Chasing phantoms, By Golly

Trying to verify stories that “everybody knows” about Eureka Springs can be like chasing phantoms. Much of the town’s history was handed down orally for generations before being written down – if it ever was.

Chasing one such ghost, I recently spoke with Palace Hotel and Bathhouse owner Will Wright over coffee at Brews. The Palace shows up in my upcoming book, Welcome to Eureka Springs: The I-Sh*t-You-Not History of America’s Quirkiest Town.

The hotel is in the chapter about artist By Golly. How he got that name will be in the book, but what I wanted to ask Will about was By Golly’s most famous work: the blatantly phallic sign thrusting skyward from the hotel’s exterior.

“Everybody knows” that the Palace was a bordello when its owners commissioned that sign. That was in 1930, or the 1940s, depending on who’s telling the story.

“I’m just going to give you a broad range, but 1915 to 1935 is going to be the time period,” Will told me. “I don’t know when the switch to that happened. We don’t have a firm date for the sign, because it’s been repainted.”

Will bought the hotel during the pandemic, and has done some sleuthing to uncover the hotel’s authentic history. Unfortunately, no historic documentation was preserved over the many changes of ownership since the hotel’s opening in 1902. (Yes, the front says 1901. That was when construction began.)

He did find one clue. The Eureka Springs Historical Museum has one of the hotel’s guest registers for the early twentieth century. He hasn’t had a chance to go through it yet.

It’s particularly intriguing given the famous guests who “everbody knows” stayed there.

“W. C. Fields, there’s been mention of Al Capone, there’s been mention of European royalty,” Will told me.

The register is unlikely to settle the question, but it might be fun to check. I suppose another museum trip is in order.

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