Monday, October 31, 2016

Arkansas History's Mysteries: The Crescent Hotel

Since the 1880s, Eureka Springs has been a destination for Arkansans hoping for a nice restful vacation.  When their vacation is over, holiday goers pack up their souvenirs and hit the road, saying goodbye to what some early advertisements referred to as the Switzerland of the Ozarks.  While the vacationers leave, there are some who stay behind.  Perhaps forever, if one is so inclined to believe in ghosts.  People have told stories about the “haints” that populate the Ozarks; and one of the focal points for many of these stories is Eureka Springs’ grand hotel, The Crescent Hotel.  The hotel certainly has a history that might lend credence to many of these stories.  It has served as a hotel resort, a school, a hospital, then a hotel again, each stage in its history leaving a mark upon the folklore of the town.

Perhaps the best way to begin the story is to talk about why Eureka Springs exists at all.  Unlike other towns in the area, Eureka Springs had little to offer businessmen.    However, the one thing it certainly had was its hot springs.  The act of going to a natural spring to take a bath has been around since the time of the Romans, but no one perfected the bath holiday quite as well as the Victorians.  From the 1880s to around the 1920s, towns with hot springs flourished.  Eureka Springs, with its many natural springs became one of the state’s great tourist destinations.

Much of the town’s founding is surrounded by legend.  Many of the early guidebooks published in the early 1880s suggested that the town was the site of the legendary Fountain of Youth.  Most early guidebooks tell of an old man named Judge Saunders (or Sanders, in some retellings) who came to Eureka Springs in 1880 to soothe a leg ailment at the behest of a doctor friend. During his stay at Eureka Springs, Judge Saunders claimed that not only did it heal his leg, but the waters helped him lose 40 pounds, and, as he wrote, “portions of my hair changed from a yellowish white to black, its original color.  The color of the hair then grown was not changed, but a new crop grew out from the scalp, of the color of my hair in my younger days.”  So, the waters seemed to also cure baldness.  What more could anyone want?  Well, it seems that the waters also could cure a number of ailments, or so the area’s doctors claimed.  Some of the illnesses claimed to be cured by Eureka Springs’ spas were blindness, paralysis, “liver complaints,” asthma, and chronic constipation.  And there were plenty of doctors who were happy to publish testimonials from themselves and patients about the truth of the cure rumors.  Pretty soon, newspapers throughout the midwestern United States published advertisements hoping to draw visitors to the new town.  By the mid-1880s, newspapers in Texas advertised the town as the premiere destination for Texans.

This was the environment in which some enterprising businessmen led by former Governor Powell Clayton gathered in the town in 1886 to plan construction of a grand hotel.  The new hotel came with a staggering price tag: $250,000, over five million dollars in 2016 money.  And it was in this period during its construction that the hotel gained its first spectral tenant, according to legend, when an Irish bricklayer fell to his death.  Since then, the bricklayer has enjoyed steady employment as the grandfather of all of the Crescent’s ghosts, enjoying the hotel’s finery for over 130 years.  And what a grand hotel it was!  The building’s exterior was built using white stone hauled by mule from the White River.  The hotel grew to three stories with elaborate Gothic spires and towers.  Inside, the hotel lobby was awash in fine marble.  The building also was one of the few in the state to boast of having electric lights.

But this was the Gilded Age, and soon the fortunes of the town took a hit.  The bathing fad seemed to end as the nineteenth century drew to a close.  Most bathers found other towns such as Hot Springs more accessible, and the hotel struggled to keep occupants.  By 1906, the hotel only opened during the summer, and even then it struggled to make ends meet.  And here is where the hotel enters into its second life as a women’s college.  The rules for the students seem very quaint.  Once arriving at the new college, young women were allowed to bring with them a handful of items including a Bible, raincoat, napkin ring, and umbrella.  Beyond these essentials, students were required to get permission from the college president to buy additional necessities.  Of course, clothing was a standard uniform of a dark blue waistcoat over a modest white dress.  The young women also were required to give the president a list of correspondents, and any additional correspondents had to be approved by the president.  No doubt such restrictions were required to protect the sanctity of young womanhood, and that protection came with yearly tuition of $400.  According to legend, at least one of the students still lives there tuition free.  The story goes that the young woman was either pushed or fell from a railing to the grounds below.  She has been seen by modern guests walking the grounds in her chaste uniform.

Over the years, however, the college struggled to stay afloat and it closed its doors in 1934.  Then a medical huckster named Norman Baker came to town.  Baker already had a sketchy past.  The flamboyant Baker was widely known to dress in purple shirts and drive a large purple car while urging people to buy his cancer “cures”.  He based his operations in the early 1930s in Muscatine, Iowa, where he built an empire hocking his cancer antidotes.  He established a string of hospitals throughout the Midwest and ran several radio stations all advertising his wares.  Of course, claiming to be able to cure cancer gets attention.  And beyond the hopeful people rushing to be healed, he also drew the ire of the American Medical Association who criticized him openly and often.  After studying his elixir, the AMA announced that it contained no more than watermelon seeds, clover seeds, corn silk, and water.  Soon a grand jury in Muscatine indicted him for practicing medicine without a license and his empire began to crumble.

In 1938, Baker came to Arkansas, settling in Eureka Springs, buying the vacant hotel for a song.  Claiming to be a cancer expert, he opened the hotel as the Baker Hospital.  Here, he doubled down on his claims, now not only claiming to cure cancer, but to “cure all known ailments.”  According to testimony from his later trial for mail fraud, Baker was known to hire healthy people to sit on the balcony and pose as patients who had been cured.  And word of mouth got around.  Hundreds of cancer stricken people came to the “hospital” hoping to be cured.  And hundreds died waiting for their cure.  It was estimated that Baker raked in as much as four million dollars at the “hospital,” all from the most desperate people in desperate circumstances.

It was not long before Baker’s claims came to the attention of Arkansas’s medical establishment and the federal government.  On September 22, 1939, a federal court indicted Baker for making dubious claims through the mail.  The indictment charged that Baker claimed that “remedies and treatments recommended and used by the members of the American Medical Association would not and could not in any event cure cancer but that Norman Baker had during the year 1929 discovered and perfected a sure cure for cancer.”  He was convicted in federal court and served four years in federal prison.  He would get out in 1945 and leave for Florida where he would continue his bogus medical practice.  Ironically, Baker would later die from cancer.  But, his time in Eureka Springs left the most lasting mark on the Crescent Hotel.  It is said by guests that many of those patients are still there, waiting to be rid of disease.  Some people have even seen Baker himself, bedecked with purple tie, walking the halls of the hotel.  A nurse has been spotted wheeling a cart down the halls.  And then there are the ghostly patients, many of them occupying the basement, which during Baker’s time operated as a morgue.

Today, the Crescent Hotel is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the town.  Visitors tour the hotel and admire its architecture and are amazed at the hotel’s strange history.  Many come specifically hoping to spot a spectral resident walking the hotel’s corridors.  But before one goes to the hotel hoping to be scared, one should know that not all of the Crescent’s permanent occupants are scary.  The Irish bricklayer has been known to have a sense of whimsy.  He prefers to stay in room 219, where he has been known to pull pranks on guests, such as turning on the air conditioner full blast during the winter, and cranking up the heater during the hottest parts of summer.  Another ghost, Theodora, was a patient during the hotel’s “hospital” period.  She has been known to neatly fold guests’ clothing in room 419.  These rooms are by far the most popular of the hotel’s accommodations and the waiting period to stay in them can be as long as a month.

The current owners of the hotel do not shy away from the hotel’s supposed haunted past.  They are glad to offer ghost tours of the hotel.  Nevertheless, whether or not one tends to believe in ghosts, it is no doubt that the hotel’s strange history is enough to continue to draw visitors for years to come.

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