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Eccentrics of the Ozarks

It’s good that the Crescent Hotel & Spa at Eureka Springs recalls the tainted legacy of that old con man Norman Baker by naming its fourth-floor restaurant and lounge after him.

After all, it wouldn’t be the Ozarks without the eccentrics and the con men.

Baker, a charlatan if ever there were one, operated a “hospital” out of the Crescent Hotel during the final years of the Great Depression.

There were plenty of other colorful characters who later were lured into the Arkansas Ozarks.

Jew hater Gerald L.K. Smith showed up in Eureka Springs in 1964 to begin building what he referred to as his Sacred Projects.

And even Anita Bryant — she of orange juice and anti-gay fame — made an appearance in the 1990s to operate a music theater that was bankrupt by 1997 while owning thousands of dollars in back taxes.

Of course, just down the road in Benton County, William H. “Coin” Harvey developed Monte Ne (complete with a gondola from Italy to ferry tourists across a spring-fed lagoon from a depot to the hotel he had built). Harvey announced plans in the 1920s to build a 130-foot-tall pyramid. He never completed that project, but he did build an amphitheater that was to have been the pyramid’s foyer. Most of Monte Ne is now below the waters of Beaver Lake.

As for Norman Baker, he was a fixture on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. He later built a radio station in Iowa in 1925 with the call letters KTNT. Those letters stood for Know The Naked Truth. He also published something called TNT Magazine. Baker used the radio station and the magazine to attack established medical procedures and the American Medical Association.

President Hoover helped launch Baker’s tabloid newspaper in 1930 by participating in a publicity stunt in which the president pushed a “golden key” from Washington to “start” Baker’s printing press in Iowa.

Baker had no formal education but called himself Dr. Baker. He opened a hospital in Iowa where he claimed he could cure cancer. When the federal government shut down his radio station, Baker headed to Mexico to operate a station known as XENT just across the U.S. border.

Baker finally was convicted of federal mail fraud in 1940 three years after buying the Crescent Hotel. His promises to cure cancer had been sent through the mail, and that constituted mail fraud. He died in 1958 in Miami.

The website describes the Baker years in Arkansas this way: “When the popularity of bathing in mineral springs faded, hard times came to the beautiful hotel. It fell into disrepair during the years of the Great Depression and ultimately fell into the hands of an eccentric character named Norman Baker. … A radio station owner and former manager of a mind reading show, Baker came to Eureka Springs from his home in Iowa to promote his secret cancer cure. Converting the Crescent Hotel, which he called his Castle in the Air, into a dubious medical facility, he brought in patients and, for the right price, subjected them to a variety of strange procedures.

“Attracted by Baker’s claims of a cancer cure, desperate patients flocked to the facility. In fact, federal investigators later determined that he made more than $4 million peddling his fake cure during the darkest days of the Great Depression.”

Baker was the youngest of 10 children. He quit high school at age 16 in 1898 to take a job as a machinist. Baker decided to change professions one night after watching a magic show featuring a performer who went by the name of Professor Flint.

Baker had his own performance troupe by 1904. The show starred a mind reader called Madame Pearl Tangley. Madame Tangley quit the show in 1909 and was replaced by Theresa Pinder, who married Baker a year later.

During the summer of 1914, Baker was tinkering in his brother’s machine shop in Iowa when he came up with an organ that played with air rather than steam. He called it the Air Calliaphone and sold the first one for $500. He quickly sold two more and soon was wealthy. By 1915, Baker had closed his vaudeville show, divorced his wife and become a full-time manufacturer of organs. He was making more than $200,000 a year. In 1920, he opened an art correspondence school that earned him more than $75,000 in three years.

KTNT went on the air on Thanksgiving Day 1925. In 1928, the station received permission to broadcast at 10,000 watts rather than its original 500 watts. KTNT soon became one of the most popular radio stations in the Midwest.

In his well-researched history called “Pure Hoax: The Norman Baker Story,” Stephen Spence writes: “On weekends and holidays thousands would gather at the station to hear Norman’s broadcasts. Baker welcomed the crowds with live entertainment as well as souvenirs, food and cheap gasoline. All for a fair price, of course. As KTNT’s popularity grew, Norman’s attacks on his usual targets became more vitriolic and personal. He made baseless personal attacks on prominent men he considered enemies, accusing them over the airwaves of everything from adultery to drunkenness. This behavior began to turn people against him and there was a backlash of complaints against KTNT.”

Baker opened his first cancer center, the Baker Institute of Muscatine, Iowa, in 1930. He used his radio station to promote his so-called miracle treatments.

Spence tells this sad story: “In the spring of 1930, John Tunis’ wife Lula was dying of cancer. In his private moments, he must have alternately begged God not to take his wife and cursed him for letting her suffer such a cruel end. By the end of May, Lula was running out of time. John placed her and their dwindling hopes in the hands of a man named Norman Baker. They prayed he could provide the cure that the medical establishment could not.

“And by all appearances they had reason to hope. Norman Baker was the founder of the Baker Institute in Muscatine, Iowa. He was a flamboyant medical maverick with a new cure for cancer. Always dressed in a white suit and a lavender tie, he owned a radio station in Muscatine with the call letters KTNT. … He took to the airwaves and declared war on big business and the American Medical Association. He believed that organized medicine was corrupt and chose profits over patients. He preached the gospel of alternative medicine. He was the self-proclaimed champion of the common man against the ownership class. He was on the Tunis’ side, and he had a cure.

“It is doubtful that John and Lula could have known much about the background of their ostensible savior. That he was a former vaudeville magician, turned inventor, turned millionaire businessman, turned populist radio host, turned cancer doctor without a day of medical training in his life. They couldn’t have known that Norman’s magic elixir was nothing more than a useless mix of watermelon seed, brown corn silk, alcohol and carbolic acid. They clearly didn’t know that all Norman Baker had to offer was an excruciating, pseudo-treatment and a betrayal of their last hope.”

John Tunis would later testify in a trial against Baker that his wife “took the needle treatments. She told me it was awful, that five or seven needles a day were stuck into her and they would hold them there until the medicine ran out. She said it didn’t do much good; said she wanted to go home; that she was getting worse.”

The American Medical Association led the fight against Baker, and the government refused to renew his radio license in May 1931. An arrest warrant was filed for practicing medicine without a license, and Baker fled to Nuevo Larado, where he remained until 1937, operating his Mexican radio station there at 100,000 watts. He returned to Muscatine in 1937, pled guilty to the old charge and served a one-day sentence. That’s when he moved to Eureka Springs, bought the Crescent and took up where he had left off in Iowa.

Baker was arrested in 1939. His trial was held in January 1940 in Little Rock, and he was found guilty on all seven counts. His appeal was denied, and Baker was sent to Leavenworth in Kansas to serve out his term. He was released from prison in July 1944, moving to Florida and living comfortably until his death in 1958.

Spence writes: “What made Norman Baker’s cancer cure charade so despicable is the human cost of his fraud. Hundreds of people who might have lived if they received legitimate medical care died because they put their trust in his cure. The common grifter swindles people out of their money. But only a monster would do so at the cost of their last chance of survival.”

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