Norman Baker and The Naked Truth

Norman Baker portrait, MSS 2008-024

Norman G. Baker assumed many roles during his life – vaudeville performer, mail-order salesman, calliope manufacturer, congressional candidate. However, his greatest notoriety stems from his discredited cancer cure and the media empire that sold it to America.

This post explores the myth and truth surrounding Norman Baker the publisher and broadcaster, with the help of selections from Special Collections & Archives holdings.

The Showman

Norman Baker was born in 1882 in Muscatine, Iowa. By 1914 he had moved away, joined a vaudeville act, married a fortune teller, and moved back to Muscatine to found the Tangley Company. Tangley had several operations, perhaps inspired by Baker’s show business career, including manufacturing calliopes, mail-order catalogs, and pamphlets for the aspiring fortune teller or mesmerist.

Madame Pearl Tangley’s Complete Instructions in Mentalism, MSS 2008-024

In order to reach a wider customer base for his products, Baker also established The Naked Truth magazine and a Muscatine radio station, KTNT. What began as a venue for free advertising soon became a showcase for Baker’s own theatrical style. Broadcasting scholar and Baker expert Thomas Hoffer wrote that “Mr. Baker’s talks and his flamboyant personality were the primary appeals of KTNT…folksy programming also contributed to KTNT’s popularity…Baker’s armchair philosophy and homespun, uneducated, and spontaneous commentary about many subjects included: TB testing, President Hoover, health matters, and the farmer’s plight.”

Baker’s down-to-earth style appealed to rural Americans throughout Iowa and the Midwest. This proved key to attracting customers for his most controversial and infamous venture: the Baker Hospitals.

“Cancer is Curable”

By 1930, Baker had established the Baker Hospital in Muscatine, claiming through his publications and broadcasts that his treatments could cure cancer and other illnesses, despite having no medical background himself. His publications ran advertisements for the treatments, included graphic before and after photos of his patients, that while not scientifically sound were persuasive to the general public.

Baker often attempted to boost his own credibility by belittling established medical practice. He railed against the educated medical community, and qualified his own “expertise” as the product of hard work.

The Naked Truth, “Cancer Is Curable,” MSS 2008-024

Muscatine residents quickly caught on to Baker’s quackery, but radio advertising continued to bring patients to the Baker Hospital from throughout America. In April 1930, the Muscatine County Medical Society sent a letter to doctor that claimed “this radio broadcasting covers a wide area and his preachment against heath measures and all rational treatment of disease…is poisoning the mind of the public and is certainly a menace to progressive health measures.” The Society thought that Baker’s on-air claims were the kind of thing that would quickly attract a lawsuit if made in print or in public.

Iowa To Mexico and Back Again

The lawsuits did appear. In 1930, the state of Iowa sued Baker and associates for practicing medicine without a license. At the same time, the Federal Radio Commission sought to revoke KTNT’s broadcast license. Both injunctions were successful, and the hospital and radio station closed in 1931. Nationwide publicity surrounded each case, which presumably affected his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Iowa governor.

In 1932, Baker established the radio station XENT in Neuvo Laredo, Mexico. This high-wattage station was intended to replace the nationwide coverage KTNT had granted Baker while being outside the influence of US law. A postcard from this era advertises daily XENT programming from “5:30 pm to 8:45 am daily,” hours almost certainly chosen to further avoid the scrutiny of federal agents.

Where Sick Folks Get Well, MSS 2008-024

In 1934, Baker brought a suit against the American Medical Association, Iowa State Medical Society and Muscatine County Medical Society, alleging that these groups had conspired to deprive him of his ownership of KTNT and the Baker Hospital. (Ironically, this is one reason that modern researchers have access to the well-founded claims against him.)

Baker re-entered “medical” practice in 1935. He established a new Baker Hospital in Muscatine, as well as one in the former Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Flush with income once again, Baker ran for US Congress in 1936, but did not win the seat.

The Curtain Falls

With the state of Arkansas unwilling to close the economy-boosting Eureka Springs hospital, and XENT broadcasts outside US jurisdiction, the federal government went after the fraudulent claims in his publications. In 1940 a federal judge determined his treatments to be a swindle, merely injections of common substances such as clover, corn silk, watermelon seed, and water. His advertisements were therefore illegal, and Baker served four years in federal prison for mail fraud.

Legacy

Baker’s business prospects withered while he was imprisoned. With his hospitals and radio station closed again, Baker retired to Miami, Florida, where he passed away in 1958.

Baker was a polarizing and memorable figure in his time. Baker is seen by some historians as a forerunner of 20th century “shock jock” broadcasting, as well as populist “outsider” political figures, typified by paranoia against science, education, and minoritized people.

The Crescent Hotel still stands in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It has reclaimed that name and is a tourist attraction today, trading on ghost stories and its sensational past as the former Baker Hospital.

Sources and Further Reading
FSU Libraries

Thomas William Hoffer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida. http://purl.fcla.edu/fsu/MSS_2008-024

FSU Digital Library. “Thomas William Hoffer Papers.” https://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:hofferpapers

Elsewhere

Central Arkansas Library System. “Norman Baker (1882-1956).” Encyclopedia of Arkansas. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/norman-baker-4885/

Eureka! Historic Hotels. “1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa.” https://www.crescent-hotel.com/

Juhnke, Eric S. (2002). Quacks and Crusaders: The Fabulous Careers of John Brinkley, Norman Baker, and Harry Hoxsey. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

New Yorker. “The Haunting History of a Huckster’s Cancer Cure.” https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-haunting-history-of-a-hucksters-cancer-cure

Published by Rory Grennan

Rory Grennan is Director of Manuscripts Collections at Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

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