Cure-all elixir, foun­tain of youth

Be­fore burn­ing down, this is­land re­sort was one of Florida’s ear­li­est swin­dles

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Dan Sweeney

A lit­tle more than a hun­dred years ago, peo­ple from up and down the East Coast would jour­ney to a small is­land in Lake Worth La­goon to down “Dr. Mun­yon’s Paw-Paw Elixir,” a cure-all said to heal rheuma­tism, ner­vous­ness, sleep­less­ness and a whole host of other mal­adies.

There were sev­eral prob­lems. James M. Mun­yon was not a doc­tor. His elixir was lit­tle more than fer­mented pa­paya juice. And the re­sort from which he sold it, the Hygeia Ho­tel on Mun­yon Is­land, also of­fered a “foun­tain of youth,” the waters of which were just plain old H2O pumped into the well through pipes con­nected to the main­land.

We were turned on to one of South Florida’s ear­li­est and more suc­cess­ful snake-oil sales­men as part of our Sound Off South Florida project, in which we in­ves­ti­gate an­swers to ques­tions sub­mit­ted by you, our read­ers.

Re­cently, we delved into Florida his­tory to an­swer the ques­tion, “Are Pine Is­land and Rock Is­land roads named after ac­tual is­lands?” And we draw wa­ter again from that his­tor­i­cal well, as reader

Robert Boggy wrote in to ask, “What do we know about the ho­tel/bar on stilts that housed/fed com­mer­cial fish­er­man and blue col­lars that burned down (early 1900s) Mun­yon Is­land?”

After re­search­ing, there were a cou­ple is­sues with the premise of the ques­tion. Mun­yon’s re­sort ho­tel was a five-story, high-end af­fair that catered largely to wealthy north­ern­ers, not lo­cal fish­er­men. Also, the place wasn’t on stilts. But it did burn down in 1917, with Mun­yon dy­ing a year later, cap­ping off a sev­eral-decade ca­reer in flim­flam­mery.

What’s now known as Mun­yon Is­land was first set­tled by Nathan and Car­rie Pitts in 1892, ac­cord­ing to records held by the Palm Beach His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. At about the same time, Mun­yon was be­gin­ning his ca­reer in “home­o­pathic reme­dies” in Phil­a­del­phia.

The Pitts had moved from Mas­sachusetts to Or­mond, Fla., in 1876 due to Car­rie’s fail­ing health. There, Nathan Pitts “soon made his worth known, be­ing closely iden­ti­fied with all mat­ters of pub­lic im­prove­ment,” ac­cord­ing to a 1902 obit­u­ary pub­lished in The Trop­i­cal Sun, South Florida’s first news­pa­per.

In a mo­ment of land spec­u­la­tion awe­some even in the his­tory of South Florida, Pitts bought five acres on the west shore of Lake Worth for $2 in the win­ter of ei­ther 1887 or 1888 and sold it in 1891 for $3,500. The next year, he bought all of what be­came Mun­yon Is­land from the U.S. gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to “A Trop­i­cal Fron­tier,” a his­tory of early Florida set­tle­ment pub­lished in 2005.

Up un­til that point, what was then called Pitts Is­land, had been un­in­hab­ited — or at least un­sur­veyed. An 1896 his­tory of the area, “The Lake Worth His­to­rian,” tells a dif­fer­ent, more

col­or­ful story, ex­plain­ing that Pitts bought the is­land “from an old her­mit by the name of Rogers, who had lived a Robin­son Cru­soe ex­is­tence on a lit­tle clear­ing of its al­most im­per­vi­ous thicket un­der the dense shade of a huge banyan tree.”

Ei­ther way, Pitts built a lit­tle ho­tel on the is­land in 1901 be­fore sell­ing to Mun­yon, who had much grander plans. His five-story Hygeia Ho­tel, named for the Greek god­dess of health, in­cluded re­sort and spa ac­tiv­i­ties, the afore­men­tioned “foun­tain of youth,” and a seem­ingly nev­erend­ing sup­ply of Mun­yon’s Paw-Paw Elixir.

The snake-oil sales­man then be­gan his ad cam­paign, a blitz of full-page ads in East Coast news­pa­pers declar­ing the heal­ing pow­ers of his elixir. The mar­ket­ing of the re­sort and its elixir went so far as to in­clude an of­fi­cial song, penned by Mun­yon, en­ti­tled “Down Where the Paw-Paw Grows,” the last verse of which went: “Mun­yon’s Isle all hearts be­guile/Down where the paw-paw grows/There’s joy for each at gay Palm Beach/Down where the paw-paw grows.”

Mun­yon laid out his grand plans for the is­land in a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous news­pa­per ac­count, say­ing, “Be­fore long we will have gon­do­las, sail­ing the waters around the is­land and pass­ing un­der Ja­pa­nese bridges and Vene­tian col­umns. … Peo­ple from all over the world will come here to en­joy the cli­mate and drink from my foun­tain of youth.”

In 1913, Mun­yon’s son Duke went into busi­ness with him, ac­cord­ing to a Trop­i­cal Sun ar­ti­cle, and the mas­sive ex­pan­sion of the ho­tel be­gan. Duke “formed a syn­di­cate of north­ern cap­i­tal­ists” who paid to clear land on the north end of the is­land to build pri­vate win­ter homes for the wealthy, ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle.

But those plans never came to fruition. The Hygeia Ho­tel burned down in

1917, and Mun­yon died the next year. Harry Kelsey, later the de­vel­oper of Lake Park, bought the is­land from the Mun­yon estate for

$65,000 in prom­is­sory notes, and was then sued by the estate in 1926 for non­pay­ment. The is­land was fore­closed on and re­turned to Mun­yon’s estate, and was sold again in 1932, after which it was used to dump sand dredged from the In­tra­coastal, even­tu­ally more than dou­bling the size of the 15-acre is­land.

Mun­yon Is­land came into the pos­ses­sion of John D. MacArthur in the 1950s, and from there was bought from his estate by the state of Florida as part of what be­came John D. MacArthur State Park.

To­day, the is­land makes for a great kayak­ing ex­cur­sion, but the foun­da­tion and any­thing else that re­mains of Mun­yon’s re­sort has long since been buried by time and tons of sand.

Do you have a ques­tion you’d like us to in­ves­ti­gate? Head over to SunSen­tinel.com/SoundOff to send it in.

COUR­TESY/PALM BEACH HIS­TOR­I­CAL SO­CI­ETY PHO­TOS

Above: The Hygeia Ho­tel on Mun­yon Is­land. Left: Ad­ver­tise­ment for Mun­yon's Paw-Paw on the back of sheet mu­sic ti­tled “Down Where the Paw-Paw Grows.” Copy­righted 1904. The elixir was sold as a cure-all said to heal rheuma­tism, ner­vous­ness, sleep­less­ness and other mal­adies.

PALM BEACH HIS­TOR­I­CAL SO­CI­ETY

James Mun­yon and a young friend, fu­ture at­tor­ney F.A. (Ban­zai ) Cur­rie, are pic­tured us­ing Mun­yon’s sig­na­ture hand sig­nal in­di­cat­ing his slo­gan “There is Hope” in 1910 in West Palm Beach.

TAIMY AL­VAREZ/SUN SEN­TINEL

Palm Beach His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety archive pic­tures and ad­ver­tis­ing for the ho­tel on Mun­yon Is­land where James Mun­yon fleeced tourists with a fer­mented pa­paya con­coc­tion.

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