The first Fountain of Youth advertising, with drinks at a nickel a dipperful.
The first Fountain of Youth advertising, with drinks at a nickel a dipperful.

Mother of the Fountain of Youth

St. Augustine, Florida

Among America's tourist attraction pioneers, none made more headlines than Luella Day McConnell, the Mother of the Fountain of Youth.

Luella as she appeared in 1906.
Luella as she appeared in 1906.

She was born, she would later claim, as Lyonella Murat Day, and for roughly 15 years in the late 1800s was a medical doctor of some kind in Indiana and Chicago, a promoter of "Edison's Obesity Pills," and a member of the Women's Civic Reform Society. But by her own account she dumped all of that in 1898 to go north to the gold fields of the Yukon and "make a fortune."

When Luella arrived in St. Augustine, Florida, in August 1904, she had left two husbands and claimed to have survived several assassination attempts. Newspapers reported that she had a diamond in one of her front teeth, and gave her the nickname, "Diamond Lil." She did no doctoring of any kind.

Reading these old accounts makes you wonder if the Luella in St. Augustine had simply stolen the identity of Luella the Midwestern physician, but who knows?

By 1909 Luella had become convinced that a well outside her front door, formerly a spring, was the Fountain of Youth. She said that a tree next to the well had fallen down, exposing a large Christian cross in the ground made of stones 15 high by 13 across, marking the year 1513 that Ponce de Leon had visited the spot to drink from the fabled spring. Next to the cross was a small silver urn, elaborately embossed with an image of Christopher Columbus, in which was a parchment supposedly written by a member of de Leon's crew. Luella sold replicas of the urn, postcards of the cross, and sips from the Fountain of Youth for a nickel a drink.

The urn disappeared and the parchment became unreadable, but that didn't stop the Fountain of Youth from becoming St. Augustine's most visited attraction. It was a popular stop for celebrities in what had become a tourist town, and Luella was a constant focus of local news and gossip. She wrote to President Taft, claiming that powerful men in Washington were plotting to murder women. It was rumored that she hosted illegal gambling parties in her house, that she'd shot and killed a neighbor's horse that wandered onto her property, and that she was jailed as a suspected German spy in World War I.

As time passed Luella's claims grew more amazing. She said she was a descendant of the Bonapartes and owned Napoleon's pocket watch; that people had tried to poison her with gas, Coca-Cola, apples, and a watermelon; that the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine had in fact been built by the Chinese; and that Jesus would return to earth at the Fountain of Youth.

On June 23, 1927, Luella drove her car into a ditch and died. She was rumored to have left buried treasure on her Fountain of Youth property, but it was never found. One of her ex-husbands came to St. Augustine to claim her body, but no one seems to know what he did with it. He told a newspaper reporter that Luella had a "fantastic and romantic frame of mind."

The Fountain of Youth was purchased by Walter Fraser, who in subsequent years made it even more popular that Luella had, and mostly kept himself out of the newspapers.

In 2000 St. Augustine erected a "Great Floridians" plaque in Luella's honor. It implies that she was 57 when she died, but by her own early accounts she was ten years older than that. Maybe drinking all that Fountain of Youth water kept her young.

Also see: The Hall of Immortals

Fountain of Youth

Address:
11 Magnolia Ave., St. Augustine, FL
Directions:
North side of downtown. From FL-A1A turn east onto Williams St. at the Fountain of Youth sign and arch. Drive three blocks to the entrance, straight ahead. , at the corner of Williams St. and Magnolia Ave.
Hours:
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
904-829-3168
Admission:
Adults $18.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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October 21, 2020

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