Gilded Shams: The Great American Fraud (Part Three)

Isham's California Waters of Life
  • Isham's California Waters of Life

You wonder if Alfred Huntington Isham knew his last name harbored a confession of guilt. Maybe he did. But given his dim view of human nature, and supreme confidence in his persuasive powers, maybe “I sham” still believed he could fool most of the people most of the time. For 15 years, the international huckster came close.

Between 1892 and 1907, America was awash with mind cures, faith healers, and nostrum sales. Professor Thomas Adkin’s Vitaopathy tablets extracted the “life-giving principle” from fruits and vegetables. Adkin once stopped a funeral, he said, put two tablets in the deceased’s mouth, and snatched her from the grave.

“Does he possess divine power?” an ad asked, as did those of Professor S. Malcolm Watson. When attached to the soles of the feet, Watson’s Vibro discs were supposed to jiggle poisons down the bones and out the toes. Buy a generous supply and Watson’d throw in Vibro tablets and oil for free.

Isham had competition. But according to Samuel Hopkins Adams, who wrote “The Great American Fraud” series about medical quackery in Collier’s Magazine (1906), Isham was the greatest of all.

He turned a gurgling little spring near the base of San Miguel Mountain into “Isham’s Waters of Life.” In 1892, at least $100,000 in debt and hounded by lawsuits, he began marketing his product nationally. The waters could cure baldness, he claimed, and rheumatism (in seven days), gastric catarrh, addictions from alcohol to opium, cancer, and diabetes (in 30 days max). A benevolent new ether would soon encircle the globe, Isham announced. He had “consulted with the Deity on the subject” and received “a plan to abolish Suffering and Poverty.”

In an interview, Isham told Adams the waters were identical to those that gushed from the “scriptural rock when Moses smote it.”

When Adams asked how he knew, Isham said thousands of canals flow inside the earth, and the Lord had rerouted the “biblical pool of healing water” to south San Diego County.

“But how do you know that’s what happened?” asked Adams.

“How do you know it has not?”

His waters were a harbinger, Isham vowed. A dollar for a two-quart bottle — even during a national depression that in 1903 forced five of San Diego’s eight banks to close — seemed a pittance for such a shimmering future.

Isham’s bottling plant, near the northwest corner of today’s Jamacha and Sweetwater Springs boulevards, was a cobblestone-and-mortar spring house. Enclosed, one-room structures, spring houses were built over running water and, before refrigeration, used to keep food cool. Isham’s workers placed 12 bottles, ordered from the Illinois Glass Works, onto a wooden frame and dipped it into the water. Someone corked the full bottles immediately — to preserve their essence, it was said.

National marketing strategies, which came of age around this time, demanded one thing above all: have a recognizable product. The thick, filmy glass bottles, embossed with “Isham’s Waters of Life,” became known countrywide. When the plant ran out, which it often did, workers labeled any container they could find.

Someone — possibly Mrs. Almoneh Chittenden, who allegedly had Paul Bunyan propensities — loaded cases of 24 half-gallon bottles, or five-gallon tins (two for $12) onto a mule-driven wagon, which transported them to the La Presa railroad head. Shipments went by train to San Diego, then to distribution centers in Chicago and New York, and on to England, Europe, South America, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Siberia, “with a rapidity,” writes Francis Waddy, who worked for Isham, “probably unparalleled in the history of mineral waters.”

Money flowed. Isham splurged, eating fine foods, drinking costly spirits, and frequenting “fleshpots,” said an anonymous admirer, who added, “He had a ball.”

As Isham embraced extravagance, Waddy says he “airily assumed sales of the water would continue unaided automatically and forever.”

At the Boston Food Show of 1900, Isham gave out free samples and advice. An elegantly dressed woman named Julia approached his booth. She was losing hair, she complained. Specialists in New York, London, and Paris had been no help. She’d become so desperate, she’d “marry any man who could stop her hair from falling out.”

“Permit me,” said Isham, “to have a case delivered to your address, Madam, with my compliments.” He told her to follow his instructions and report the results in two weeks.

Within a fortnight, the woman returned. Her tresses had ceased their exodus! New growth had sprouted. Two months later, Julia B. Adsit — of the Philadelphia Adsits — became Mrs. Alfred Huntington Isham.

On April 18, 1906, just after 5:00 a.m., the earth shook for almost a minute in the San Francisco Bay Area. The quake, estimated at 8.25 on the Richter scale, and subsequent fires killed between 450 and 700 people and destroyed 25,000 buildings.

Two days later, Isham ran ads in the Eastern newspapers. They answered the “avalanche of anxious inquiries,” not about anguished Californians, but about his product: “Be calm! Humanity, be calm! Out of the earthquake zone! Isham’s Springs uninjured by the quake!”

Around this time, while Isham ran the international operation in New York, a pariah named Haskins came to the bottling plant looking like death warmed over. Workers let him stay in a shack, gave him food, and said “Drink the water.”

Haskins’s eyes and skin began to clear. After two months he could exercise for an hour, then several.

As soon as he was up and around, Haskins drilled a 90-foot well on a nearby ranch and formed the Nuvida Water Company. He stole a list of Isham’s customers from Claudius Potts, Isham’s Philadelphia distributor, and wrote letters to each, assuring them that his “new life” water came from the same source, but he’d charge half the price.

“There are no other springs at the foot of Mount San Miguel,” Potts countered. “There may be wells,” which are not the same.

Nuvida lasted two years. But even backed by DuPont money and aggressive marketing campaigns, it folded. The well water had no magic, Isham gloated in a blitz of ads.

Haskins wasn’t the first to assault Isham’s domain. In the early 1890s, George Sanford twice tried to usurp the business. Claiming he represented a San Francisco land company that owned rights to the water, Sanford almost succeeded. According to several reports, Sanford got his revenge. He tipped off Samuel Hopkins Adams about the “Waters of Life.”

When Norman Hapgood became editor of Collier’s Weekly in 1903, he vowed to hire the nation’s top writers. After the 1906 earthquake, he commissioned Jack London for an account. And when Hapgood wanted to run a series of articles about rampant fakery in American medicine, he hired Adams.

A combative, freelance journalist adept at “exposure literature” (aka, muckraking), Adams had a persistent theme: big business was ruining America, “thwarting freedom of speech, and subverting all branches of government.” In “The Great American Fraud,” Adams didn’t just analyze the contents of nostrums and sure-cures, he waged war.

“Popular credulity moves in waves,” Adams wrote. In 1906, the country was suffering a wave of hypochondria, encouraged by bogus medical ads. They listed so many egregious symptoms, a reader would identify with at least one or two. Quacks, charlatans, and “various, fresh coined ‘opathys’ ” made for a “saturnalia of healing.”

In 11 articles, Adams attacked 264 claims. As a measure of his scientific knowledge — he’d studied pre-med at Hamilton College — only three tried to sue: Isham (for $100,000 and he lost the suit); J.W. Blosser of Atlanta (whose pills offered a “positive cure for rheumatism and digestine”); and Dr. William’s Pink Pills for Pale People, whose lawyers alleged, but couldn’t prove, that the American Medical Association subsidized the Collier’s series.

In the second article, entitled “The Miracle Workers,” Adams lambasted Isham, whose medicine makes, at best, “good ice-water.”

Adams recalled interviewing the “young wizard.” Asked how the water could grow hair “on the most sterile cranium” and cure the world’s ills, Isham slid piles of testimonials across the table, enough to take “weeks, perhaps months” to track down.

Adams wanted an expert.

“Why, Professor Fogg,” Isham suggested with pride.

“What’s he professor of?”

“Don’t exactly know,” said Isham. “He calls himself ‘Professor.’ ”

“Suppose I look him up at the Broadway address given in the advertisement.”

“You wouldn’t be likely to find him,” Isham said. “He only gets his mail there. He lives somewhere on Long Island.”

Every testifier Adams contacted denied involvement. A bank president said the whole affair was absurd. “Apparently,” wrote Adams, “the initial absurdity of lending his name to a preposterous quack like Isham had not occurred to him.”

The “Waters of Life,” Adams concluded, “are probably a fairly good mineral water. They will no more cure cancer, Bright’s disease, diabetes, or paralysis than will Croton,” New York’s often brackish drinking water. “To Isham himself, I give the benefit of the doubt. I believe him to be mentally unsound. On any other premise, he is the most arrogant and blasphemous faker now before the public.”

To protect consumers against medical fraud, and inspired in part by the Collier’s campaign, in 1906 Congress passed the nation’s first Federal Food and Drug Act.

For Isham, things fell apart. Lawsuits, legislation, and growing public skepticism halted the flow of his “God-blessed” waters. Isham upped the ante. He expanded his territories to include India and British South Africa. He also tried to inject new investors into the business, renamed, to dodge negative publicity, the “Isham Water Company.” But the Panic of 1907, when the stock market fell almost 50 percent, curbed speculation.

Waddy: “A deluge of ridicule and censure from all parts of the country” engulfed Isham. He became so deeply in debt, his company couldn’t afford the bottles and cases needed to fill longstanding orders. “Isham fell into a condition of panic and suffered now the deadly effects of his former improvidence.”

Always the most animated person at a gathering, Isham’s vaunted, glad-handing energy began to dissipate. But when relatives offered to help run the declining business, the 60-year-old refused to step down.

In the winter of 1907–

1908, Isham thought he could regain his crown as “water tycoon.” His Philadelphia agent, Claudius Potts, had a large order and threatened a lawsuit if Isham didn’t deliver. But Isham had no bottles. He had the Illinois Glass Works loan $5000 worth on credit. In winter, Isham always sent orders by train on the southern route, via New Orleans. This time, either in a hurry or mentally shell-shocked, he sent them on the quicker, northern route through Montana. When the train reached the high altitudes, the water froze. At Philadelphia’s Broad Street station, yard workers unloaded three freightcars of cracked bottles.

Potts sued, as did the glassworks. Isham, who argued in court that the glass must have been defective, was ruined.

In 1908, his San Diego office, at 935 Fifth Street, closed. After that, his always robust health declined.

Isham was born in 1847, the year the American Medical Association was founded. He died penniless in New York, of cerebral paralysis, in October, 1910.

The salesman was gone. But the sales pitch — or was it the water? — lingered on. In 1912, worried he’d no longer receive regular shipments from Isham’s “fountain of youth” (and fearing he couldn’t live without them), N.C. Foster bought the property. “Foster’s ownership,” writes H.A. Suttle, Isham’s Chicago distributor, “practically eliminated further distribution and sale through general agencies. Foster being wealthy did not seem interested in profit, but he furnished a lot of it to friends and relatives without charge.” And he had a steady supply of what Suttle called “one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity” for himself.

Through the 1920s, as the spring house crumbled into a cobblestone ruin, picnickers frequented the site. They quenched their thirst with the allegedly rejuvenating liquid — and may have lugged a few gallons home, just in case.

In his A History of the Ranchos of San Diego County, California R.W. Brackett wrote of Jamacha Rancho, site of Isham’s Springs: “traditions of the remarkable properties of the waters still persist in the region…One old sheep herder recently asserted [1939] that the stockmen discontinued supplying water to the sheep when they found it turned their wool to hair.”


1. Samuel Hopkins Adams, “The Great American Fraud: The Miracle-Workers,” Collier’s Magazine, 1906, August 4.

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

3. John E. Baur, The Health Seekers of Southern California, 1870–1900, San Marino, 1959.

4. R.W. Brackett, A History of the Ranchos of San Diego County, California, San Diego, 1939.

5. Anne Campbell, city librarian, “Notes Compiled for a Talk about Alfred Huntington Isham,” National City Public Library files.

6. H.A. Suttle, letter to John Davidson of the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 15, 1936.

7. Mark Twain, The Gilded Age, New York, 1874.

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

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; The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America, Princeton, 1967.

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

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