A Quack Radio Doctor, a Miracle Cure for Cancer, and a Haunted Hotel

Born into wealth in 1882 near the small Mississippi river town of Muscatine, Iowa, Norman G. Baker. Baker was born the 10th child to the prominent John Baker, who owned the Baker Manufacturing Company in Muscatine and was an avid inventor with well over a hundred patents to his name. It would seem that the apple did not fall far from the tree in this case, because Norman showed an affinity and talent for tinkering with machines, fixing things and inventing things from an early age, eventually so good at it that he dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to begin working as a machinist. He would travel around for his work, at one point becoming sidetracked to start up a show featuring mentalists, hypnotists, and mind readers on the vaudeville circuit, even marrying a mind-reader named Theresa Pinder, before getting back to inventing things, creating a machine called the Automatic Air Calliope or calliaphone, a sort of organ which used air instead of steam to operate. The Air Calliope would become a major hit, and the next chapter of Baker’s strange life would begin. This would turn into a journey that would led him to a legacy of being one of the greatest hucksters and charlatans that has ever been, and there is also the issue of his haunted hotel.

In 1915, his invention was selling so well that he decided to start a company devoted to selling the Air Calliope, called the Tangley Company. He was a very skilled at promotion and sales, the company thriving and making him a rich man, and Baker would branch out into other entrepreneurial efforts. In 1920 he started an art correspondence school, despite the fact that he had no art experience, and then in 1925 he started a radio station with the intention of promoting Muscatine as a premium business and investment destination and make the town famous across the Midwest. With the call sign KTNT, which he called “”Know The Naked Truth,” Baker put his self-promotion skills, flamboyant personality, and gift of gab to good use, quickly amassing a legion of loyal listeners and a reputation as a staunch supporter of small businesses and vocal critic of urban big businesses. He became a sort of small town, working class hero, and his reach would only grow from there.

Norman G. Baker (credit: public domain)

By 1928, Baler’s radio program was reaching over a million households, making him extremely influential and a major thorn in the side for the businesses and organizations that he often railed against. In the meantime, he started his own publication called The Naked Truth, a sort of pseudo-tabloid, and eventually expanded his publishing reach through another magazine called TNT Magazine, and he later was the president of the Progressive Publishing Co., publisher of the daily Midwest Free Press, all of which only increased his reach even more. Baker often used his considerable media clout to take aim at his enemies, both real and perceived, often doling out slanderous rants and carrying out character assassination and smear campaigns, as well as attacking other news publications and various commercial, media, and political groups, both locally and nationwide. He began to spiral into paranoia, believing that big businesses, the government, and the media were all conspiring against him, becoming further unhinged and spouting all sorts of conspiracy theories. Baker believed that there were conspiracies tied to cattle TB tests, water fluoridation, agricultural chemicals, vaccinations, and even aluminum cookware, which he insisted caused cancer, which would lead him to his next strange turn.

Baker was very against aluminum. Pots, pans, utensils, you name it, if it was made of aluminum it was giving you cancer, according to him. To listen to Baker you’d think that aluminum was one of the most poisonous, carcinogenic substances known to mankind. Of course there was absolutely no evidence of this and Baker had no medical training whatsoever, but for his millions of listeners many of them took it to be gospel. Baker thought aluminum and its potent cancer-causing qualities were a scourge and a major health panic, but he thought he had the answer. In 1929, Baker became convinced that a Dr. Charles Ozias had found a cure for cancer. He was so sure of it that Baker, who had no medical training whatsoever, arranged a trial with volunteers at his own expense in order to prove it worked, as well as publishing the study in his magazine The Naked Truth. In 1930, he acquired the formula and immediately began singing its praises to his considerable fan base.

The treatment was claimed to require no surgery at all, and could supposedly cure even the most aggressive incurable cancer with nothing but a series of simple injections. He continued to shamelessly plug his cancer cure and announce success even as his test subjects died one by one, very much not cured of their cancer. Baker actively promoted it in his magazines, went on speaking tours, and even opened a cancer clinic called the Baker Institute, hiring another conman “doctor” with the appropriate name of Harry Hoxsey to help him, all while denouncing the medical field in general and calling surgeons “cutters,” all of this from a guy who had absolutely no medical knowledge or experience at all. Cancer patients flocked to the clinic in droves seeking this miracle cure, and Baker was happy to sell it to them and take their money. Unfortunately for these patients, Baker’s cancer cure, called “Formula 5,” was nothing more than a concoction made of alcohol, glycerol, carbolic acid, ground watermelon seed, corn silk and clover leaves, and had absolutely no effect on anything at all.

All of this was soon coming to the attention of the American Medical Association (AMA), which very publicly accused him of quackery in their journal. Baker, who called the AMA the “Amateur Meat-cutters Association,” didn’t flinch, instead telling his devoted patients and followers that it was all a conspiracy to hide the truth of his cure and smear his good name, even suing the AMA for libel and defamation. During all of this he also spun a story that he had been offered $1 million by the AMA to suppress his cancer cure so that they could continue to rake in money on their own ineffective treatments and pointless surgeries. Even when the state of Iowa filed for an injunction against Baker, Hoxsey, and three others for practicing medicine without a license, this did little to phase them, and they just held huge events that drew thousands of followers and where the cure and other products from Baker’s company were on full display. The State of Iowa relentlessly went after Baker, and after a long, tangled legal battle, the injunction filed against his practice was sustained in 1931, and he also lost his radio license for what the Federal Radio Commission called “venomous, obscene broadcasts against the public interest.”

With an arrest warrant out for him for practicing medicine without a license, Baker would flee to hide out in Mexico, where he promptly set up a new radio station called XENT-AM in Nuevo Laredo on the Rio Grande and close enough to the border to be heard in the States. There he got back to his old antics even having a biography written about himself in 1934, Doctors, Dynamiters, and Gunmen, which he called “the most important book ever written,” before returning to the States in 1937 to face one day in jail and a $50 fine. He then unsuccessfully ran for governor of Iowa and later the Senate, before going off to the spa resort town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas to open a spa and hotel called the Baker Hotel and Health Resort, located high up in the Arkansas Ozarks. Here Baker was back in his element, setting the resort up as a spa and hospital for, you guessed it, gullible cancer patients. Here he was more successful than ever, with the controversy surrounding him doing nothing to stop the true believers who that they could be cured of cancer by Baker’s miracle medicine. Sadly, many of these patients would die shortly after, the “cure” worthless and their chances to seek real treatment by real doctors gone.

It all worked out well for Baker, though. In the two years the hospital resort was open, it would rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars, with one estimate saying he made around $500,000 a year off of the enterprise, but Baker’s days were running out, the federal authorities pursuing him even as he lashed out against and sued anyone who suggested that he was a quack, and evade all attempts to make anything stick to him. The federal authorities were finally able to nail the elusive Baker with mail fraud charges for the brochures he was sending out, and have him sent away to serve four years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1941. Even this didn’t stop him. After getting out of prison, Baker unbelievably went back to Muscatine in 1946 and tried to reopen his Baker Institute without success. He would end up retiring to a life of luxury in Miami, Florida, living aboard a large yacht up to his death in 1958, having not learned a thing and never facing any serious repercussions for being indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of gullible cancer patients. However, even at the end there were plenty of people who still believed in Baker’s cancer cure.

The Crescent Hotel (credit: public domain)

The Baker Hotel and Health Resort would be renovated and turned into the Crescent Hotel and Spa, and it is still in operation today. Within the hotel resort there are still plenty of exhibits and artifacts from the Baker days, including Baker’s autopsy table, a walk-in cooler where cadavers were kept, specimen jars, a morgue, and many of the medical vials and instruments that were used in those days. Rather eerily, there have also been unearthed buried vials and jars containing human body parts and some unidentified liquid on the hotel property. It is a beautiful historic place, but also undeniably eerie, and this could be one reason the Crescent Hotel is also often billed as one of the most haunted hotels in America.

A lot of the supposed hauntings here come from the Baker era, with the apparitions of the cancer patients said to roam the halls, a nurse who can be seen pushing a gurney down the hall on the third floor, and even the ghost of Baker himself. The artifacts left behind from those days are also often seen to move or fall over, and the morgue room is supposedly especially haunted. In addition to these spirits there are also other ghosts allegedly here keeping them company Among this cast of characters are a 4-year-old boy who runs through the hallways, a stonemason called Michael, who died in an accident during the hotel’s construction, an elderly lady who appears to be trying to get the door open to Room 418, and a young woman who appears on misty nights one of the east side balconies of the building and jumps to the ground below, only to vanish. There are so many ghosts that supposedly lurk here that the Crescent Hotel hold regular ghost tours. It’s hard to know how much of this is really ghosts and how much is just the ambiance of the place, and an article in Smithsonian Magazine by Jeff MacGregor has beautifully said of the hotel:

The eroded Ozarks Plateau upon which all this rests is hundreds of millions of years old. Walk ten feet into the trees and you’re a part of prehistory. The woods resonate with that ancient animism. The forests hum with it. You can hear them breathe. There’s something heavy in the quiet here, though, some weight to the air. Especially at sundown, or right before dawn when the mist hangs in the cuts and hollows. There’s something eerie in it, dreamlike, something deep and uneasy.

 

In the hotel, it’s the same. Every stairwell and landing is fraught, every empty hallway feels crowded, and every room you enter feels as if someone just left. You are alone but never alone here. And to the suggestible, to the willing, that’s the point of the place. To be a little frightened by the supernatural. To feel alive in the company of the dead. In the dark, everything is a ghost story. But even the skeptical are moved here—if not to fear then to sadness. The sharp historical sense of dread and of pain and of loss can be overwhelming if you open yourself to it. Because worse than any monster is a man like you or me. Weak. Greedy. Unaccountable. Selling hope to the hopeless. If you checked in to the Baker Hospital, your room holds everything you ever lost.

 

So maybe in the middle of that first long night you wake. You fumble for the light and walk to the window. Behind you the old hotel creaks and groans. Outside, the invisible valley is all silence and darkness. What you see on the glass is your own reflection. The only ghost in this room is you.

Whether the hotel is really haunted or not, it is all intrinsically linked to the strange legacy of this very eccentric and weird man. It all just makes an odd historical oddity even odder, and we are left with quite the tale of a very mysterious man. We may never know if he really believed all of his talk or if he was just out to fool the gullible, but he has gone down as one of the most prolific and dangerous quacks there has ever been, and if you go to his haunted hotel, maybe you just might be able to meet up with his restless spirit and ask him yourself.

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