Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.
That’s what artist Sean Fitzgibbon discovered back in the early 2000s when he began researching the history of the Crescent Hotel.
Located in Eureka Springs, Ark., there are no shortage of spooky stories tied to the hotel, from ghostly sightings and tales of a mad doctor’s experiments, to claims it houses a portal to the “other side.”
“As a kid, we would visit Eureka Springs and took the Crescent’s ghost tour a few times,” said Fitzgibbon, who graduated from Missouri Southern in 1998 with a degree in graphic design. “There were ghoulish, Frankenstein-like stories about Dr. Norman Baker, and it was really sensational.
“As an adult, I began wondering what really happened there. I started going to the library to do research, and thought the real story behind the Crescent was even more fascinating than the semi-made up stories.”
By about 2012, his research had led to a narrative structure and he began storyboarding a nonfiction graphic novel – “What Follows is True: Crescent Hotel.”
Successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign and a recent Mid-America Arts Alliance-Artists 360 grant, the 240-page work combines Fitzgibbon’s hand-painted illustrations with oral histories, newspaper accounts and his own in-depth research into Baker’s background.
“What Follows is True” became a passion project for Fitzgibbon, who serves as an adjunct art professor for the University of Arkansas and has had other projects and shows going during the years he worked on the book.
“I think of myself as a visual storyteller,” he said, citing film noir, Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame as major inspirations, as well as his time at Missouri Southern for giving him an appreciation for art history and a deep well of influences from which he could draw.
All of that is on display in his new book about the Crescent.
“It’s such a fascinating place with a varied history,” he said. “It began as an opulent hotel for the wealthy in 1886. It wasn’t long before they began to have financial difficulties. In 1908, to supplement lagging hours during winter it was used as a conservatory and college for young women.”
It was shut down in 1934 and remained unused for the next three years.
Enter Dr. Norman Baker, driving into town in a purple automobile and claiming he had the cure for cancer. He converted the Crescent into the Baker Hospital.
“He was a populist radio host from Muscatine, Iowa, who was pretty harmless, but more and more he started using radio to go after his enemies,” said Fitzgibbon. “He had a hospital there, and later he went down to Mexico to start another.
“His cancer ‘cure’ was nothing more than carbolic acid, and watermelon seeds mixed with spring water. He was conning everyone.”
Baker later served about three years in Leavenworth on federal mail fraud charges.
In 2019, hundreds of bottles were excavated by a landscaping crew. They contained tissue, tumors and other medical specimens dating back to Baker’s days as owner of the hospital, giving credence to tales of Baker’s “work” at the hospital and the memories of people who remembered seeing similar bottles in the hospital morgue.
“The book follows two different characters … Baker and the Crescent itself,” said Fitzgibbon. “It’s a fun read, looking at the hotel through different time periods.”
He said he hopes to use the “What Follows is True” title as an “umbrella” to tell other stories, though on a smaller scale than his Crescent Hotel project.
“I’ve always loved weird histories and strange stories,” he said. “I think this is a medium ripe for telling these stories.”
For more information on Fitzgibbon, his new book and other projects, visit www.seanfitzgibbonart.com.