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Empress Haunting Makes Local News

Hauntings pull tourists to state in slow October

Among ghosts’ hangouts, Crescent Hotel most-famed

Posted: October 25, 2015 at 2:21 a.m.

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The owners of Empress of Little Rock at 2120 S. Louisiana St. don’t advertise the bed and breakfast as being haunted. But proprietor Sharon Welch-Blair says people still come to the Empress to look for ghosts.

It’s the Crescent Hotel’s oldest guests that draw the most business.

Bill Ott, director of marketing and communications at the Crescent Hotel, knows all the ghosts that have made the 129-year-old hotel in Eureka Springs their permanent home.

Guests and employees of the Crescent Hotel report sightings of a man jilted by his fiancee in an old ballroom; Michael, the Irish stonemason who fell to his death while helping to build the structure, now haunts Room 218; and Theodora, the patient who lived in the hotel while it was being used to scam people with cancer.

“A ghost is nothing more than somebody who’s died and hasn’t realized it yet,” Ott said.

Even cats that have lived at the hotel sometimes brush against guests who sit in the lobby chairs.

“They are Casper-esque,” Ott said. “There’s nothing bloodcurdling about our ghosts.”

Ott said the “America’s Most Haunted Hotel” markets itself mostly as a mountaintop resort and spa.

“On the other hand we have ghosts,” he said. “We let people know about that aspect if they want to know.”

A ghost tour at the Crescent Hotel costs $21.50 a person, and the 25-person quota is usually filled. The hotel does a couple of tours on weeknights and more on weekends throughout the year, Ott said.

The Crescent Hotel adds more tours in October. Ott said that by Halloween weekend, the hotel is running tours all day and pulling in thousands of dollars.

“This is far and away our best month,” he said.

Mike Maloney, director of the Eureka Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Crescent Hotel’s haunted reputation helps draw tourists to the city.

“The paranormal is very much alive in Eureka Springs,” he said. “It’s turned out to be a really interesting niche.”

Maloney said October is one of the city’s best tourism months partly because of the haunted sites in the city, including the Crescent Hotel and its sister, the Basin Hotel.

Paranormal tourism increases visitors to the state outside of the the most popular tourism months, said Joe David Rice, the state’s tourism director. He said it can be difficult to draw people to the state when they don’t have vacation time and students are in school.

“It sort of fills in a slow season,” he said. “Come around Halloween we’re always looking for new business.”

Rice said there are haunted sites across Arkansas.

“For some reason people really respond to haunted places,” he said. “It resonates with the public.”

Rice said haunted sites attract younger members of families who might not be interested in Eureka Springs’ other tourist attractions, including specialty gift shops and viewing the fall foliage.

“For the younger generations, the kids, it might be the best part of Arkansas,” Rice said.

The Empress of Little Rock, a bed and breakfast built in 1888, also capitalizes on its haunted reputation.

Sharon Welch-Blair, the hotel’s owner, said the families who lived in the house when it was a private residence sometimes pay visits to her family and guests.

James Hornibrook, a saloonkeeper who moved to Little Rock shortly after the Civil War, built the house to be the most elaborate one in Little Rock. Hornibrook lived in the $20,000 house, an extravagant expense at the time, for only two years before he was found dead at the front gate.

Asbury Fowler, an insurance agent and former federal marshal, bought the house around the turn of the century. Welch-Blair said Fowler worked for “Hanging Judge Parker.” That would be U.S District Judge Isaac Parker of the Western District of Arkansas, who in the late 1800s sentenced 160 men and women to death by hanging.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that he would haunt this house,” Welch-Blair said.

Welch-Blair and her husband restored the Empress of Little Rock with period antiques over two years. She said the first reported ghost sightings in the house came from her husband during the restoration.

“Out of the corner of his eye he saw a very dapperly dressed gentleman descending the stairs,” she said. “It’s like he was saying, ‘Save my house.'”

She said the bed and breakfast doesn’t advertise being haunted, but people still come to the Empress of Little Rock to look for ghosts.

“If people want to know, I’ll tell them about it,” she said. “It’s a sensation for those who like it.”

Rice said the state’s Department of Parks and Tourism does some advertising and provides information about places that have a haunted reputation, but most sites become popular in circles of people who are interested in the paranormal.

“Word of mouth is sort of the way things happen in this tourism business,” he said.

For the Crescent Hotel, an episode of Ghost Hunters brought tourists searching for paranormal activity to the hotel.

The Crescent Hotel opened as a luxury resort in 1886 as Eureka Springs boomed and the newly built train line brought more people to the town. In 1937, a con artist named Norman Baker opened a cancer hospital where he scammed patients and their families.

Baker’s morgue sits next to the modern spa facilities in the basement of the hotel.

In 1995, the TV show Ghost Hunters investigated Eureka Springs and caught what they claimed was a full-body apparition in the morgue.

“They referred to it as the holy grail of ghost hunting,” Rice said.

After that episode aired, ghost enthusiasts started flocking to the hotel, Ott said.

“What we are trying to do is take advantage of people’s natural curiosity of otherworldly things,” Rice said. “I don’t think anyone is trying to make a killing off of it.”

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