Editor's note: This is the 11th installment in a 10-week series, "50 Ways to Say Muscatine," that will look at the people, places and things that tell the tale of the Pearl City. Today's topic: Norman Baker.
MUSCATINE, Iowa — Norman Baker was a man of many talents: A broadcaster, publisher, entrepreneur, inventor.
He was also a man of contradictions: Someone who rubbed elbows with a President but ran afoul of the law, a doctor who never went the medical school, and broadcaster of truth who sold lies.
A pettifogging populist who parleyed a mistrust of the establishment into a radio station, newspaper and hospital where he claimed he could cure cancer, Baker is one of Muscatine's most notorious citizens.
He was born Nov. 27, 1882, in Muscatine to John and Frances Baker. John operated the first boiler factory in Muscatine, the Baker Manufacturing Co., and held 126 patents. Frances, before marrying, had been a writer. Norman quit school at the age of 16 to become a machinist.
Smitten after having seen a traveling mind reading show, Baker began a traveling show of his own called The Madame Pearl Tangley and claimed that he could read minds of audience members and perform hypnosis. There was more than one Madame Tangley throughout the duration of his show, and he was briefly married to one of them.
However, the show came to an end when he found success manufacturing the Tangley Calliaphone that he invented, which was a type of organ using air instead of steam. In 1916, Baker opened a calliaphone factory on what is now Mississippi Drive.
In 1925, the entrepreneurial bug hit Baker again and he was able to convince the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a radio station, called KTNT radio, which stood for Know the Naked Truth. The radio station was located on E. Second Street, where the Mark Twain Overlook is today. Initially licensed to operate at 500 watts – which multiple sources report often ran closer to 10,000 watts – the radio station was used by Baker to promote his business ventures, support West Branch native Herbert Hoover in his run for president, and to attack both his critics and the Catholic religion. The radio station was reported as being heard as far away as Canada and Hawaii.
Baker began printing The Naked Truth magazine to supplement the views he shared on the radio, and in 1930, President Hoover supported Baker in his venture to start The Midwest Free Press, pressing a remote button on Dec. 19 to start the press for the paper's first issue. In the same year, Baker opened a KTNT gas station and restaurant.
Soon, Baker was about to become even more famous as a fraud.
Baker claimed he could cure cancer and opened the Baker Muscatine Cancer Hospital opened on Front Street — now known as Mississippi Drive — opened in 1929 and drew patients from across the nation, despite the fact that Baker had no prior medical education. In May of 1930, Baker drew a crowd of 17,000 people to Weed Park to witness him and his medical team demonstrate how the cure worked. The medical team removed part of Mandus Johnson's skull, administered the "cure" and claimed he had been healed.
The American Medical Association questioned Baker's methods and the association was slammed by Baker on his radio show before the station's license was yanked in 1931 by the Federal Radio Commission.
He responded by suing the AMA and in 1932 went to trial, during which it was reported that his cancer cure was nothing more than clover, corn silk, watermelon seeds and water. Baker lost the lawsuit.
Baker headed to Mexico for a few years, where he opens a radio station before returning to Muscatine.
In 1937 he purchased the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. His literature advertised it as a place “Where Sick Folks Get Well," which got Baker into trouble with postal inspectors, and he was tried on charges of mail fraud in 1940. He was convicted and spent time at a Kansas penitentiary from 1941-44 before returning Muscatine for a short time.
Baker then moved to Florida, where he died in 1958. He is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery.