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Crescent Hotel History

Pure Hoax: The Norman Baker Story

By Stephen Spence

In the spring of 1930 John Tunis’s 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, which stood for Know the Naked Truth. 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’s 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 business man, 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.

But in time they learned.

John Tunis would later testify in court against Norman Baker. “She 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. She was in terrible shape when she left the Baker Institute and went down in bed right away.”

Lula was dead by Christmas.

In the introduction of Norman’s bought and paid for biography, “Doctors, Dynamiters and Gunmen” author Alvin Winston wrote “This is an inspiration book for young and old. A fact story of how a man fought his enemies-how he faced Gunmen, Dynamiters and enemy Doctors-how he fought the medical racket, the radio trust, the aluminum trust and others. He did it for you….There has never been a book prepared so carefully. This makes it the most important book ever written. Read the life story of Norman Baker the greatest one man battle ever fought.”

That was how Norman Baker wanted the world to see him. As a crusader who fought to protect the common man against exploitation. But behind the mask of humanitarianism was a man who leeched off the sick and dying to make hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although tragic, Lula’s story is far from unique. It could be interchanged with hundreds of other desperate cancer sufferers who came to Norman Baker looking for a cure but found only suffering and death. It was the way of things at Baker’s Hospitals in Muscatine, Iowa, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas for nearly a decade.

Norman Baker was born on November 27, 1882, in Muscatine, Iowa. He was the youngest of 10 children. In 1898 at the age of sixteen Norman quit high school to take a job as a machinist. For a few years he traveled from town to town working as a die and tool maker where he could. Then one night Norman saw a “mental suggestion” magic show by a performer named “Professor Flint.” Norman was captivated by Flint’s abilities, and resolved to start a similar show of his own.

After a few false starts Norman got his performance troupe off the ground in 1904. The star of his show was a mind reader with the stage name “Madame Pearl Tangley.” The show was a hit, and found an audience on the vaudeville circuit. According to Norman’s biography the show drew 300 a week. In 1909 the original Madame Tangley decided to quit the troupe. A college girl named Theresa Pinder replaced her, and a year later Norman and Theresa married.

The show continued for another four years until the summer of 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Baker found themselves in Muscatine again for a long break from the show. They had intended to go back out on the road again in the fall, but fate intervened.

While tinkering in his brother’s machine shop that summer Norman came up with an innovation for a new kind of organ, called the Air Calliaphone. It was played with air, rather than steam, making it much more efficient. He sold the first one for $500 dollars (just under $10,000 in today’s money). He made two more and sold them immediately. Suddenly the “amusement” business didn’t seem so attractive anymore. He decided to quit altogether and manufacture his new invention. It soon made him a wealthy man.

1915 was a year of big change for Baker. He quit the theatre business, divorced his wife, and became a full time manufacturer. At its height, this business pulled in $200,000 a year. In 1920, Norman opened an art correspondence school, called the Tangley School. He freely admitted that he could not draw at all himself. But that didn’t stop him from netting over $75,000 in three years ostensibly teaching other people to do it.

Norman always tried to cloak his business maneuverings as civic duty or magnanimous human crusade. But he never undertook any venture that didn’t come with a healthy profit margin. So it was no surprise in 1925 when Norman went to the Muscatine Chamber of Commerce under the guise of civic duty and offered to build a radio station that would “popularize Muscatine, Iowa throughout the world.” All he asked in return for his gesture was “free electricity, water, and taxes.”

The city fathers gave Norman what he wanted. He promised daily talks about Muscatine to publicize it in the hope of luring new industries and employers to the sleepy Iowa town. “It’ll lift Muscatine from being a little burg lost in the Mississippi corn fields to a city the whole world knows about,” Norman promised.

Norman secured a license for a 500 watt station. He chose the now infamous call letters “KTNT.” He built his station on the highest hill in Muscatine, which overlooked the Mississippi river. Norman postured that his station would be a beacon of light for “the masses, the hordes of farmers, and laborers and small business men, as well as humanity in general.”

On Thanksgiving Day 1925, KTNT took to the air for the first time. Norman understood the natural unease and distrust the rural population had towards urban big business. He came out swinging at them, framing the argument as little KTNT vs. the Radio Trust. He was fighting for “the freedom of the airwaves,” and his message resonated loudly with his rural audience.

His broadcasts consisted of an interweaving of his attacks on the AMA, Aluminum Trust, and Wall Street and pitching his many mail order products. Norman grasped the power of radio quickly, recognizing it was a way to raise his own profile to unprecedented heights and sell more product.

KTNT was only licensed for 500 watts but often broadcast at 10,000. In 1928 Baker legally received license to broadcast at 10,000 watts meaning his signal could reach well over 1 million homes.

Norman had been a prominent man in the community for well over a decade, but the stature and influence his radio station gave him was exponentially larger than anything he had ever known. KTNT became one of the most prominent radio stations in the Midwest. 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.

Had Norman stuck to heckling all the bogeymen of rural America, like the American Medical Association, and Wall Street, he most likely would have lived out his days in Muscatine as a rich and prominent citizen. But in 1929 he chose a path that led directly to his own ruin.

Norman became aware of a Dr. Charles Ozias, who was operating a cancer sanitarium out of Kansas City. Norman claimed that in the interest of the public good, he wished to investigate whether or not the Dr. Ozias cure worked. Over the KTNT airwaves he called for five volunteers to be treated in Kansas City, with Norman footing the bill. He soon had his five volunteers and sent them to Ozias for treatment for several months in the spring and summer of 1929.

Norman planned to publish an article in the December 1929 issue of his new magazine “TNT” that related his findings. He asserted that using aluminum products, especially aluminum cooking utensils caused Cancer. He warned that cancer was not curable through operation, radium, and x-ray. His new cure used none of these. He referred to surgeons as “cutters.” Normans cure was non-surgical, a series of injections that would eat the cancer without harming the surrounding tissue. The public could now rest easy that there was someone who could cure cancer without carving them up.

There was just one problem. His test patients were starting die. The first one passed on November 25th.

In December “TNT” hit the newsstands anyway with the front page proclaiming “Cancer is Cured” over a smiling picture of Baker and two associates.

Three days after Christmas the second test patient died. The third and fourth patients died in January and February. In March Norman reprinted the December TNT issue detailing the miraculous recovery of his five test patients.

In May of 1930 the last test patient died and Norman reprinted the TNT issue again, without changing a word.

He acquired the cure from Ozias in January of 1930 and opened the Baker Institute in Muscatine. The formula was a solution containing glycerine, carbolic acid, and alcohol, which was mixed with tea brewed from water melon seed, brown corn silk, and clover leaves.

He used KTNT to advertise his new hospital. In March of 1930 he hired Harry Hoxsey, another infamous cancer quack to use Hoxsey’s treatment. Some found it curious that Norman would hire Hoxsey and his treatment if he already had a cure.

However, Hoxsey’s hiring didn’t slow business at the Institute. In the calendar year of 1930 Norman made over $444,000 from Cancer sufferers alone, roughly the equivalent of 4.8 million dollars today.

In April of 1930, Norman Baker found himself in the crosshairs of Morris Fishbein and the American Medical Association. Fishbein was the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. He had made it a personal mission to expose quackery in JAMA. Fishbein recognized that Baker’s attacks were undermining people’s trust in the medical establishment, and went to work putting Norman Baker out of the cancer business. They published multiple articles exposing Baker and his quackery. In the April 12, 1930 edition of JAMA they wrote

“In Iowa at Muscatine, over KTNT, broadcasts a business man named Norman Baker who is selling a cancer cure, with cigars and cheap magazines as side lines. His cancer cure includes the old Hoxsey fake, originally promoted in Illinois, and apparently now resident also in Iowa. This nostrum for cancer is boomed by Mr. Baker over his radio station KTNT, which can be heard almost anywhere after 11 o’clock at night. This is exceedingly proper since it is the time of night when many devious and doubtful ventures are promoted.

Baker has even claimed that the American Medical Association offered him one million dollars for his cancer cure with the intent of forcing it from the market so that patients might be compelled to resort to surgery for the saving of their lives. The lie is so obviously false to any person of intelligence above that of a moron that it needs little thought to convince his hearers of its fallacy. Even if the American Medical Association had a loose million dollars lying around ready to be spent, it is quite certain that a number of better ways for spending it would occur to the trustees who are responsible for the funds of the association.

What is Mr. Baker doing with the money that he is snaring from the pockets of sufferers with cancer and wheedling from the funds of chiropractors, naturopaths, nostrum promoters and other medical malcontents?

The viciousness of Mr. Baker’s broadcasting lies not in what he says about the American Medical Association but in the fact that he induces sufferers from cancer who might have some chance for their lives, if seen early and properly treated, to resort to his nostrum. The method can result in Muscatine, Iowa, as it did in Taylorville, Illinois-merely in death certificates signed by the physicians who have been so poor in finances and in morals as to sell their birthrights to Mr. Baker for his mess of garbage.”

A week later, Norman was again the target in a follow up story.

“Norman Baker’s cancer cure quackery at Muscatine, Iowa has been dealt with by the Des Moines Register. Not only did this paper reprint the statement of the Journal relative to Baker and KTNT but also it made an investigation of its own which established the utter falsehood of the claims made by him in his radio talks. The medical profession, of course, needed no evidence, but a credulous public must be convinced by personal study. The investigation made by the Register revealed many deaths from cancer among the Baker clientele; it revealed the menace of Bakerism to be his vicious influence against modern scientific diagnosis and treatment and modern public health work; it brought to light a Baker who trims his claims to the winds that blow; To all of this what does Baker answer? Merely that he is being persecuted by the “Medical Trust”; that he is benefiting 25 percent of cancers, and that the Des Moines Register is cowardly, contemptible and dirty.” Does this sad old world after all afford any spectacle so terribly pusillanimous or so completely ignominious as an exposed cancer quack?

The state licensing boards, the state prosecuting officials and the other constituted authorities of Kansas and of Iowa owe it to the people of those states to rid their communities as soon as possible of these blatant quacks. The Federal Radio Commission must be depended on by the people in other states to spare them the possibility of hearing the obscene mouthings and pernicious promotions that are broadcast by the stations that these quacks dominate. If these authoritative bodies do not function for the good of the people, our government must find some system that will.”

Norman was livid. He struck back on multiple fronts. The following month He filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the AMA for libel and defamation. He went so far as to accuse the AMA of sending three assassins to KTNT to silence him. According to Norman, a gun fight ensued between himself and the assailants. He and Hoxsey wounded one of the thugs before he and his fellow gunmen made their getaway. Baker filed a report with police but nothing ever came of it, due to lack of evidence. Finally, in an attempt to sway public opinion against the AMA and his other critics, he held a public demonstration of his cure on May 12.

An estimated forty to fifty thousand people came to Muscatine to watch Norman’s demonstration. He had sent out a call from KTNT to see an outdoor exhibition of his cure. His days of running his theatre troupe had taught him how to manipulate a crowd, and he warmed them up with stories of miraculous healing from former patients, who one by one gave their own accounts to the crowd.

To allay fears that his cure was harmful, he drank an enormous dose of his cancer “cure,” and showed no ill effects. The main event was open air surgery on a sixty eight year old man named Mandus Johnson. One of the Baker Institute doctors ostensibly opened up the skull of Johnson while he was still conscious. Baker then applied his cure to what he claimed was cancerous brain tissue, and echoed the statement from the cover of the December issue of TNT. “Cancer is cured,” he said.

Now that he had thoroughly won over his audience, Norman could turn to his real purpose. Damage control against the AMA’s attacks. He launched into a fiery diatribe against the medical trust. He charged them with choosing profits over patients and told the crowd the initials M.D. really stood for “More Dough”. Norman promised the people that he would not let up in his fight with “the Medical Trust” and reminded the crowd that it was them he was fighting for.

The open air demonstration and his daily radio barrages combined to create a booming business for the Baker institute. New patients arrived daily hoping that Baker’s miracle was true. Patients like Lula Tunis.

As the institute flourished, organized medicine turned up the heat on Norman. New articles appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They even debunked the ostensible brain operation on Mandus Johnson as a hoax. Johnson had a condition that caused the inflammation of his outer skull “What the gaping crowd saw at the ‘demonstration’ was not the man’s brain, but the medullary portion of the man’s skull,” the article said.

Beginning in 1931 things began to unravel for Norman. The AMA actively lobbied the Federal Radio Commission to revoke Baker’s radio license. In May of 1931 they officially refused to renew his license and forced him from the air.

Norman’s suit against the AMA was ruled against him and his reputation took a beating. A steady stream of relatives and former patients testified in court and recounted Norman’s sins in public.

The final blow was an arrest warrant issued against him for practicing medicine without a license

Norman fled to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to build a new 100,000 watt radio station that would be out of the legal reach of the Federal Radio Commission.

Norman remained in Mexico until 1937, broadcasting from his station and trying to influence from a distance. He even ran a small cancer hospital there. But he grew restless.

He returned to Muscatine, plead guilty and served a one day sentence for practicing medicine without a license. After an unsuccessful bid for Iowa’s senate seat, Norman left Muscatine for good.

Having been run out of his home state, Norman moved to Arkansas. This time to the Ozarks and the town of Eureka Springs. There he bought a majestic Victorian hotel that had fallen on hard times. The Crescent hotel sat on a hill 2,000 feet above sea level overlooking the town nestled below. He called it a “Castle in the Air” and made it the new location of the Baker Hospital.

Norman picked up where he had left off in Iowa. Running the same medical scams in the Ozarks that had made him hundreds of thousands of dollars in Iowa. According to one US Postal Inspector Norman was pulling in $500,000 a year in Eureka Springs.

For two years, He thrived in there, but the clock was ticking on Norman. He was now a marked man by federal authorities. They quietly investigated him and in 1939 they closed in.

After ten years of being hounded by the authorities and the AMA all it took to bring Baker down was seven letters placed in the United States mail advertising his services. Norman Baker was arrested by federal authorities and charged with using the mails to defraud.

The trial was held in January of 1940 in Little Rock and Norman was found guilty on all seven counts. He appealed the decision, but was denied. The opinion handed down by the court of appeals said that Norman’s cancer cure was “pure hoax.”

In January of 1940 Norman arrived at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary to serve a 4 year sentence. One investigator wrote “Our investigation indicates that Baker and his associates defrauded Cancer sufferers out of approximately $4,000,000. Our investigation further shows that a great majority of the people who were actually suffering with cancer who took the treatment lived but a short while after returning to their homes from the hospital. We believe that the treatment hastened the death of the sufferers in most cases. It appears to us that the sentence of four years which Baker received and the fine of $4000 was an extremely light penalty under the circumstances.” He was no longer Norman Baker, millionaire business man, and cancer maverick. Now he was simply known as inmate 58197.

In a statement in the Warden’s report Norman said, “I am not guilty. They have never proved anything in the indictment. We figure this was a railroading proposition. It is my opinion that the jury was fixed and influenced. We have hired private detectives to look into the matter. It is believed that whiskey and women were made available to the jurors. We were railroaded by the American Medical Association who have been after me for years.”

Norman was released from Leavenworth on July 19, 1944. He retired to Florida and lived comfortably until his death in 1958.

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 at survival.

So was Norman a greedy sociopath, devoid of conscience? Or was simply a delusional man who convinced himself that his cure really worked?
After interviewing Norman, the Leavenworth psychiatrist concluded that he was delusional, and that Baker did not believe that he had done anything wrong.

But Norman’s own words reveal a different sentiment. While serving his sentence at Leavenworth, no longer burdened with keeping up appearances for the public, he let his guard down. “If I could keep my radio station open,” he said “I would make a million dollars out of the suckers of the states.”

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