The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Baker, Norman
(November 27, 1882–September 8, 1958)

–entrepreneur, radio personality, and cancer quack during the 1920s and 1930s—was a master propagandist with a populist flair. Baker cast himself as a common folks crusader battling against big business, big government, and big medicine. Like his contemporary John Brinkley, the infamous "goat gland" doctor from Kansas, Baker manipulated rural anxieties during the Great Depression, public uncertainty with organized medicine, and the lack of oversight of early radio. Baker's cancer treatment and various other enterprises earned him an estimated $10 million before a conviction for mail fraud ended his career in 1940.

    Born in Muscatine, Iowa, Baker first demonstrated business savvy as a vaudeville performer. Returning to Muscatine in 1914, Baker marketed his patented air calliaphone, a portable calliope for carnivals and outdoor advertisers. The operation soon expanded into a mail order business peddling everything from overalls to coffee. Baker even promoted an art correspondence school, despite his confession that he "couldn't paint to save his life."

    Observing Henry Field 's use of radio to sell seeds in Shenandoah, Iowa, Baker constructed his own station and began broadcasting in 1925. With its lineup of live music, agricultural reports, and Baker's own colorful broadcasts, KTNT became popular among rural midwesterners, many of whom flocked to Muscatine on summer Sundays to picnic outside the KTNT studio, enjoy the carnival atmosphere, and see Baker, clad in his trademark white suit with lavender tie. Baker gained further clout when he broadcast on behalf of Herbert Hoover 's 1928 presidential campaign. Hoover later repaid Baker by pressing a golden key from the White House, ceremoniously starting publication of Baker's newspaper, the Midwest Free Press.

    In 1929 Baker's tabloid magazine, TNT, published a sensational story touting an unconventional cancer treatment. Months later Baker opened his own cancer hospital in Muscatine, staffed by a collection of chiropractors, naturopaths, and diploma mill M.D.s. A former employee later testified that Baker's panacea was nothing more than a mixture of clover, corn silk, watermelon seed, and water. Still, with aggressive advertising, the hospital accrued monthly revenues topping $75,000 in 1931. Although lacking medical training, Baker directed patients' treatment and warned the public of the dangers of vaccinations, aluminum utensils, and greedy allopathic physicians.

    During the spring of 1931, Baker's crusade against preventive medicine helped to incite a rebellion in eastern Iowa known as the Cow War. His broadcasts and editorials encouraged farmer to resist state veterinarians' efforts to enforce mandatory bovine tuberculosis testing—a ruse, Baker charged, for meatpackers to acquire cheap beef. When the standoff escalated into outbursts of barnyard violence, Governor Dan Turner called out the state militia to squelch the rebellion.

    Baker's medical demagoguery baited his critics into action. In 1931 the Federal Radio Commission shut down KTNT. A year later Baker went to federal court in Davenport to settle his libel suit against the American Medical Association (AMA) for calling him a "quack," a "faker," and a "charlatan."When the jury sided with the AMA, Baker sought redress through Iowa politics. He entered the race for governor as a write-in candidate on the Farm-Labor ticket, but campaigned from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where he constructed a 100,000-watt radio station to replace KTNT. Always the entertainer, Baker sent campaign trucks rolling through Iowa counties with colorful banners and loudspeakers blaring speeches and carnival music, but to no avail. His efforts realized a mere 5,000 votes on Election Day.

    Baker's career in Iowa wound to a close. He returned in 1936 to enter Iowa's U.S. senatorial race as a Republican, but finished fifth in the primary. After RKO Radio Pictures discredited his Muscatine hospital in a March of Time newsreel, Baker shut it down and relocated to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where citizens of the depressed resort town welcomed the embattled entrepreneur as an economic savior. Baker's boast that he would make a "million dollars out of the suckers" of Arkansas came back to haunt him three years later. Convicted for mail fraud and sentenced to four years in Leavenworth Penitentiary, he never recovered. Baker lived his remaining years in obscurity off the coast of Florida in a boat formerly owned by the railroad baron Jay Gould, until his death in 1958 at the age of 75.
Sources For more on Baker, see Alvin Winston, Doctors, Dynamiters, and Gunmen: The Life Story of Norman Baker (1936); Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio (1990); Eric Juhnke, Quacks and Crusaders: The Fabulous Careers of John Brinkley, Norman Baker, and Harry Hoxsey (2002); Warren B. Smith, "Norman Baker-King of Quacks," Iowan 17 (December–January 1958–1959), 16–18, 55; and Joseph Wolfe, "Norman Baker and KTNT," Journal of Broadcasting 12 (1968), 389–99.
Contributor: Eric Juhnke

Cite as: Juhnke, Eric. "Baker, Norman" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017