In northern Arkansas, there is a town called Eureka Springs, where no streets intersect at right angles. The city is built into rock, captive to ancient geology, its buildings carved into curving cliffs and its trees sprouting through layers of sloping sidewalks. There are no traffic lights in Eureka Springs because there is no clear lane to turn, no landmarks to take, no center to hold. You can enter the ground floor of a building and walk in a straight line through the back door to find that you just left the fifth floor on that side. The topography dictates your route: renames it, replaces it. It’s reassuring these days, such reliable disorientation. No one comes to Eureka Springs for sure anyway. They come for magic and ghosts.
Before the pandemic hit, every December my family would drive from St. Louis, Missouri to Dallas, Texas to celebrate Christmas with my sister and her family. Every year we would stop in Arkansas and spend a night in Eureka Springs. The official reason was to break the ten hour drive, but the real reason was to stay at the Crescent Hotel, and the reason we wanted to stay at the Crescent Hotel was that it is haunted. This is not our opinion, but the business card of the hotel. Since 1886, the Crescent has towered above the springs of Eureka, luring travelers seeking miracle cures to the city’s waters, which are said to possess magical healing powers. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the famous and the infamous passed as the Ozarks became a paradise for gangsters and a retreat for politicians. The hotel has changed hands and identities: a luxury resort, a women’s conservatory, a junior college. Then the Great Depression hit and it became a place where people literally died of false hope.
In 1937, a con artist named Norman Baker arrived in Eureka Springs with a new brand in mind. Born in the trading town of Muscatine, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, in 1882, Baker grew up wealthy and spent his formative years enriching himself through fraud. In the 1920s, he traveled through a shell-shocked America still reeling from the Spanish Flu, roaming the landscape like a vulture feeding on pain. An aspiring politician, former carnival barker and trained demagogue, Baker has gained a massive following by pouring out conspiracy theories through the popular new medium of radio. He operated a station in Muscatine which he called “KTNT”, which stood for “Knowing the Naked Truth”. Muscatine was at that time a nascent media mecca in the Midwest. Mark Twain had worked at his newspaper, before being accosted by a local with a knife who insisted he call him the devil’s son or be killed, in which case Twain decided to leave town.
Throughout the late 1920s, Baker warned his audience that evil cabals ruled the United States. He assured his listeners that he could expose the wrongdoers, as long as they continued to listen. Its 10,000 watt broadcasts have spread far beyond Muscatine, reaching over a million homes. Off the air, Baker consulted with a team of vicious lawyers he had hired to threaten officials and reporters investigating his many criminal offenses, which ranged from obscenity to libel to theft.
But Baker’s cruellest crime was making ordinary people believe he could save them. In 1929, as the stock market crashed and America sank deeper into despair, Baker proclaimed himself a medical genius. In December, he launches a printed magazine, The naked truth, and put a photo of him on the cover next to the proclamation that cancer is cured. In 1930 he established a hospital in Muscatine, called it the Baker Institute, and staffed it with people with minimal medical expertise. He peddled a cancer cure that consisted of little more than seeds, corn silk, carbolic acid, and water, though he didn’t tell his audience. He called this tonic “Secret Remedy #5”. Baker’s secrets earned him $444,000 in 1930 alone, the equivalent of $7.2 million in 2021.
Baker was an opponent of vaccines. He told his followers that doctors recommending vaccines were part of a nefarious government plot. He claimed that doctors knew how to cure cancer, but refused to do so because it brought them no financial gain, unlike his own selfless actions. Baker was vicious in his denunciations, but his audience loved him. In a time of economic misery and political instability, it felt good to have an enemy, and Baker’s confidence was its own decoy. In the early 1930s, tens of thousands of desperate Americans gathered at rallies to hear him speak. Baker assured them that one day the cancer would disappear, like a miracle. They drank his treatment like Kool-Aid flavored hydroxychloroquine, and thus sealed their own demise.
Within a year, the American Medical Association had figured out Baker and sought to end his operation, viewing him as a dealer in death. “The wickedness of Mr. Baker’s broadcast lies not in what he says about the American Medical Association, but in the fact that he incites people with cancer who might have a chance for their life, if seen early and properly treated, to resort to his nostrum,” they wrote in 1931. Baker responded by claiming that the American Medical Association had sent armed assassins to kill him. He then sued to no avail the AMA for defamation.
These were classic Baker tactics: frame your opponents with an outrageous crime and pursue them quickly and aggressively. But this time he failed. He lost his radio license and his institute and got a warrant for his arrest. He fled to Mexico, where he bought a border radio station and announced to his audience that he would continue to live above the law. After a few years of relatively low lying, he returned to the United States in 1937. He served a day in prison in Iowa, for practicing medicine without a license, and left for Eureka Springs.