Welcome to the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, America's most haunted hotel

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EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. -- Ken Fugate and Carroll Heath are mediums.

No, not shirt size. They're clairvoyants. They talk to ghosts.

Specifically, the two communicate with the spirits that roam the halls of the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, which is billed as America's "most haunted hotel," making it a dandy place to spend Halloween or any other dark and stormy night.

Fugate and Heath offer evening ghost tours of the hotel, which they prefer to say is "visited" rather than haunted. The hotel's ghosts are sensitive souls, the two men explain, and those from the Victorian era are particularly spooked by what they see today.

"In their time, women didn't even bare an ankle," Heath said. "They see female hotel guests in shorts and are shocked."

To understand the hotel's ghosts, you must understand the history of the Crescent, which stands on the highest hill overlooking Eureka Springs and is affectionately referred to as the "Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks."

When the Crescent opened in 1886, the local newspaper hailed it as "America's most luxurious resort hotel." For the next 15 years, the hotel was a destination for the country's carriage set. Ladies in long skirts, hats and veils and gentlemen in top hats enjoyed morning horseback rides, afternoon tea parties and evening dances with the in-house orchestra.

The Golden Age was short-lived. Because business was slow in the winter, Crescent College and Conservatory for Women opened in the hotel in 1908, but both the college and hotel closed in 1934 during the Depression.

The darkest hour came in 1937, when the hotel was purchased by Dr. Norman Baker, a flamboyant quack who dressed in lavender colors and claimed he could cure cancer with injections of a mixture that included glycerine, alcohol and a tea brewed from watermelon seeds and clover leaves. The hotel became the Baker Cancer Hospital, until the doctor's arrest in 1939. One investigator estimated Baker defrauded cancer patients out of $4 million and hastened their death.

The Crescent went through a series of owners, and restorations, over the next several decades until its present saviors, Marty and Elise Roenigk, purchased it in 1997. The Roenigks are antique lovers and historic preservationists from Connecticut, and the Crescent became their largest project.

They also bought the town's other historic hotel, the 1905 Basin Park Hotel, and recently added War Eagle Mill, a working, turn-of-the-century grist mill with shop and restaurant, to their collection.

In their first year, the Roenigks remodeled the top floor of the five-story Crescent for their own residence and began restoration of the hotel rooms, which was completed by 2003.

The Roenigks are not into ghosts, although Elise has noted that their old Irish setter, Jazz, refused to stay alone in the north penthouse, one of the hot spots for ghostly sightings. Marty has emphasized that the hotel's ghosts "have been at best friendly, at worst mischievous."

Which brings us to the hotel's ethereal residents, who have attracted the curious from all over the world, including shows like the Sci-Fi Channel's "Ghost Hunters," which used infrared photography to film a shadowy figure in a section of the hotel Baker used as a morgue. The invasion of the TV crews, with their equipment, terrified the ghosts, the clairvoyants said.

Five familiar spirits are said to be living in the Crescent: 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. There's also a nurse seen pushing a gurney after 11:30 p.m., when Baker removed the dead. A gentleman in a top hat usually leaves behind the smell of his cigar. A female student who either fell or was pushed over a railing has been seen re-creating her deadly plunge. Whiffs of perfume means Theodora, a matronly cancer patient, is near.

Fugate and Heath speak fondly of them all. Like Casper, these are friendly ghosts.

"Michael has a wonderful sense of humor," Heath said. In the summer, he'll turn up the heat in Room 218 to tease its residents; in the winter, they'll find the air conditioner on full blast. Occupants wake up to find the window and door wide open.

Like many of the other spirits, Heath said, Michael "doesn't realize he's out of body." Dead, that is.

"The cancer patients came here to be cured," Heath added. "They're still hanging around, waiting."

Fugate and Heath came to the Crescent from San Francisco in 1995, and bought a Victorian home near the hotel that once was owned by Dr. C.F. Ellis, who was the staff physician when the Crescent opened. When they got the contract to do the ghost tours, they wanted to open a headquarters in a hotel room that formerly was the doctor's office. When negotiations with the hotel bogged down, they sought help -- from Dr. Ellis, who they said is the cigar-smoking ghost in the stovepipe hat.

"He told us not to worry, it would work out," Fugate said. "The next day, they offered us the space."

The Crescent has 72 rooms in the hotel proper and I was in 319, one of the rooms that got a recent makeover. The room was spacious, with dark wood furniture, some antique and some reproduction. There was a flat-screen TV and a large combination shower and jetted tub for two in the bathroom.

A pair of French doors opened onto a veranda with a panoramic view of the wooded valley that holds the town of Eureka Springs. Below were the gardens that surround the hotel, and the red-tiled roof of St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church, which celebrates two Masses a week and attracts another sort of spiritual seeker.

Hotel spokesman Bill Ott said the busiest month is October, when the surrounding forest glows. "October usually lasts six weeks here -- we still have good color into November," he said.

Most guests like the hotel because of its rich history, Ott said. "The ghost tour is just a lagniappe -- a little something extra," he said.

The hotel is popular for weddings, and the grounds are landscaped for their parties. The hotel has a gourmet restaurant with crystal chandeliers and an extensive wine list, a cocktail lounge, an outdoor pool and the New Moon Spa. The glassed-in conservatory and gazebo have been restored to their Victorian elegance. As is the case in most century-old structures, something could always use a little updating.

"The creed we live by is, first, protect the irreplaceable," Ott said. "We run a hotel so we can keep this building going. There's been a couple of times when it was about to be razed, and the Roenigks don't want that, and we don't want to let it happen to them."

Most of the spooky "evidence" from the Crescent consists of shadowy images and orbs of light in videos or photos taken by guests and ghost hunters. They can be seen at www.eureka-springs-ghost.com, the site operated by Fugate and Heath, and at www.americasmosthauntedhotel.com.

The mediums said my room, 319, has had its share of reported sightings.

"A woman who stayed there saw the image of a man in the bathroom mirror and screamed," Heath said. "Then, she came out on the balcony about 10:30 that night and witnessed the girl falling over the railing. She took our tour and was so relieved to hear the stories. She said, 'Thank you, I thought I was losing my mind.'"

My three nights in Room 319 went by without incident. I did hear what sounded like a shuddering at the foot of my bed, but I'm pretty sure it was the window air conditioner. And while my room was directly below Theodora's, I couldn't be sure that the occasional sweet smell was, in fact, her matronly perfume.

In fact, the scariest thing about my entire stay was the creaky old hotel elevator, which appeared to be original equipment and had a mind of its own.

I took the stairs. The Crescent already has one red-haired ghost.

IF YOU GO:

Crescent Hotel and Spa: In-season rates, from March 12 through Dec. 6, range from $159 for premium rooms and $169 for balcony rooms, to $254 for suites. Off-season rates go from $119 to $224. The four two-bedroom units in the two cottages start at $319 in season, and $259 off. Spa packages are available. The hotel has a short hiking trail that leads to downtown. 1-800-342-9766 and www.crescent-hotel.com.

Eureka Springs Ghost Tours: The tours are available at 7:30 p.m. every day. Tickets are $17.50 for adults, children under 9 are $7. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. 1-479-253-6800 and www.eureka-springs-ghost.com.

Ghost Seminar: The fourth annual Ghost Seminar will be held at the Crescent the weekend of Jan. 9-10. Clairvoyants Ken Fugate and Carroll Heath will lead seminars on meditation and development of medium powers. Participants also will be guided through an investigation of the hotel's more " active" areas. Rates for a room and the seminar range from $123 to $159 a night. Call 1-877-342-9766, or visit www.americasmosthauntedhotel.com.

For information on Eureka Springs: www.eurekaspringschamber.com and www.eurekasprings.org.



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