’s life.
His legacy is splashed on every surface of Eureka Springs.
From stories of bodies burned in the basement to Frankenstein-like medical experiments, separating the truth from the fiction proved difficult.
But much of Baker’s life remains preserved.
Scales himself has poured over mountains books, newspaper articles, historical archives and death certificates associated with the hotel.
On his advice, I head downtown to do some investigating.
First stop: The historic Carnegie Library.
If you think it looks like the entrance to a dormitory at Hogwarts University . . . it kind of does.
The library maintains an entire box of archives about the historic hotel.
From there, I head over to the Historical Museum .
Wading through newspaper clippings, photographs and even vintage pamphlets proclaiming “Cancer-Tumor Are Curable” and “Cures Without Operations Radium or X-Ray,” I collect my notes and a dozen or so photocopies.
It’s time to sit down for brunch and arm myself with some facts before tonight’s guided ghost hunt at the hotel.
The Ghost Hunt
The Crescent Hotel’s spectacular history make it an attractive target for paranormal investigators around the world.
Last summer, Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventurers swooped in to lurk in the basement looking for signs of the tortured souls that once roamed this grand mansion of doom.
More recently, the Smithsonian Magazine featured the hotel in a full-length article about Norman Baker.
So I jumped at the chance when invited to the hotel’s event, “ESP Weekend,” to shadow the seasoned lead investigators.
Before the evening of investigation begins, the hotel provides a historic tour of the property by guides dressed elaborately in 1930s inspired costumes.
They go over the history of the hotel, including its use as an invitation-only retreat for the wealthy elite in the 19th century and its conversion into an all-girls school.
Naturally, in a building of this age and size and epic history, many deaths occurred here, some very well documented.
We follow the guide through the ghostly grandeur of the Crescent’s well-appointed hallways.
The tour ends in the basement of the hotel, named “The Morgue” for its historical use.
Baker’s people stored the dead down here before they could be removed from the property.
It’s cold, and eerie, with specimen jars and tin type photos lining the walls.
After a champagne toast, it’s time to get down to business.
Haunted and High Tech
If you’ve never been on a paranormal investigation, you learn one thing very quickly: these people love their gadgets.
“I probably have, oh, I don’t know. Maybe $250,000 in equipment? Maybe more,” one investigator tells me.
Electromagnetic frequency (EMF) detectors, radio scramblers decked out with steampunk hardware, even custom-built static detection . . . thingies.
On loaner for the night, they generously provide me with a briefcase of these items.
Mostly, I fumble with them like a poorly trained circus monkey.
But the more experienced ones deftly tinker with buttons and dials.
My favorite is this thing that flips through the radio waves as people in the room ask the spirits to speak through it.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the words as actually coming from some radio announcer someone out there in the ether of radio land.
But occasionally, something comes through that makes that seem unlikely.
Perhaps most memorably tonight, someone asks if any spirits in the room want to stay up late with us.
The radio frequency replies unmistakably: “Fuck it.”
-Baker definitely opened and operated a blatantly fraudulent “health clinic” where cancer patients were lead to believe they were undergoing legitimate treatment.
-At least 44 people died according to death records during Baker’s time at the Crescent.
-During the federal case against the charlatan doctor, at least 100 people testified that there loved ones died shortly after leaving the Crescent. This is probably because Baker did not like the optics of dying patients in a place that “guaranteed” successful treatment, so he routinely sent home patients nearing death.
-Bodies were stored in the basement until they were removed and were probably removed at night. There is a “cold room” that made refrigerating them practical, and it remains there to this day. Staff calls it “the morgue.”
-To avoid depleting morale, there was a wing of the hotel called “The Asylum” where dying patients. Their screams of agony were explained to the patients as a symptom of madness. But of course, they were really dying of terminal illness and phony treatment plans.
-Numerous photographs taken within the hotel show what some believe to be clear apparitions. Countless guests, visitors and staff claim to experience paranormal phenomena.
-Baker was an unapologetic eccentric. He really did drive around a purple
-The con artist “doctor” earned his reputation as a maniacal narcissist even within his lifetime.
-There is no evidence any bodies were every burned or otherwise disposed of in clandestine ways on the property. All the death records indicate that Baker tended to prefer seemingly legitimate channels for corpse removal.
-No records indicate that Baker was ever an experimental physician. There were no signs that he ever took people apart and tried to put them back together, or used electricity to try to resurrect them.
-During my research, I found no evidence that Baker murdered anyone outright. Death at the “health spa” likely resulted from fake treatments, neglect and the natural fate of terminal cancer.
About those buzzards that fly over the Crescent Hotel.
No one is really sure why they do.
I mean, it’s kind of bizarre, right? Black birds of death congregating over a haunted palace is right out of a Hitchcock movie.
This unexplained phenomena intrigued me, so I made some phone calls.
I talked to several members of the faculty at the University of Arkansas in the Department of Animal Sciences and Department of Biological Sciences.
They confirmed that black vultures have been the subject of several studies in recent years.
But no one was able to offer an explanation for the strange behavior of the birds flying over the Crescent.
Things to Do In Eureka Springs (Besides Ghost Hunting)
For a tiny town of just over 2,000 residents, Eureka Springs offers a lot of worthwhile attractions.
I spent 11 days here and could easily fill another week.
Here are just a few suggestions for filling your daylight hours.
I’m more of a dog person myself, but I know you people love you some cats.
The Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge offers sanctuary to large cats rescued from the exotic pet trade and educates the public about the perils of that industry.
All the proceeds go to further this very worthy cause.
(Please only give your hard-earned money to zoos and habitats that are AZA-accredited and never support animal habitats that aren’t held to the highest ethical standard).
The Sacred Earth Gallery
If you think landscape photography is boring, you’ve never seen the work of Edward Robison.
Combining time lapse techniques with clean, impeccable digital photography, Robison makes landscapes come alive before your eyes.
This artist has a special genius for combining traditional mediums with modern technology that transcends language. Go see it for yourself and be mesmerized.
New Moon Spa
Get pampered at the New Moon Spa.
The on-site spa at the Crescent Hotel offers an array of treatments.
I went for a 30-minute massage, followed by a 30-minute soak in the outdoor hot tub, followed by 15 minutes of sitting in a cozy infrared sauna and it was divine.
One thing I really wanted to see and missed was Thorncrown Chapel.
It’s closed in the winter months.
But I hear it’s a marvelous example of modern architecture, and a nice place for quiet meditation.
Happy ghost hunting, and Blessed Be!
Please note: Management at the Crescent Hotel accommodated my trip with complimentary lodging and access to the event, ESP Weekend. All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.