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When the Healing Waters of Eureka Springs Stopped Healing
Norman G. Baker (November 27, 1882 – September 10, 1958) was an early American radio broadcaster, entrepreneur and inventor who secured fame as well as state and federal prison terms by promoting a supposed cure for cancer in the 1930s.
He showed up at a time when we didn’t know we needed him. He came from the airwaves of Iowa, originally, and he told us that we needed him, so we believed him. What else was there to do in Eureka Springs?
He called himself Baker, but we’d heard he’d also gone by the name Welch at times. It was his stage name, he assured us. It was only a stage name. Like Pearl Tangley. They were just names. They were as fake as the claims that what he did was quackery. It was only quackery, he said, when it didn’t work for you. It didn’t work for everybody. Some people, they just didn’t respond to the cure they way others did. It was a miracle cure because it helped more people, he said, that anything any doctor from the Amateur Meatcutters Association could ever claim. The MD just stood for More Dough. The people in Iowa, though, it worked for them. He told us this over and over again. When we asked about why he wasn’t still there if things were so successful, he said it was because of us. He was pulled to us, he knew we needed him. He didn’t call it divine inspiration, but he might as well have, the way he spoke.
It wasn’t always as if we needed Baker. Eureka Springs was something for a time before it wasn’t. A century of stories of healing waters brought people. Former Governer Powell Clayton brought the Eureka Improvement Company. The Eureka Improvement Company brought the railroad, and the railroad brought the people, which brought the Crescent Hotel, which brought money and renown, for time, until it didn’t. People, it seems, lose faith quickly when healing waters don’t heal.
When he arrived he brought stories of his miracle cure. He’d cured the brain cancer of a man in Muscatine by opening his skull and sprinkling the miracle cure he’d devised on the man’s very brain. He wanted people to know the naked truth, he said, so he showed them his process. He didn’t show us how he made his miracle cure—though that would come out later—but he didn’t just hide behind the microphone at his radio station, either.
Most recently, he said, he’d come from Mexico way, Nuevo Laredo, a place that seemed as exotic as New York, almost, where he’d run another radio station. But he was called here, he told us. Here, Eureka Springs. To help us. Save us. And we believed him for a time.
The hotel hadn’t been a full-time, money-making operation since the 20s, when it was the finishing school for rich Northern girls. The Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women, they called it. They’d hoped the people that spent their summers there would send their daughters there, and they did, until they didn’t. For a little while after it was a junior college, but the allure had faded. Everyone knew by then the waters didn’t heal. Everyone knew we had become just another stop on the railroad that Powell Clayton had worked so hard to bring us.
Baker opened his resort in 1937. We hadn’t had real tourists in years. When he first moved to town, he had the look in his eyes that you saw in the traveling preacher men. He invited us to see the hotel before he reopened it. Some of us had been up there before. Some of us had even worked there—as groundskeepers and bellhops, maids and servers in the restaurant. He gave us tours of the grounds, in small groups, telling us how his miracle cure had helped hundreds, no, thousands of people in both the United States and Mexico. Eureka Springs, with its miracle water—no one bothered to tell him it was not miracle water any more—would be ideal to help more people than ever before. On these tours, he promised us that we’d see the benefits of his cure. There would be more people than ever before. So many that the trains would have to run double time from Fayetteville and Memphis and Springfield. All you needed, Baker assured us, was a little faith.
When my mother was told she was going to die, I tried to contact Baker. In the seven months since the hotel had opened, we had indeed seen more people than ever. The resort drew visitors from as far away as London, once, because of Baker’s cure.
I tried to go to the resort, but was not allowed in. I was not employed there, and therefore not allowed entrance. I could see people through the glass panes in the doors, their bodies distorted, making them seem bloated, floating through the halls in their Sunday finest.
I tried stopping Baker when I saw him in town, but was ignored, like a vagrant. I asked him to speak to me, to see my mother, to cure her, because that’s why he was here, and he went on ticking things off on a clipboard at the general store.
I tried sending him telegrams, one per day for two weeks, all saying the same thing: Please help my mother, this is why you’re here.
My mother was getting worse. She had not left her bed in a month. I was at the bar where the other Ozarka Water Company employees went one night, when Baker happened in. This did not happen often. When we saw him in town, it was on business. He looked drunk already, the wide-eyed preacher intensity gone blurry, shrunk. We would not find out that he was being taken to court until the newspapers reported it the next week.
I offered to buy him a shot, and asked him to help my mother. He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. He told me to run. That was how to cure it. Run.
I knew by then his cancer cure was a fake. It wasn’t hard to pick up on that. If he believed in our water, we could not believe in him, but at the same time, he’d brought so many, done so much in such a short time. He had to have done something right and I wanted to know what.
Cure my mother, I told him again. I could smell my own breath hitting his face, heavy with oak and ethanol.
Run, he said again, and you will feel better.
My mother, I said. We’d ended up outside the bar and he leaned into me, his forehead against mine. He smelled like pine and his eyes were bloodshot.
Run. Run, run, run.
I grabbed him by the shoulder, pinched. Told him that would not help. It would, he reassured me. How do I think he’d ended up here?
I thought of my mother at home, asleep maybe, in pain surely. She would be dead in six weeks, if she were lucky. There was no cure for this, I knew, she knew, Baker knew. I spun Baker to look at me and I traced the spider web veins in his eyes.
Run, he said.
Sam Slaughter is the Food & Drink Editor for the men’s lifestyle magazine The Manual. He is the author of Grown Up Drinks (forthcoming), God in Neon, and When You Cross That Line. His fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have been featured in places such as Maxim, The Bitter Southerner, Midwestern Gothic, and more. He can be found online at therealsamslaughter.com and on Twitter/Instagram @slaughterwrites.