EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Before the group goes down to “meet the ghosts,” the guide asks if anyone has had an encounter before. Only one hand goes up. Ghost tours are apparently for the curious, not the converted.
Tom Kittell, for one, keeps his hands firmly by his side.
“Scentific, extremely skeptical — do not believe,” he says by way of introduction.
The guide, Linda McCarthy, gives him a wait-and-see smile, then reminds the group to take pictures in case phones catch something they can’t see.
The group is in a drawing room at the Crescent Hotel, a building whose extraordinary history has yielded more than its share of ghost stories. Ahead of the group are eight supernatural stories — and a visit to the morgue.
There’s room for doubt.
Looking for proof
Built with the backing of the railroad industry, the Crescent was designed to entice wealthy people into buying train tickets. On the eve of its opening in 1886, the Eureka Springs newspaper wrote of the hotel’s “opulence unmatched in convenience and service.”
In the first years, guests at the hotel passed the time swimming and playing tennis. They took “tally-ho rides” in carriages drawn by teams of eight black horses.
Among the early guests was an unnamed little girl said to have fallen to her death in the stairwell after slipping through a fourth floor railing.
As McCarthy recounted the mischief that guests have attributed to the little girl’s spirit, Kittell, the skeptic, reached over to check the status of the Ghostmeter, a device intended to detect the presence of spirits.
Steve Crabtree, 67, began snapping photos, aiming his camera indiscriminately at the walls, the floors, the lighting fixtures. He said he hoped to record a ghost or an orb, which are thought to signal the presence of a spirit.
“I never have seen one yet, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “I’m just looking to find proof that there is.”
Crabtree is already planning a return trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi — another famously haunted place — after his trip to a hotel there didn’t yield results, and he said he would return to the Crescent if he came up empty-handed.
He kept taking pictures as the tour moved on to the balcony, where sweeping views take in the valley below the hotel.
Shrouded in mystery
The valley’s many springs first attracted members of the Cherokee and Osage tribes to the area, followed by a "quack" doctor who bottled the water and sold it as medicine, and, eventually, the founders of the Crescent, who used the springs to market the hotel spa.
But the appeal didn’t last. A shift in public attitudes about health and wellness weakened the draw of the springs in the early 20th century, and a string of slow off seasons forced the Crescent Hotel to close.
It was replaced in 1908 by the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women, which soon supplied its own share of ghosts.
One fell from the third floor in circumstances that are still shrouded, McCarthy said.
Standing on the balcony, the group had a clear line of sight to a lookout point across the valley. It was from that point that an off-duty police officer is said to have seen a dark shape plummet from the third floor. He rushed to the hotel, but found nothing. The Conservatory had been closed for years.
Decades later, she materialized again, this time in a selfie taken at the hotel restaurant. Henry and Denni Perry took a close look at the photo as it circulated among the tour participants. They were visiting the hotel to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary. While they both said they enjoy learning the history of the Crescent, they did not plan to stay the night.
“She wouldn’t sleep a wink,” Henry Perry said.
While Denni Perry says she has seen a ghost, her husband has not — but he is keeping his mind open.
Nurses 'haunt' halls
From the balcony, the group moved to the third floor, then the second, descending toward the morgue built by “Dr.” Norman Baker.
Baker was a stage performer, an inventor and a fraud. In the late 1930s he established a “Curable Cancer” hospital in the hotel using a fortune amassed from sales of one of his inventions, a mechanical pipe instrument powered by compressed air instead of steam.
Advertisements for the hospital denounced the medical establishment’s approach to cancer treatment, claiming that surgery and radiation were ineffective compared with his cure, an injection made of tea, cloves and carbolic acid.
Baker was charismatic, and his treatment was popular. Investigators for the U.S. Postal Inspector, who would help send him to prison for mail fraud, estimated that the cancer sanitarium was bringing in $500,000.
Nurses from the sanitarium are still thought to haunt the halls of the hotel, but it is the morgue — built in spite of Baker’s claims that no one ever died in his care — that drew the attention of high-profile supernaturalists.
Scary good business
Investigators for the television show "Ghost Hunters" visited the Crescent in 2005.
Their cameras caught what they said was a hunched male figure on camera in the morgue, a discovery that sparked a wave of interest in the Crescent ghost tour. Now, about 30,000 people take a ghost tour at the hotel each year.
Huddled together in the dank space, members of the tour group from skeptic to believer grabbed hold of whoever they had brought along.
The Ghostmeter beeped faster.
A door opened.
Later that evening, in the light of the lobby, Keith Scales said the stories stand on their own.
“If we just tell the story right, we don’t have to do much more,” said Scales, tour manager for the Crescent.
“We don’t try to convince anyone, but I don’t see how it’s possible to say ‘there’s no such thing as ghosts.’ We’re just starting to lift the curtain.”
The curious can visit the Crescent Hotel at 75 Prospect Ave in Eureka Springs, Ark. Call 855-725-5720 for more information. Ghost tour reservations can be made at reserveeureka.com; tickets are $26 including fees.