Gilded Shams: The Fountain of Youth (Part Two)

Alfred Huntington Isham
  • Alfred Huntington Isham

Depending on who tells the story, when Captain Charles Fitzallen sailed from Cardiff, Wales, aboard the Challenger in 1887, he had a bald spot either the size of a monk’s tonsure or the Great Globe itself.

By the time his steamship rounded the Horn and entered San Diego Bay — one version of the story goes — Fitzallen and most of his crew had scurvy. The captain ordered his second officer to complete the voyage to San Francisco, then consulted San Diego’s most reputable physician. Peter C. Remondino, M.D., urged the mariner to find work in the south county sunshine, eat regular meals, drink mineral water.

Fitzallen herded sheep for George Neale, an attorney who owned a ranch along the northern spur of San Miguel Mountain. Every day Fitzallen quenched his thirst at a nearby spring. On hot days, he dunked his head in the cool waters that flowed from solid rock, crowned with chalky strata. Within a month, the scurvy vanished.

And something else happened. For years Fitzallen had tried to regrow hair. He’d used every patent nostrum he could find, including the “electric process,” said to stimulate dormant follicles, and the Seven Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Loss Cure. (“If dying grasses grow strong when fed fertilizers,” asked an ad, “why not hair?”) But the 28.4 percent alcohol and 1 percent trace mineral solution failed to resurrect a single strand.

In 1889, eight weeks after Fitzallen’s first sip of spring water, the National City Record reported: “The timberline on his head was gradually ascending.” Hair! “True, it was chaparralish” at first. But it grew softer and turned a bright auburn quite unlike the gray at his temples.

Friends failed to recognize the man with “a shock of hair big as a Chula Vista haystack.”

As an experiment, Fitzallen convinced his neighbor Captain Murphy — bald as a doorknob — to take the treatment. Within weeks Murphy grew as much peach-fuzz “as the first tow-headed youngster you meet rolling in the dust of the street.”

Fitzallen tried to keep his find mum. But when another neighbor, Christian Jepson, also claimed scalp reforestation, word leaked out. And those who retold the tale, as in a game of “gossip,” now called “telephone,” may have added the part about scurvy — in 1887, on a steamship. All versions added the burning question: If the miracle water could re-grow hair, could it also retard, nay even reverse, the aging process?

The Record announced that a stock investment company was in the making “to correct the greatest evil of modern days.” There are “six million bald-headed men, and nearly as many bald-headed women in the United States. At a dollar a bottle, this would mean a working capital of nearly ten million to begin with.”

One member of that company, Alfred Huntington Isham, had come to San Diego in 1886 for the health of his 17-year-old daughter, Edith. Southern California was gaining renown as the “Great Orange Belt and Sanitarium” for treatment of tuberculosis, asthma, and rheumatism. San Diego led the way, boasting more doctors per capita than any other city. Historians estimate that at least ten percent of those who came to Southern California in the late 19th century did so for their health. Among them was Dr. Remondino, who arrived in 1874, hoping to cure his malarial fever.

Isham built a home at Kimball’s Addition — National City — because he thought that the Santa Fe railroad line would end there. He partnered with H.L. Story, who co-built the Hotel del Coronado, and Frank Kimball, founder of National City, who’d also come to San Diego for his health. They thought they saw in the gregarious Isham — who could convince atheists that paradise loomed beyond the next bend — a man of promise. In the end, he never met a promise he didn’t break.

One Sunday afternoon, Isham, a widower, and his four children went for a buggy ride out to the Neale Ranch, near the corner of today’s Sweetwater Springs and Jamacha Roads. Parched from the dusty sojourn, they drank from “Bald-Headed Spring,” renamed, of late, for its ability to grow hair. The water had a heavy mineral taste — so heavy, Isham reasoned, it had to be healthy!

Isham’s first investor was George Neale (who, when newly built Sweetwater Dam flooded much of his property in 1888, sued the San Diego Land and Town Company and almost wiped National City, then a year old, off the map). Isham painted a burnished utopia across Neale’s rolling hills: a railroad extension leading to health spas and hotels at the site; on nearby Mt. San Miguel, “the mountain of great destiny,” a world-class hotel, resort, and Southern California’s first observatory. The water will make all this possible! Neale leased Isham rights to sell the magical liquid, keeping a percentage of the monthly gross for himself.

At times, Isham claimed to own the land “in fee simple,” including San Miguel Mountain; at others, just the spring; at another, he was buying the land in installments from Neale. Frank Waddy — Isham’s British agent who called Isham a “practiced prevaricator” — tried to determine ownership. He finally decided that “Isham owned little or nothing except the right to market the water.” But over the years Isham sold shares several times, and the whole spring as well, “whenever he needed a little money, which was quite often,” since he spent twice what he made. “His rule of life seems to have been: When in doubt, sell the spring — whether I own it or not!”

Until 1892, Isham developed several projects at the same time, his pet being the Mt. San Miguel Observatory, which he tried, and eventually failed, to convince Mary Proctor to sponsor. During this period, he worked on ways to generate profits from the spring’s 15-barrel-a-day flow.

Isham started a small bottling plant. He hired Mrs. Almoneh Chittenden, who owned a nearby ranch, as a nanny for his children and manager of the business. A short woman “of ample physique,” people said Mrs. Chittenden could stack 100-pound cases of bottles six or seven high without perspiring. Captain Fitzallen became her assistant. When he wasn’t running his businesses with Story and Kimball, or courting Mary Proctor for the observatory, Isham established connections across the country for distributing the water that “promises to give back youth.”

Patent medicines flooded the market by the thousands. But few succeeded. Even P.T. Barnum, promoter extraordinaire, failed to convince enough buyers that his wonder grease could grow hair. The key was national marketing, a relatively new idea at which Isham became a master. He wove such appealing visions that, to this day, it’s hard to separate fact from fantasy, including the circumstances of the Fitzallen shooting.

The Chittendens owned a ranch near Mt. San Miguel. Fitzallen was their chief hand. On November 1, 1891, horses bolted through a five-yard gap in a fence where three ranches came together. So Isham, Mrs. Chittenden, and Fitzallen went to rewire the posts. At 1:00 p.m., ever on the lookout for salubrious fluids, Isham crawled down a snake-infested gully to inspect an old well.

“Let that fence alone,” red-faced W.S. Root shouted at Fitzallen for unexplained reasons — since Root owned no property in the area.

“All right,” said Fitzallen, and stopped twisting wire.

Root moved to within 15 feet, drew a revolver, aimed. “I tell you — let it alone!”

“ALL RIGHT!” said Fitzallen. At those words, Root fired, drilling Fitzallen through the kidney. He collapsed. Root fired again.

According to the San Diego Union, Mrs. Chittenden, “the brave little woman,” stared Root down. He lowered the gun.

Isham came up from that snake-infested gully. “I’m shot,” Fitzallen mumbled, the right side of his shirt a spreading red splotch. “I’m done for.”

“Run and get the team,” Isham shouted at Root. “We may save him yet!”

“I don’t care a damn what becomes of him,” Root replied, holstering the revolver and walking away.

The sheriff arrested Root, who never gave a motive (and who, many attested in court, had been on good terms with Fitzallen). He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Fitzallen lay at Isham’s house — at 32nd Street and National Avenue in National City — hovering for five days between life and death. Several doctors tended him. Fitzallen finally recovered, thanks, to the amazement of Dr. Remondino, to the captain’s remarkable blood. It “seemed like the blood of a youth of 25 than that of a man of 57.” Was it the water?

Someone shot Fitzallen, said Frank Waddy, but it wasn’t Root. Most likely encouraged by Isham, Waddy gilded the Root story into a fictional second version, retold as fact ever since.

While Isham was lining up contracts and distributors in New York, says Waddy, George Sanford came to Bald-Headed Spring. He represented a San Francisco land company, he said, and owned rights to the water. He convinced Mrs. Chittenden, and they smashed every bottle, filling new ones with Sanford’s name on them.

Isham returned from New York unannounced. He found Mrs. Chittenden living “in close association” with Sanford. Isham and Sanford quarreled. Sanford left. Amending the error of her ways, Mrs. Chittenden helped Isham smash every bottle with Sanford’s name.

“Incredible as it seems in one of his shrewdness,” writes Waddy, Isham “again entrusted his affairs to Mrs. Chittenden,” and went back to New York. Sanford returned and smashed all the bottles. Isham, tipped by a warning, recrossed the continent and confronted Sanford.

“This time the arrival of his competitor was too much for Sanford,” writes Waddy. Sanford drew a gun and fired point blank at Isham. “By a strange twist of fate, the bullet missed its intended mark and hit…our friend Fitzallen” in the abdomen.

Somehow, the fictional version continues, the gutshot Fitzallen made it over bumpy roads and lurching railroad cars from La Presa station to Remondino’s San Diego hospital where, after the captain “hovered for five days between life and death,” Remondino declared him out of danger, his blood had an injection of youth, etc.

There’s no record of the Sanford shooting. And the odds of Fitzallen taking a bullet in the same place twice, and living — he died in bed in 1901 — are greater than lightning repeating itself. But something happened between Sanford and Isham, some confrontation. Several years later, Sanford got his revenge.

Between 1890 and 1892, just about everything Isham touched turned to dross. After choosing San Miguel Mountain as the site for her father’s memorial, Mary Proctor changed her mind about the observatory in October, 1891. And without Southern California’s first observatory as a flagship, the fleet of hotels, spas, and resorts that Isham and Story had envisioned disappeared.

In March, 1892, Frank Kimball wrote in his diary that the national depression, which peaked in 1893, was “beginning to be felt throughout the county. Money was hard to get, so people traded work for goods, or goods for other kinds of supplies.”

Isham, Story, J.S. Gordon, and Frank Kimball had an agreement: no one would buy goods in Kimball’s name. By 1892, Kimball discovered that Isham and Gordon had been signing his name on bank notes. The forgeries, which Kimball called “the most infamous robbery ever perpetuated,” reduced him to absolute poverty.

Isham scammed Story, and refused to pay clients, one of whom, the Milburn Wagon Works of Ohio, said “Isham wriggled and squirmed and crawled out of every hole possible.”

During this time, writes Stephen Van Wormer, something in Isham snapped. His “apparent success rested upon a foundation of dishonorable and negligent conduct. He became involved in over forty lawsuits in a period of ten years.”

Instead of repaying debts and shoring up his finances, however, Isham reached for the stratosphere. On April 3, 1892, he declared he was bestowing his “waters of life” on the world.

Calling him a “prophet,” the San Diego Union claimed that the “life-giving power of these waters does not rest with tresses.” They are part of a new ether, gradually enveloping the earth, which “promises to give back youth — the first glimmer of the new life, or the last evolution of the children of men.”

A near-blind man drank the water and “laid aside his glasses.” It turned “sweet as babe’s breath” the “offensive exhalations” of others. The waters are a new element in the war between life and death. They purge the body of dead elements. “This subject is being treated by master minds,” Isham assured potential customers, “and you may look for new developments” soon.

Testimonials followed. Fitzallen vowed that “a continuation of drinking and bathing my head produced, to the best of my knowledge and belief (as I used no other remedies), the present new growth of hair, which appears to me as luxuriant as in my boyhood days.”

The waters don’t just grow hair, George Neale averred, they cure “tenderness of the feet, corns, etc.” Even the mud’s medicinal.

Neale was a popular, trusted San Diegan. His testimony had weight. In December, 1892, Captain Samuel Smith, of the schooner Lou, snapped — for financial reasons, many said. He hacked Neale’s son, George Jr., to death off the Coronado Islands. When a mob demanded vigilante justice, Neale’s admonition — let the law take its course — stopped a city-wide riot.

Neale, of course, got a percentage of the company’s profits. So did Fitzallen, at least until August, 1892, when he threatened Mrs. Chittenden’s life, screaming, “If it was not for Isham’s children, I’d put you out of the way!”

Fitzallen’s real beef was with Isham: as sales grew, his royalties in “the San Miguel hair-restorative water deal” dwindled to a dollar a day, which had to feed the mules hauling the bottles from the plant to La Presa railroad station and himself. Fitzallen received six months in jail and left the business.

Testimonials poured in. “More people are interested in Bald-Headed Spring than in possible disastrous inflation,” claimed a Union ad. The spring “grew hair a foot long on frogs!”

A woman came West whiter than a bedsheet. She was dying of Bright’s, a disease of the kidneys. Five days of drinking the waters and, she’ll swear on a stack of Bibles, she was “called back from the grave!”

(“If your brains won’t get you in the papers,” bemoaned a Toronto Star editorial in 1905, “sign a patent medicine testimonial. Maybe your kidneys will.”)

Ailments the “California Waters of Life” could heal proliferated: dandruff, bad breath, dyspepsia, addictions to alcohol and opium, cancer, and possibly even diseases unknown, cured without one’s knowing. And maybe, just maybe, the amazing fluids could respark youth itself!

The most puzzling testimonial was Dr. Remondino’s. As anti-quackery as he was pro-climate, Remondino once complained that San Diego was so healthful he could run out of patients. Men like Remondino, writes John Baur, praised Southern California “like quacks selling nostrums, the whole area being the panacea.” Remondino also invested in local real estate.

Isham’s announcement, along with the first barrage of testimonials, smelled like a scam. The chamber of commerce demanded an investigation. Three of the city’s top physicians — Remondino, Thomas L. Magee, and T.A. Davis — interviewed “disinterested parties” and subjected the mineral spring to numerous tests. “The water is alkaline ferruginous, sulphuretted and arsenical,” the Union quoted them on May 14, 1892. “We must acknowledge that it made the hair grow on scalps where it has been entirely lost.” Plus, “the new hair partook of the color and character of the hair of youth.”

The unexpected validation launched one of the most remarkable campaigns of its time. “With a rapidity probably unparalleled in the history of mineral water,” writes John Davidson, Isham’s Waters of Life went national, then international. The London Lancet, a sober medical journal, gave its approval. The Prince of Wales, ads claimed, was ordering cases of half-gallon bottles, the product name inscribed in bas-relief, at one dollar per.

Isham marketed a double-prong attack: he combined advertising in every major American newspaper with bogus stories fed to reporters: mysterious transformations of the body and the mind. After a while Isham got so caught up in myth-making, he couldn’t remember if during promotion he’d called the waters Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth or the Spring of Siloam, where Jesus cured a man of impotence.

Orders poured in. And money — how much being subject to Isham’s inflationary bent but, between 1892 and 1906, easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Word was: if you could have Isham’s money, you’d give yours away.

Next time: The Great American Fraud.

SOURCES:

1. Thomas Adema, Our Hills and Valleys: A History of the Helix-Spring Valley Region, San Diego, 1993; interview.

2. John E. Baur, The Health Seekers of Southern California. San Marino, 1959.

3. John Davidson, “Place Names of San Diego County,” San Diego Evening Tribune, June 12, 1936.

4. Linda E. Miller, “San Diego’s Early Years as a Health Resort,” Journal of San Diego History, 1982, fall.

5. Peter Arnold Ottaviano, “The Fever of Life: The Story of Peter Charles Remondino,” masters thesis, University of San Diego, 1992.

6. Philip S. Rush, “Historic Ranchos,” The Southern California Rancher, 1960, Sept.

7. Mark Twain, The Gilded Age, New York, 1873.

8. Stephen R. Van Wormer, Sue A. Wade, Archaeological Investigations of the Historic Features and Data Recovery Excavations of the Bottle Dump and Associated Areas at SDi-185 — Isham’s Springs, County of San Diego, California, December, 1992; Van Wormer, “Alfred H. Isham: A Gilded Age Entrepreneur in San Diego County,” Historical Society of Southern California, 1984, 66, winter.

9. Frank Vincent Waddy, “Synopsis of Facts Concerning the Discovery, Early History and Later Development of the Natural Mineral Springs…” unpublished, San Diego Historical Society archives.

10. James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of the Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation, Princeton, 1961.

11. Newspaper articles from the San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, National City Record, and National City Star News.

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