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Petaluma’s Past: Jack London’s death a Sonoma County mystery

One-hundred-two years ago, in the dawning of Nov. 22, 1916, famed American novelist Jack London was found unconscious on the floor of his home in Sonoma County’s Glen Ellen. Later that day, several conflicting medical reports were announced as to the cause of his death, and then were strangely contradicted.

Jack London had been a frequent visitor to Petaluma, riding here often, both on horseback and by buggy. Much of the feed for the animals on his Glen Ellen ranch came from McNear’s Mill on ‘B’ and Main Street, and he purchased his baby chicks there as well. London usually carried bells attached to his saddle and to his harness to announce his arrival here in town. Hearing those, children would scamper to the street to catch the candy he happily tossed them.

In fact, Jack London often reminisced about the Petaluma Valley, calling it “the grassy feet of the Sonoma Mountains and home.” It was, he said, his “favorite view in all the world.”

Jack London always lived life to the fullest. Thus, his famous quote, “I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze, than it should be stifled by dry-rot.” Thus, he had set his own stage for the strange circumstances of his death in 1916, at the young age of 40.

Had it been illness, a suicide, or an accident?

Or, perhaps something more sinister?

Those questions hung in the air for the world to ponder.

At that time, the world of 1916, the automobile was still outnumbered by the horse and wagon, World War I had begun in Europe, Woodrow Wilson had just been re-elected, Mexican Bandito Pancho Villa had actually invaded the United States — only to be driven back by General George Pershing — and in Brooklyn, New York, women’s advocate Margaret Sanger had been arrested on “obscenity charges,” for publicly lecturing about birth control.

On the subject of London’s death, our Petaluma Argus editor D.W. Ravenscroft mourned the author eloquently, writing, “American literature suffers the greatest loss which it could possibly suffer.” And, Ravenscroft’s wife, the president of the Petaluma Woman’s Club, organized a lecture series that same week, entitled, “The Life and Works of Jack London.” The Ravenscrofts had known London personally. London’s most important books, “The Sea Wolf,” “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild,” had enamored readers throughout the world, and Petaluma was no exception to that.

The controversy regarding Jack London’s cause of death was initiated by the three physicians who had been urgently called to his ranch that morning, where London had been found in a coma. London biographer Russ Kingman later wrote, “A partially empty bottle of morphine was found,” adding that the first physician to see him — a Dr. Thompson — had declared cause of death as morphine poisoning. But later that day, London’s personal physician, Dr. Porter, changed that diagnosis to acute uremia, stating that London had been treating himself for what the doctor called “terrible suffering caused by inoperative kidneys.”

It was certainly no secret that Jack London had been a heavy drinker.

Jack London biographer Irving Stone eventually wrote that London had been found unconscious on the floor by his Japanese servant, and that the servant had also found, in Stone’s words, “Two empty vials of morphine sulfate and atropine sulfate, plus a pad of paper with a calculation of a lethal amount of dosage.”

Stone pointed out that Jack London’s wife, Charmian, had firmly stated that it would be, once again, quoting Stone, “very important that the death should be blamed solely on uremic poisoning.” Stone made no mention of London’s personal M.D., Dr. Porter, or of his physician friend, Dr. Sheils, who were also present that day.

Biographer Andrew Sinclair was far more blunt.

“Jack had injected himself with an overdose of drugs,” Sinclair wrote, noting that Dr. Thompson had been angry that his own diagnosis of London “deliberately committing suicide” had been overturned by two other physicians, who staunchly claimed the death was from uremia. It was never determined how much morphine London had taken, but Sinclair wrote, “His large injection before dawn seems to have been an impulse intended to be terminal.”

In a 1939 biography of her father, Joan London later said that London had indeed taken a lethal dose, but questioned assumptions that it was suicide.

“Who could say whether it had been with suicidal intention or merely an overdose in the midst of agony,” she wrote. She went on to state that on the morning after her father’s Nov. 22 death, she had received a letter from her father, dated Nov. 21, inviting her to lunch with him at the end of that very week. She then questioned whether her father would have committed suicide prior to that luncheon he had just set up with his daughter.

In her own autobiography, Charmian London described the events of that morning like this.

“Jack, unconscious, was doubled down sideways on the bedroom floor, showing plain symptoms of poisoning.” But she made no mention in her book of a disagreement between any of the doctors, nor any mention of possible suicide.

Four days after London’s death, our Petaluma Argus was still mourning.

“Jack London had many friends here,” an article stated, “and used to visit quite often,” adding that London would often end his day in Petaluma with “a visit to a local pub.”

Ironically, the week after London’s death, Petaluma Police Chief Flohr — in an effort to curtail community drunkenness — ordered all music in Petaluma’s saloons to be banned.

I surmise that Jack London wouldn’t have liked that order, at all.

Whether Jack London deliberately committed suicide or simply suffered an accidental overdose — or that someone else had been involved — will always be debated, because of the great deal of confusion in the early reporting of the incident. Pills vs. injections, the timing of the death, the stomach pumping, and doctors overriding other doctor’s diagnoses, were indeed strange contradictions. We do know, however, that Charmian London fervently did not want the world to hear a suicide or murder determination of her husband’s demise.

Jack London’s ashes are buried on a mossy knoll-top in Sonoma County, next to Charmian’s grave. His legend lives on here, as it does across the globe. Today, the actual cause of his death is of far lesser importance than the literary production of his short but incredible life.

‘Good Ol’ Jack,’ as he was often called, may just be watching over his beloved Sonoma County laughing, or relaxing in the corner of some local bar, silently laughing over the ongoing debate regarding his death.

I certainly hope so.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com)