The Irish Ghosts of America: Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, AZ

The Crescent Hotel. Well, it sure looks haunted.

Autumn is approaching, and I suppose I just feel that old haunted feeling coming on, so I have decided to add a feature to this blog about American places that are haunted by Irish or Irish-American ghosts. I don’t especially believe in ghosts, mind you, but I am a fan of a good, spooky yarn.

I also feel like ghost stories can sometimes serve as a secret history of a place. Most of the time, when you research a haunting, there is nothing to it — there is a large white building in Omaha called the White House Apartments that people claim is haunted by soldiers who died there when the building was used as a hospital during a war, but it never was. I work next to a building that is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a Civil War-era general, but he lived there for a year and didn’t like it, and so if he is condemned to haunt it, it is an odd eternal punishment, as though I were forced to spend eternity in my least favorite apartment.

But sometimes, when you dig, you discover an actual tragedy, long-forgotten, that may have inspired the story. Or sometimes the ghost stories reflects a peculiar piece of history, so strange to us now that it seems like it must be supernatural, that can inform us about our past.

I begin with a place that is well-known for being haunted, and is run by people who love the fact, and know it to be something that can be monetized, and so promote it as “the most haunted hotel in America.” It is the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, AZ, and it is a frequent topic of stories about haints. “Ghost Hunters” came to the hotel, and filmed, and thought they saw a guy in a hat, which, to be fair, is more than they usually see.

But there is one ghost in particular that I am interested in. His name was Michael, according to the hotel’s own history, and he was an Irish stonemason who fell off the roof to his death in 1886, when the building was built.

First, a bit about the hotel, which has an unusual enough history that it really shouldn’t need ghost stories to attract public attention. It started as a resort, but did poorly, and went through a few incarnations as a women’s school and then a junior college. Finally, in 1937, its fortunes briefly changed when it was purchased by Norman G. Baker, because Baker was a quack.

Normal G. Baker: Fraud psychic, antisemite, and quack.

Baker was an Iowan and former vaudevillian who had early success building calliopes for circuses. He traveled the country for a while with his own team of mind-readers, calling himself “Charles Welch.” He started several radio stations, where he voiced antisemitic and anti-Catholic viewpoints along with paranoid rants, rumored live broadcasts of his own sexual encounters, and hillbilly music. He is reported to have owned purple cars and wore lavender suits. And, one day, he decided he could cure cancer.

What was his cure? According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, it was injections of “clover, corn silk, watermelon seed, and water.” He opened a hospital in Maskatine, Iowa, but was driven out in 1931. He then bought the Crescent Hotel in 1937 and reopened it as a resort and hospital, which lasted three years until he was imprisoned for mail fraud.

The hotel found new owners, and plodded on, almost burning up completely in 1967. It was renovated in 1997, and its current ownership has extensively promoted the hotel as being haunted. Ghosts are said to include various Victorians, a cancer patient, a former doctor, and even Baker himself, who died in 1958. Here is what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had to say about Michael, our Irish ghost, in 2008:

Michael was a red-haired, Irish stone mason who fell to his death when the Crescent was under construction in 1886. He landed in what today is Room 218, a popular spot for spirit seekers

The first mention that I could locate of possible hauntings in the hotel is 1999, in Stamford, CT, Daily Advocate, although it makes no mention of Michael, and in October of 2000 an AP interview with the hotel’s manager makes explicit that the hotel’s reputation for being haunted is being used to promote the venue.

It is possible to read this cynically, but I prefer not to. The cynical reading would be that the hotel’s reputation for ghosts has been fabricated or exaggerated by its owners, hoping to capitalize on this; I suspect it’s more likely that the building already had a reputation for ghosts and was already starting to attract visitors interested in the subject, and the hotel is simply catering to their interests.

Was there an actual Irish stonemason named Michael who fell from the roof? If there was, his death went uncommented on in the newspapers of the era that I searched. The story is not beyond credibility — the hotel was built with quite a lot of stonework, and there were plenty of Irish stonemasons during that era. That being said, these seem like awfully particular details for something that has no available documentary evidence. To the best of my ability to tell, the only thing the hotel has to offer about Michael is a photograph said to be of him, which strikes me as odd. Who has portrait photos of their workmen?

A photo of Michael the Irish ghost? Picture by Michael Woods.

In fact, the details seem to be in dispute. Hauntedhouses.com offers a Michael who may have been a Swedish carpenter, and rather than have red hair, has long blond hair and a huge beard; that’s not at all what the photo of Michael looks like, and sounds like a Viking rather than an Irishman. A poster on Geekfest insists that all these stories are fabrications; the poster claims to have known someone who grew up near the hotel, and that there were no rumors of it being haunted before an unnamed owner started spreading stories of hauntings.

Again, to be generous, it doesn’t require any heroic effort on the part of a hotel staff to get word out that a place is haunted. Pretty much any old building in America will have people insisting it is filled with spectral presences, and one merely need be amenable to their interests for psychic weekenders, amateur ghost hunters, and film crews to show up. People who like ghost stories go where they are welcome, and ghost stories appear where they are told.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.