The Crescent Hotel: Ghosts and Debutantes

No Telling
Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, AR c. 1890s (Wikimedia Commons)

Had a marvelous getaway this summer – shopping, knitting, scribbling, eating, ghost touring – up in the Ozark Mountains where a Very Big Outstreched Jesus looks unsmiling on all of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He turns most of his stern gaze across the mountain toward the Crescent Hotel. After what I discovered, he probably should.

A Little Background Music

The Crescent Hotel was built in 1886 and spent its first fifteen years as a year-round hotspot for the ridiculously rich. To the hounds, and all that. It appears the rich nouveaued elsewhere after a while and owners needed to keep the place running for the eight or nine months their clientele were otherwise entertained. In 1908 the Crescent Hotel opened the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women that catered to wealthy men’s daughters and kept the place financially afloat.

In 1937, a charlatan and failed magician named Norman Baker bought the hotel after he was run out of Iowa on a rail for practicing medicine without a license. He immediately turned the Crescent into a homeopathic cancer hospital and pulled in over 500k a year watching people die while he gave them his own special watermelon seed and carbolic acid elixir. By 1940, he was convicted of mail fraud and spent his final days in Leavenworth dying of cancer. Karma.

The Hauntings

The Crescent Hotel is famous for its ghosts, and there are plenty. A lusty stone mason named Michael tends to be inappropriate with women who stay in room 218. Theodora is a cancer patient who regularly moves in and out of room 419, although she sometimes forgets her key. A nurse rattles a gurney down the second floor hall at all times of night. Dancer Irene Castle twirls around here and there as a celebrity spirit. Even Dr. Baker himself has been seen roaming the basement that was once his autopsy room.

The one I’m most interested in is an unnamed Woman in White, a student of the Conservatory for Women who either threw herself or was pushed from the third floor balcony. She was “with child” and rumored to be in love with a local boy. Although I didn’t see her, it’s said she often tends to float upward from the place she fell.

The Best Stories begin with Questions

And I have plenty. While I find the good doctor’s story intriguing, tales of chicanery and confidence men in Arkansas are fairly commonplace. The handsy stone mason ghost is more of an anecdotal punchline. For true story power, it’s the Conservatory for Women and that young thing tumbling over the balcony.

A nine-month finishing school for wealthy young women. What rich man sends his precious daughter in the best marriageable years of her life to such a remote location? I didn’t buy this initially, and for a day or so assumed these were Working Girls housed at the Crescent Hotel for the convenience of wealthy male visitors. It’s still a possibility.

One of the few pictures of the girls at the Conservatory. They’re bowling.

If the Conservatory was truly the school it purported to be, there should be attendance records, and those easy enough to research. It’s the “why” that’s compelling. Were these girls troublesome enough at home to require shipping off? Or were they In Trouble, and the Crescent Hotel a lying-in hospital for unwed mothers? The historical and physical juxtaposition of St. Elizabeth’s Church, with it’s odd bell tower entry yards from the hotel’s front door is curious. The sisters of St. Elizabeth’s operated a small hospital and girls’ school at the same time, although probably for a less moneyed clientele. Was there an orphanage? Makes me wonder.

So do the stories about laundry being lowered up and down via pullies and a large basket. And there’s that Woman in White plunging over the third floor railing.

Bottom line, at the turn of the last century wealthy girls in their late teens and early twenties were busy making their debuts and finding husbands, they were not lingering most of a year far away from home in the Arkansas Ozarks. There were reasons girls were sent away like that, and none of them were flattering. 

There’s the story.

And the Very Big Jesus? No connection. It turns out the 65 1/2 foot statue was the centerpiece of a late-60s religious themepark that never quite materialized. God I love Arkansas.

For the curious:

Links to videos from visitors, including my favorite series featuring some charming kids who do a great job narrating their investigation. In addition, a few ghostly photos taken by hotel guests and visitors.

At the river bridge


This is not a ghost story because no one saw a ghost. It begins on Thursday after lunch sometime when a man who stops at the Citgo station for cigarettes is driving the upward curve of the river bridge at the lock and dam. See, there he is wrestling with the cellophane opening strip of his second pack of Marlboros. That’s why the adrenaline shot clean through the top of his head when he rounded the top of the bridge and saw the white Malibu stopped dead in front of him. There he goes, all twisted in a cigarette pack and swerving with a fast thumb, so it’s no surprise that on the narrowish bridge his truck slices the driver’s open door backward, where it swings like a limp fracture until it lets loose and spins across the double yellow lines.

He thinks he’s hit a woman. For the smallest second he thought he’d seen a swish of brown hair and that he’d look back after the brakes stopped screaming to see the blood and nasty of a terrible thing. In the oblong rearview mirror he realizes it is not a woman he hit but a car door, and that the long brown hair belongs to the head of a woman perched girl-like on the railing. It covers her face as she looks at him. She is real and not a ghost, but as soon as he slams out of his truck the woman and her long hair push off from the railing and into the boil of the waters below the dam. He stops right there in the scary middle of the bridge’s crest. He might be thinking she is a haunt or a misremembered story or the sun is too high and the water playing tricks. Hell, all he did was pull out of the Citgo.

When he reaches the railing there is nothing to see. The car is real, the key chain sways a little in the ignition and the car is still running. The Malibu’s shorn-off door is a hell of a mess and so is the passenger side of his truck. He looks down at his right hand, where the crushproof pack of Marlboros are now crushed, the cellophane easy-opening strip still dangling.