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.
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.