Uncovering history: Hotel discovers specimen jars tied to infamous doctor

Friday, April 12, 2019
Jennifer Keys of the University of Arkansas Archeological Survey uses a paintbrush to examine the area where bottles containing medical specimens connected to the infamous Dr. Norman Baker were discovered on the grounds of the 1886 Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.
Photo by David Bell/Carroll County News

By Samantha Jones


The 1886 Crescent Hotel doesn’t shy away from its macabre history, sharing tales of Dr. Norman Baker’s “cancer-curing” hospital during ghost tours every night of the week. Baker was a quack, said ghost tour manager Keith Scales, and regularly scammed cancer patients and their families.

Scales said the hotel has more information on Baker than any place in the world, but it’s still difficult to draw the line between fact and fiction. With the recent discovery of a dump site containing medical specimens from the Baker era, Scales said, the hotel is one step closer to understanding its history.

Initial find

Gardener Susan Benson discovered the dump site at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, while expanding a lower parking area near the northeast corner of the hotel’s 15 acres. While digging around, Benson said, she found a bottle.

“I pulled it out, and the ground just gave way,” Benson said. “I immediately called [Scales]. We were like little kids. We were arm-deep in the hole pulling out bottles.”

“It was a great thrill,” Scales said. “I’ve been studying Baker a lot trying to find the actual facts about him. Until now, the only information we’ve had has come from books or old newspapers.”

Hotel general manager Jack Moyer was called to the site, Scales said, and asked them to stop digging.

“He said, ‘No more, no more. Wait until archeologists come,’ ” Scales remembered. “It was hard to stop. There were so many bottles.”

Moyer said he never expected to find a dump site on the hotel grounds. Benson had been expanding the area to make way for a new sporting area, Moyer said, with no intention of finding artifacts. It didn’t take long to see the bottles were from the Baker era, Moyer said. He showed a brochure Baker created to promote his hospital, saying the bottles in the brochure look exactly like the bottles found at the site.

“There’s a big lore of what has happened in the past, but were we ever able to prove what really happened?” Moyer said. “Now we know what we believe happened here is true.”

Archeological dig

Moyer believed the find was significant and called archeologists with the University of Arkansas’ Archeological Survey to come check it out. Mike Evans, station assistant archeologist, said a few steps were required before the team could truly dig in. They needed to determine if it was safe, Evans said, and if there were any human remains at the site.

“We found mainly they were using alcohol to preserve things, so it was safe,” Evans said. “We also determined it was not a crime scene. It’s not a cemetery. It’s not treated as a burial.”

“It’s a gray area,” said station assistant archeologist Jared Pebworth.

Evans said they regularly receive calls to examine artifacts but this call was rare.

“Dr. Baker’s story is well-known,” Evans said. “These bottles perfectly match with the poster and advertisements Dr. Baker produced at that time. It’s fairly unusual. It’s not typically the stuff you find at deposits.”

He continued, “We dig up bottles at dumps at old houses all the time. You have some of that stuff here, but there’s a lot of unique things you don’t see in those domestic digs. We certainly didn’t expect to find film with imagery on it.”

Bill Ott, the hotel’s director of communications, said he was surprised to find film among medical specimens dumped at the site.

“That’s one of the neatest finds we’ve had so far,” Ott said. “[Baker] was known for doing films to hype his … hospital time sharing, to get people to come here and spend their money.”

Along with the film and the jars containing medical specimens, Evans said, the research team has found medical tools. Pebworth thanked Moyer for getting in contact with the team so quickly, saying that’s an important step to excavate historic sites.

“The Crescent Hotel staff and management actually notified archeologists on the front end,” Pebworth said. “We’re usually notified on a construction site when the site is in the back dirt of the pile. We saw a great opportunity here due to forethought of the Crescent Hotel’s management.”

Pebworth added, “It’s a win-win for researchers, Eureka Springs and the Crescent Hotel. We will register this now as an archeological site. This is a little piece of the puzzle in our Arkansas history timeline. Being able to associate it with a real event is rare. It’s been very useful.”

Clarifying history

These findings have helped the hotel connect the dots between the stories of Baker’s hospital and what actually happened there, Moyer said. Moyer recalled speaking with a woman who worked as a server at the hotel years ago, saying she reported seeing bottles containing medical specimens in the morgue. The morgue is where Baker allegedly kept bodies and completed autopsies, Moyer said.

“[Scales] went to find where the jars went to, and he landed on a former manager of the hotel who said they got rid of them,” Moyer said.

“He said they took them out to the dump,” Scales said. “I thought it was in Berryville. When we found this, we realized there was a dump out here. We haven’t found anything so far that isn’t either medical equipment or specimens in alcohol in bottles. It looks like this is only related to Baker.”

It became really interesting when they started examining the bottles, Moyer said.

“We found what we think is a couple of bottles of the Baker elixir, which is Baker’s cure, for lack of a better term,” Moyer said. “That’s when things got serious for us. We realized we were connecting the dots between what had happened in the Baker era and what had been rumored for a long time.”

Pebworth described the significance of the find, saying there are hundreds if not thousands of bottles buried at the hotel.

“There’s a lot more,” Pebworth said. “It’s a little time capsule of Arkansas history. We can actually put the physical with the known story.”

It’s still unknown what type of medical specimens are in the bottles, but Scales said he has a few ideas of what they could be. Baker moved to Eureka Springs from Muscatine, Iowa, Scales said, where he ran a similar hospital.

“Some of these things he could have brought down from Muscatine,” Scales said.

Pebworth said doctors can order medical specimens to display in their offices, and that could be where Baker found the items in the bottles.

“It could just be things for him to show people, to say, ‘Look how important or scientific I am,’ ” Pebworth said.

From their research, Moyer said, the hotel staff has no reason to believe Baker operated on live humans at the hospital.

“We do believe there were autopsies that took place, so there is a possibility some of the medical specimens were collected here,” Moyer said. “We’ll have to see.”

What comes next?

There’s still work to do at the site, Evans said. He said the archeologists will continue excavating bottles, saying a team at the University of Arkansas of Medical Sciences will evaluate the artifacts.

“We’re figuring out how to package this stuff, because … we want to get the selection stabilized,” Evans said. “It’s unusual to find something like this with the actual specimens inside. We have to treat them differently. We don’t want to put it with other very sensitive collections without knowing what it is. We’re just bagging it up and keeping it safe.”

“We’ll continue to keep working and trying to identify pieces of the puzzle,” Pebworth said.

This discovery only adds to the renewed interest in Baker, Moyer said. He said someone is making a movie about Baker, saying the hotel has re-shaped one of its tours to feature Baker more prominently.

“As we move forward here, we’re going to encase this site in its natural environment,” Moyer said. “[Evans] is going to help us find a way we can design something that protects the site but also allows visitors who are so inquisitive to be able to come down and see what it looks like.”

Scales said it’s a significant find for the paranormal community, too.

“Interest in the paranormal is increasing every year all over the country, and the Crescent Hotel is a landmark in that community,” Scales said. “Ghost hunters all over the world know about the Crescent Hotel. This is going to be of tremendous interest to a lot of people.”

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