Do you believe in ghosts?
As the daughter on a scientist, I tend to lead a pretty practical, logical, rational existence. I like to look at the world and find explanations for things I don’t understand. (Thank you, Google.) However, my mom grew up in the hills of Kentucky. For a brilliant woman, she held fast to many of her childhood superstitions. Even today, I laughingly knock on wood and throw a pinch of salt over my shoulder (but I aim at the sink when I do). I don’t talk about my dreams before breakfast, and I certainly don’t say things like, “Wow, I haven’t been sick in ages”—because why tempt fate? Embarrassingly, I guess I do share a few ingrained superstitions with my mom, no matter how much I try to be logical. Still, sometimes there are things that I find mystifying, certain phenomena that defy explanations. My sisters and I often say that my mom had a sixth sense—or else she had the best network of informants pre-cell phone era. She just knew things. It was scary.
Peter claims I’ve inherited her sixth sense. And sometimes, I think it’s true.
You know that feeling. Admit it. We’ve all had that weird, creepy, back-of-the-neck tingling when we thought someone was behind us—but the room was empty. We laugh it off, then turn back into our rational, scientific selves.
But when Halloween approaches, we can’t help but embrace the scary, spooky, mysterious world. It’s the season for hauntingly creepy ghost stories. It’s the time of year when we try to scare ourselves silly with commercially installed haunted houses and slasher movies. Personally, I pass at gory seasonal celebrations and opt for tame hayrides, bonfires, and pumpkin carvings. I used to adore Stephen King books and scary movies…and then I became a mom. The great fright lost its appeal.
In April, however, when I found myself at America’s Most Haunted Hotel as part of the #ARStory Road Trip, sponsored by the Arkansas Tourism Bureau, I decided to put my scientific self on the shelf for the visit and embrace my inner thrill seeker. After all, how often does a girl get to have dinner and drinks with ghosts?
To say that Eureka Springs is a quirky town is an understatement.
Where else can you stay at a Bed and Breakfast named after a dark comedy renowned for spinster aunts poisoning lonely old men...
...discover a church listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not (because you enter it through the bell tower)...
...then cross the street to America’s Most Haunted Hotel?
The entire town sits on an undercurrent of magical, mystical history. In the earliest days, several native American tribes spoke of the legends of the “Great Healing Spring” in the mountains of what became Arkansas. The magical waters cured an Indian princess’ blindness, according to legends. Visitors flocked to Basin Spring, seeking cures for ailments. As word spread about the healing waters, Eureka Springs transformed from an isolated wilderness into a flourishing city within a few months. Tents and shanties of the afflicted soon were replaced with a vibrant city of 10,000 inhabitants, and in 1881 the town was declared a “City of the First Class.”
Aiding in the development of the town’s first-class status was The Eureka Springs Improvement Company. Formed in 1882 to bring the railroad to the city and develop first-class amenities for the “carriage set,” General Powell Clayton used his ties to the railroad and his wealthy St. Louis connections to build an elite infrastructure for Eureka Springs. Most notably, he created the Crescent Hotel—the site currently noted as America’s Most Haunted Hotel.
Before the Crescent Hotel became renowned for its haunted happenings, it was the epitome of style and luxury for the wealthy. Built for $294,000, the hotel opened in 1886 as an exclusive year-round resort for the upper class. During the Victorian years, the resort flourished, offering gracious southern hospitality along with fabulous amenities. A stable filled with 100 of the finest horses, tea dances, and an in-house orchestra occupied and entertained the carriage set, as they enjoyed the healing springs and each other’s company.
However, times changed, and from 1908-1934, the Crescent Hotel opened only during the summer months. Instead, wealthy families enrolled their daughters in the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women, which operated at the site during the remaining months of the year. (One of these “fine young ladies” apparently never left the school, according to our tour guide.)
After the Great Depression, the Crescent fell into hard times, finally shutting its doors in 1934.
Then things got really creepy.
In 1937, Norman Glenwood Baker founded the Baker Cancer Hospital at the former Crescent Hotel. A high school dropout, Baker contracted TB at 18 and was told he had three months to live. He claimed to beat TB by constantly repeating to himself, “I am well.” He then created an interesting career: inventor, vaudeville performer, owner of the first radio station where he spread fear-mongering, anti-government messages, then ultimately purchasing the Crescent for $40,000.
The hospital catered to cancer patients. Although “Doctor” Baker’s resume offered no medical credentials, he promised to cure patients with his regime. His “cures” included elixirs that contained ground watermelon seeds, plain water, and carbolic acid—which did kill cancer cells, as well as the patients. By promoting the hospital’s treatments to the afflicted, Baker earned more than $4 million—while also condemning his patients to suffering and death through his treatments.
The ghoulish hospital stories make your skin crawl. Frankly, many parts of the ghost tour experience left me with goosebumps. And questions. Baker ultimately was charged with mail fraud and incarcerated. The hospital closed, and the Crescent remained shuttered until 1997, when Marty and Elise Roenigk purchased the building and invested more than $10 million to return the hotel to its former glory. The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa was reborn.
Before my fearless travel companion, Robin Horton of Urban Gardens, and I set off on our Ghost Tour, we met the Crescent Hotel’s communications manager, Bill Ott, for dinner and drinks in the lovely Crystal Dining Room.
Bill regaled us with tales about the hotel, Eureka Springs, and the infamous hauntings. Bill’s an interesting character. Not only does he manage the communications of the Crescent, he’s also a much sought after Elvis impersonator—and wedding officiate. Need someone to preside over your wedding vows dressed as a medieval monk or Elvis? Bill’s your guy. He’s a compelling storyteller and entertaining dinner companion.
Before our official ghost tour began, Bill shared stories of dining room hauntings, while I sipped my cocktail. I thought it might be necessary to fortify my courage for the adventures ahead.
For some reason (perhaps it was the cocktail), the idea of spirits garbed in Victorian attire whirling around the dining room seemed charming to me. I especially loved the idea of a 19th century gentleman, seen sitting at a table near a window, who says, “I saw the most beautiful woman here last night, and I am waiting for her to return.”
I’m a little bit in love with that ghost.
Most of the dining room spirits are quite playful, according to accounts. One Christmas, the tree and presents were moved from one side of the dining room to the other, with the chairs arranged to circle the tree. Another time, the dining room was spotless—except that the menus were scattered around the room.
After dinner, Bill escorted us to meet our ghost tour leader. If I thought Bill was a wonderful story teller, our tour guide put him to shame. Her warm presentation—as if the ghosts were personal friends of hers—and fabulous history lessons about the hotel were worth the tour, regardless of whether any spirits made an appearance.
We gathered in a room with other ghost hunters, listening to our guide tell us what we might expect. Apparently, spirits find electronics quite attractive. In fact, she said, we might notice a sudden loss of power in our cameras and cell phones, as spirits are drawn to absorbing their energy.
She also reassured us that the spirits at the Crescent Hotel are friendly, sometimes a bit mischievous, but certainly not frightening.
Good to know.
As we left the room to begin our tour throughout the hotel, she told us that the most frequent ghostly sitings were of orbs—ball-like flashes of energy that move throughout the hotel. Basically, they look like bluish water spots in photographs or moving lights on video.
I resolved right then: I would capture an orb on video or photo. If I really had my mother’s sixth sense, they’d naturally flock to me, right?
Our guide led us outside to the balcony, where the hotel’s Sky Bar Gourmet Pizza resided. There, while trying not to infringe on the personal space of guests looking to enjoy their meals without 30 ghost hunters lurking over their tables, she captivated us with a tale of ghostly scandal.
During the years of the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women, a young girl either jumped or was pushed from a balcony, falling to her death. Guests report hearing her screams as she falls. Our guide added that during that time, the college used a pulley system from the girls’ rooms to lower the laundry baskets outside. According to the legend, a young man—perhaps the girl’s boyfriend—used the basket to visit her room. The Dean of the College discovered the boy, but the girl was already pregnant. Did she jump to her death out of shame—or was she pushed to cover up a scandal? We’ll never know.
For the record, I didn’t hear any screams.
We returned inside the hotel in search of orbs while our guide recounted the tale of Michael, one of the most often sited apparitions. Michael, a red-haired Irishman, worked on the original hotel in 1885 as one of its stonemasons. While working on the roof, he lost his balance, fell to the second floor area, and died. Room 218 of the hotel is located where he died—and it’s considered the most haunted room of the hotel. According to our guide, Michael likes lady guests, particularly enjoying pulling the shower curtain open and watching from the mirror. He’s also been known to play with the lights, the doors, and the television. Some guests found that after they’ve poured a drink, particularly of whiskey, Michael empties the glass.
Michael enjoys his spirits. (OK, that was lame. I know.)
As we moved through the halls, the lighting alone intensified the creepiness. Our guide stood near a railing by a staircase, telling us of a young girl who fell to her death after stumbling over the rail. Suddenly, several guests started talking excitedly, the video rolling on their phones.
I pulled out my phone, trying to capture the ghostly blue lights, while around me people were sharing their captured videos with each other. I saw three orbs shoot off to the right, one fly toward the rear of the staircase—they’re fast little suckers!—while Robin stood beside me, saying “I see nothing.” Determined to prove to her that there were, in fact, spirits among us, I played the video for her.
All that I had was the recording of the stairwell, with Robin’s voice in the background: “I see nothing.”
A woman next to me showed me her camera, and there they were—several zippy little electric orbs.
Now, I was determined. I would get an orb on film—well, figurative film, since we don’t use film anymore.
As we worked our way down through the levels of the hotel, we learned about a helpful ghost without a name. She often tidies up after guests. However, don’t get on her bad side. She’s also been known to kick out disrespectful guests, packing their bags and leaving them in the hallway.
I didn’t see any luggage in the hallway.
Suddenly, as I stood listening to the story of spectral “Theodora,” a cancer patient who introduces herself to guests and then disappears, I felt something.
On my neck.
Something was touching my neck!!!!
And then, snickering.
After shrieking and jumping out of my skin, I turned to find that one of the guests decided to play ghost.
OK. It was funny.
Finally, we reached the epitome of haunting sites: the basement. Here, Dr. Baker performed autopsies on his deceased patients. Apparently, he also kept patients’ body parts stored in formaldehyde in a room in the basement. Obviously, that room is a hotbed of spectral activity. Can’t imagine why. (“Excuse me, have you seen my brain? I’d like it for the Afterworld, please.”)
Our guide dimmed the lights, awaiting the running of rampant orbs…
I did notice, though, that both my iPhone and camera were almost power depleted. Had the spirits sucked the energy out of my devices? Or were they dying a natural death, since it was almost 10 p.m., and I’d been taking photos all day?
It was a mystery.
As a final attempt to capture the essence of the haunted hotel (and hopefully capture a ghostly image to share), our guide invited us into the morgue. She warned us that she would shut the door and turn off the lights for the best chance to see an apparition.
I was ready. With cameras in hand, I waited for the orbs to appear.
In a morgue. Where Baker piled hundreds of bodies. Poor, sad souls, tortured and tricked into handing over their life savings in the hopes for a cure.
More than anything, it made me sad.
And then, suddenly, Robin was out. My friend abandoned me to the angry spirits in the morgue!
Seriously, she left me there. I can’t imagine why she didn’t want to stay in the enclosed former morgue, waiting for spirits to appear.
No spirits appeared. No orbs. A big case of the creeps did arrive, though, and I joined Robin outside the morgue room.
As our tour ended and we left the basement, we passed the lovely hotel spa, which was located right next to the basement/morgue area.
Honestly, I can’t imagine settling in for a relaxing massage, wondering if the spirit of Dr. Baker in his white linen suit and lavender shirt or an angry patient might make an appearance. I can’t imagine relaxing enough to enjoy the spa experience.
Plus, if I suddenly bolted from the massage table due to a visit from an angry spirit, the sight might seriously scare the hotel guests--much more than any of the friendly resident spirits.
Sadly, we left the hotel without ghostly evidence. No photos, no video. Still, the spirit potential is there. Check out this video from the television show, "Ghost Hunters." Perhaps you’ll be convinced.
Besides, maybe the spirits were saving their energy for Halloween.
Have you experienced any real-life ghost stories? Set aside your inner scientific skeptic—and share them for Halloween! Please???
P.S. Disclosure: the Arkansas Tourism Board sponsored my trip to Eureka Springs. However, no ghosts forced my opinions. For more information about the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, call 855-725-5720.