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  that the stockmen discontinued supplying water to the sheep when they found it turned their wool to hair.”