In 19th-century novels and memoirs, taking the “water cure” is sometimes mentioned. This usually meant going to a health resort and both bathing in and drinking the water. It was a popular (and possibly efficacious) alternative to the toxic drug therapies standard in 19th-century medicine. “Taking the waters” was something like today’s “detox” diets and businessmen with overworked livers and ladies enjoying ill-health swore by it. While these glowing testimonials often boasted of renewed health and vigor, none of the patients claimed that they had found the fabled Fountain of Youth. Except Dr. Charles Smith.
FOUNT OF YOUTH AT EGG HARBOR
A Resident Thinks He Improves on Ponce de Leon’s Luck
New Jersey comes to the front with a fountain of youth. Egg Harbor is the exact site of the magic stream and its chief exhibit is a man of 126 years, who looks to be 80 and acts as if he were 30. He is Dr. Charles Smith, and to prove that the report of his extraordinary age is correct it is shown that the records of it are kept by both the Masons and the Elks of the state. [Do fraternal organizations have records like this?] He married his third wife six months ago.
Dr. Smith and his friends all believe in the fountain of youth and are firmly convinced that if they keep on bathing there they can keep off old age indefinitely. In consequence anybody can go to the “fountain” any day in the week and, no matter how low the mercury has fallen, he will see fifty to a hundred persons wading around in the water with no more apparent concern about the weather than if it was the middle of July.
The fountain consists of a freely running brook that flows through the cedar woods that surround Egg Harbor. To all appearances the water is no different from that in any other ordinary brook. The people who bathe here, however, claim that the water has a wonderful effect on them, and some of them make a practice of bathing as often as once a week, no matter how cold the weather is.
But whether the water is the actual cause of the effect or not, it is a fact that there is a surprising number of very old people living thereabouts—many from 75 to 100 years—who look twenty years younger than their actual age. Nearly every man and woman in the town seems to have a ruddy complexion and nearly every citizen in the place takes his bath in the brook more or less regularly.
But old Dr. Smith is the most wonderful of the lot, and he attributes his age and health to the fact that he has used regularly for fifty ears what Ponce de Leon sought.
“I was not always in good health,” says Dr. Smith, “I came here from New York broken down in health over half a century ago. I had retired from all practice and supposed I would die within a year or two. But one day while fishing I got soaking wet in the brook, having stepped in so far that the water reached above the tops of my long boots without my noticing it. I expected my death of cold and hurried home.
“What was my surprise when I got there to find that instead of feeling badly I felt spryer than usual. Thinking that the water might be some sort of mineral compound, I resolved to try it again, with the result that I came to the conclusion that the brook is the very fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon sought for in vain so many years ago.
“You remember that when he was looking for it the Indian guides kept on pointing toward the north. Well, this brook is exactly north of the direction in which Ponce de Leon was going when he gave up the search, so there is no doubt in my mind that this is the very fountain that the Indians referred to.”
And the beauty of it all is that there is no fence around the stream and no fee charged for all the dips wanted by anyone. Mansfield [OH] News 29 March 1901: p. 1
FOR PERPETUAL YOUTH
Muddy Swamps in New Jersey with Life-Giving Qualities
A whole town in New Jersey has gone crazy over a swamp, which is supposed to be the spring and fount of youth eternal. Every inhabitant, from the mayor, the aldermen and their wives down to the boys who sell papers in the streets, believes in its magical qualities. The town is Egg Harbor, fifteen miles from Atlantic City, and the swamp lies on its northwest boundary. Any one driving out there on a Sunday morning will see fifty to 100 men, women and children walking in muddy water with all their clothing on.
These people firmly believe the swamp to be the “fountain of youth” for which Ponce de Leon searched in vain 300 years ago. They are convinced that all they have to do to live a hundred years and longer is to walk through this water every week and drink a glassful every day.
There are outsiders who share in the belief of the Egg Harborites. Every week people come there from surrounding towns.
The virtue which the water of the swamp is supposed to possess was discovered by Dr. Charles Smith of Rahway, who has a summer residence at Egg Harbor. Dr. Smith is believed to be 123 years of age.
Business men think it but a matter of a few months when their city will have become a popular water resort, while next year they expect that, compared to Egg Harbor, Carlsbad will be knocked into the shade. Every one of them is planning an addition to his shop.
“People thinking of coming to Egg Harbor to be made young again must not forget to bring along two suits of clothing with them,” says Dr. Smith, “for the only correct way to bathe in the pool of youth in order to get all the benefit of the virtue of the water is to put on a suit of woolen underclothes, a light suit of outer clothes, thick stockings and low shoes.” The Daily Herald [Delphos, OH] 3 August 1900: p. 3
Patients did not long have to walk in a muddy swamp. Dr. Smith built the “Neutral Water Health Resort and Sanitarium,” which included a canal where patients could walk in the water. You can see part of the sanitarium in the photograph (unfortunately undated) above. Here is another photo of the doctor and some of his patients. To judge by the clothing, the photo was taken around 1900-1905.
The good doctor originally thought that Lawrence Brook, near New Brunswick, New Jersey, was the source of immortality. He was prosecuted by the Board of Health for polluting the stream, which was a source of drinking water for the city, by having his patients bathe there and fined a hefty $75 and costs. He swore at his trial in 1900 that he was 135 years old. [Source: The New York Times 16 August 1906: p. 4]
In addition to the waters of Egg Harbor, Dr. Smith had a magic elixir he relied on to keep him young.
GROOM IS 122 YEARS OLD
Man Born the Year After the Declaration of Independence Takes a Second Wife.
Possesses the Elixir of Life.
Does Not Look Half His Age
His Wife a Buxom Woman of Forty-Five Years
Atlantic City, N.J. Oct. 11 Dr. Charles Smith, 122 years old, went a-wooing and—glad tidings!—got him a wife. He was born in 1777, and his bride is forty-five years old.
Unable to believe his ears when the sprightly bridegroom repeated his age, again and again the Rev. Thomas J. Cross asked him how he had defied death so long.
“By this fluid,” was the reply, and Dr. Smith produced a small bottle filled with something resembling wine.
The Rev. Mr. Cross let out the secret when he filed at the Bureau of Statistics certificates of marriages performed by him during September.
Smith, according to the certificate, is a practicing physician. The wedding took place on Sept. 8 in a cottage in Delaware avenue, where Miss Sallie May, the bride, and Dr. Smith were boarding. The doctor has an office there.
As the clergyman filled out a blank he asked Dr. Smith for his age, thinking he was about sixty-five or seventy.
“How old do you think I am?” the old man asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, I’m sure you’re of age,” said the preacher.
“Yes,” said Dr. Smith, “of age and 101 years more. Sir, I am 122 years old.” And then he told of his elixir. The Rev. Mr. Cross describes the bride as a well-formed woman of matronly appearance. Dr. Smith was married once before. [The first article in this post says this was this third wife.] His wife, having refused all suitors since her girlhood, begins married life with a gay old boy who was born just after the Declaration of Independence.
Dr. Smith asked that the wedding be kept secret as long as possible. He was in Rahway to-day and the bride was in Egg Harbor, but inquirers were told that they would be at home to-morrow. The World [New York, NY] 12 October 1899: p. 5
By 1922, Dr. Smith had achieved a St. Germain-like eminence. The article below appeared in a number of papers in 1921 as well.
DOCTOR QUITS AT 145
New Jersey Physician Thinks He’s Old Enough to Retire.
Father Advises Him Not to Smoke, but Says He Thinks He Has Reached His Full Stature by This Time
Philadelphia. Dr. Charles Smith of Egg Harbor, N.J., who says he celebrated his one hundred and forty-fifth birthday the other day, has decided to retire and take a rest.
“When a man has worked as hard as I have and is getting on in years,” said Dr. Smith, “it’s about time for him to quit working and begin to enjoy himself.”
Doctor Smith’s assertion regarding his age is supported by old residents of Egg harbor, some of whom are over ninety. Even the most skeptical townsfolk admit he is well over one hundred. When he became a resident of Egg Harbor 25 years ago he asserted he was one hundred and twenty.
Doctor Smith was keenly interested in the world’s series, for he lived in New York for many years.
He recently took up smoking. “My father always told me that it was an injurious practice and stunts the growth,” he said. “I guess I have reached my full stature by this time, so I don’t suppose a couple of cigars a day will hurt me.”
Doctor Smith says he was born on September 26, 1776, so he is about ten weeks younger than the United States. His grandfather, he says, lived to be one hundred and twenty-four and his father was killed when he was quite a young man, comparatively speaking, at the age of seventy, by the falling of a tree. The Bessemer [MI] Herald 7 July 1922: p. 3
CLAIMS HE WAS BORN IN CAIRO 146 YEARS AGO
Introducing Dr. Charles Smith who claims that he is 146 years old and was born in Cairo. Dr. Smith is the founder of Egg Harbor Neutral Water Health Resort of Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.
The association which conducts the resort wants to check up on Dr. Smith’s claim, also to get some data in regard to him for a life history and so appealed to City Clerk Robert A. Hatcher, who turned the letter over to Commissioner Howley.
If Dr. Smith was born 146 years ago, it was in the year 1782. [Defective math: 1776 would be the correct date.] The Daily Free Press [Carbondale, IL] 29 August 1922: p. 1
It would be interesting to see if there are any Illinois records that showed the man’s actual birthdate. Cairo wasn’t actually founded until 1837 and was incorporated as a city in 1858. What is rather astounding is that the US censuses for 1910 and 1920 list his ages as 134 and 143 respectively. The 1920 census adds that he is widowed (from the “buxom woman” above?) and the proprietor of a sanitarium. Findagrave says he died 30 March 1923 and is buried at Fresh Ponds Gospel Mission Chapel Cemetery, South Brunswick, NJ. His birthdate—surprise!—is listed as “unknown.” The photo of his gravestone obscures his birthdate, if it is listed.
One clue to his possible longevity was that there was another Dr. Charles Smith of New Brunswick, New Jersey, born in 1768, who died in 1848. Did the fountain-of-youth man rely on faulty memories to claim he was the same man?
Dr Smith’s Neutral Water Health Resort and Sanitarium no longer exists, but you can still see one of the buildings and the serpentine canal where patients walked in the water. I’m not sure I would dare to drink it.
Further reading: The history of hydrotherapy, also called hydropathy and “the water cure,” is too complex to go into here. There was a spate of different schools and heated rivalries among practitioners. You can read something about how the practice gained popularity in the United States here. And this article on two Civil War surgeons admirably contrasts the methods of an allopathic and a hydropathic physician.
Another “Doctor,” who also had Masonic records to prove his claim that he was at least 121 years old, was Dr. William Hotchkiss of St. Louis, the “Color Doctor,” who claimed that snapping the fingers generated health-giving “electro-magnetic power” and never bathed in water.
Any other fountains of youth? Wade on over to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.