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.