The Devil Went Down To Arkansas (Detour #17)

In 1958, on a yacht floating in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, the devil died. His name was Norman Baker. In life, Baker had been gifted with the power of persuasion, a flair for showmanship that drew the eye of the weak and a

Norman Baker
Norman Baker
nimble tongue that twisted itself to tell any story the vulnerable wanted to hear. Few people are more vulnerable than the dying and so, in 1930, Norman Baker purchased a potion and called it a cancer cure.

To add believability to his claim, he asked five volunteers to be treated with his cure and planned to print the tale of their miraculous recovery in his own self-promotion magazine. The fact that one of his patients died before press date didn’t stop him from announcing just that—that cancer had been cured forever. The death of a second volunteer, and then a third and fourth, and finally the last of the volunteers didn’t stop him from publishing the exact same article twice more, never wavering from his life-promising lie.

Just imagine—it’s 1930 and your doctor looks you in the eye and says it’s cancer. There’s the surgeon’s knife, but all it can guarantee is pain. You could nuke it out with radiation, but doses are take-no-prisoner high and radiation is more likely to kill you than it is the cancer. Chemotherapy is still decades away. And there Baker is, telling you not to listen to your doctor, that they’re all butchers and vultures, that the AMA has offered him a million dollars to squelch his cure and keep their profit machine rolling along. It was a lie, of course, but Baker had connived his way into owning his own radio station and illegally powered it up to 10,000 watts, giving him a primitive version of a non-stop infomercial. He has all day to convince you he is a man of truth. What would you do?

I made my living in radio for more years than I care to admit and I hate that Baker used it the way he did, that he took something of such great good and used it for pure undeserving profit. In a single year, in the depths of the Great Depression, Baker made more than $400,000 hawking his cure to the desperate. He kept raking it in until the AMA and then the newspapers and finally the courts caught on to his quackery.

On the ghost tour
It’s easy to see ghosts when you’ve paid $25 for the pleasure.
When he fled, it was first to Mexico and then to Arkansas, where he eventually bought a rundown Victorian hotel on a hill overlooking Eureka Springs. The Crescent Hotel had seen its glory days in the late 1800s, when it was a luxurious retreat for the rich, and became a Women’s School in 1908. Under Baker’s ownership, the hotel was reinvented as a cancer hospital with Baker’s fake cure as the primary treatment.

They say the souls of those who were injected with Dr. Baker’s cure, who writhed in pain as the carbolic acid seeped through their veins, now haunt the Crescent. The hotel transformed back into a hotel years ago, but

Haunted door at the Crescent Hotel
Shhhh…the ghosts have the “Do Not Disturb” sign out
strange things happen there. Chairs move all by themselves. Figures appear in mirrors. My sister stayed there and swears something woke her in the night, pressing down on her chest. My other sister snuck into the servant’s halls, looking for ghosts, but if she found any ethereal beings I can’t remember her telling me about it. And that does seem like something I’d remember, doesn’t it?
Tools of the Devil Trade
Tools of the Devil Trade

Baker's Cabinet
Baker’s Cabinet
A year ago my nephew’s wife and I took the hotel’s Ghost Tour in search of restless souls. The tour leads you through the hotel and down into the laboratory, where creepy jars sit on rusty steel tables, and finally invites the brave into a small basement room to view Baker’s upright cabinet, one of the storage places for his cruel tools. Our tour leader waved a handheld instrument in front of the cabinet, measuring its ghostly waves, before turning the lights out. It was dark, a black kind of dark, and someone screamed. And then the lights were on.

Nobody on our tour saw any ghosts, and I like to think that’s because the ghosts are all at peace. They suffered enough, didn’t they? It’s unfair to expect them to haunt for our entertainment after enduring both cancer and Baker’s bogus cure. Baker, on the other hand, is welcome to walk the place forever if his spirit is that restless, and I hope it is. I doubt it, though. More likely he’s deep in the dungeons of hell, stuck in the gooey muck of his own evil. Or, the opposite of heaven being not hell but a complete separation from God, a nothingness, Baker’s spirit has simply ceased to exist. That leaves a job opening in the position of devil. But just look around–resumes are pouring in.

image
Who says the wages of sin are death? Not when the tip jar is out.

Happy Halloween. And peace.

6 Comments

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  1. Dear Detour, I am going to have to re-blog this piece. I love all your pieces, but this one is particular hit home on so many fronts. Happy Trails, Doris

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  2. Dear Detour, I am going to have to re-blog this piece. I love all your pieces, but this one in particular hit home on so many fronts. Happy Trails, Doris

    Like

  3. You are an exceptionally insightful writer, with a comfortable style of clear thinking and expression that belies the hard work it takes to produce your posts. When will your material be published in a book? Will you publish your western short stories in a book? When will you share your expertise with Springfield Writers’ Guild?

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    • Thank you, Wayne. And I really do need to make it to one of your Writer’s Guild meetings. I love traveling but I’m happy we’re home for awhile so I have time to do cool things like that. I really like your comment about the hard work of writing. Have you read Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”? In it she tells of a writer who could just sit down and poetry would flow from her fingers. Lamott says even God hated that writer.

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      • I read “Bird by Bird” and loved it. Her writing life certainly was not easy. On the other hand, the nature of who she is was a big contributor to her difficulties.

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