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.”