Today’s post will take you back to the 1930s era in Muscatine, Iowa, a place I often visit and last weekend’s camping destination. We’ll meet an unforgettable person in that community’s history.
Muscatine was the home to a booming pearl button industry many years ago. It was also the town where an 18 year old Samuel Clemmons a.k.a. “Mark Twain” worked at a local newspaper, The Muscatine Journal. But one of Muscatine’s memorable citizens – one you may never have heard of – was one of history’s most infamous medical charlatans.
In 1925, an inventor, vaudeville mentalist, and savvy businessman, Norman Baker, began operating a radio station called KTNT which stood for “Know The Naked Truth.” From its beginning, the station (operated at 1170 KHz) was controversial for its rants and medical claims. Perched high atop a hill overlooking the great Mississippi, Baker’s station used huge copper cables stretching to the river below. KTNT was licensed to transmit 500 watts but was said to use 10,000 watts and could often be heard in Europe.
Using his powerful radio station and skills as a former carnival barker, Norman Baker broadcast many of his views on health related topics which even to this day are controversial including fluoridation of water and the risks of using aluminum cookware. Baker also advertised a “cure” for cancer that included injections derived from a mix of common substances like corn silk, watermelon seeds, water, and clover. The supposed cure was the work of Dr. Charles Ozias, of Kansas City. You see, Norman Baker had never received any medical training!
In April of 1930, Norman Baker teamed up with a Harry Hoxsey, a well-known, convicted medical swindler. They opened the “Baker Institute”, a hospital offering to supposedly cure people of cancer and other afflictions. During a hillside healing session in May of 1930, Baker removed a piece of a man’s skull, and applied the “cure”, and proclaimed to have cured him. Of course, the 17,000 who attended were encouraged to use Baker’s products and services.
According to all the accounts I read, the cancer “cure” produced no positive effects. Several articles said the Baker Institute had new patients (many of them radio listeners) frequently coming in the front door of the institute and leaving [deceased] by the back door in the dark of the night.
Norman Baker had a long running feud with the Journal of the American Medical Association which denounced him as a charlatan. While Baker and Hoxsey were not busy suing each other over the institute’s profits (said to be $440,000 in just one year), they had other legal problems. Hoxsey, Baker, and several others were charged by the State of Iowa with practicing medicine without a license; the charge was upheld in 1931 by the Iowa Supreme Court. Station KTNT was silenced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1931.
Soon after, Baker began broadcasting from “XENT”, a very powerful new radio station just over the border in Mexico and out of the FCC’s control. He was still promoting the cancer cure with a 100,000 watt signal so strong it could be heard in Canada. In July of 1937, Norman Baker purchased an old Victorian hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and opened another hospital still proclaiming to cure cancer. In 1940 he was charged with mail fraud and served four years in Leavenworth prison. After his release, Baker tried unsuccessfully to reopen yet another facility in Muscatine.
Norman Baker died in 1958. It has been said the cause was, ironically, liver cancer caused by cirrhosis. As for the hotel / former hospital in Eureka Springs, it has been remodeled and claims to be the most haunted hotel in America. One of the ghosts has been said to be Norman Baker. Another is supposedly that of an elderly cancer victim looking for her room key.
While learning about this noteworthy fellow, I attempted to locate the grave of Norman Baker but it’s still too cold and snowy in Iowa to do much searching. Perhaps it will be possible in the spring. In any case, the Muscatine chapter of the “Baker Institute” story proved to be an interesting glimpse into the past when apparently a naïve public was conned into believing what they heard on the radio. With the proliferation of infomercials hawking all kinds of cures and remedies for various things it makes me wonder… Have we, the viewing public, learned anything from history?
Take care and thanks for riding along!
Bradford, Serena, and Jesse James
PS… Here’s the Fairport campground near Muscatine… It’s beautiful…