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.