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Psychic History: The Murder of Jack London: November 22, 1916

Psychic History is a way to attempt to answer questions that exist in the historic record by means of paranormal methods. The historic record is filled with gaps and omissions, and as such mysteries exist in the record. Psychic History attempts to answer these riddles using non-traditional elements. The answers gained by such means can not be counted as fact—merely speculation but they exist to open new lines of inquiry. This project is to examine the strange death of American writer Jack London in 1916. An examination of the records, and the séance work of psychic Debbie Christenson Senate will attempt to look back as to what happened the night of his death and the factors that lead up to his untimely death. This experiment included a visit to the Cottage where he passed away and handling artifacts used by Jack London as well as visiting his grave site and the ruins of his large stone mansion “Wolf House” in Glenn Ellen, California.

Was his death a suicide? Murder? Accidental? Or a deliberate act that ended the life of Jack London at the age of 40.

Who was Jack London?

Born John Griffith Chaney, the illegitimate son of Spiritualist Medium Flora Wellman and a traveling astrologer William Chaney. He left her, causing Flora to attempt suicide. Jack was nursed by an ex-slave woman named Virginia Prentiss. Flora went on to marry a disabled Civil War soldier, John London, young Jack would take his name. He grew up in poverty, laboring on the waterfront in Oakland, California. He started to work at a tender age to help support his family. He became an independent young man who raided oyster beds in the bay and even sailed on a windjammer at the age of seventeen. He road the rails as a hobo and even served a short term in prison. He attempted college at Berkeley working to pay his tuition by writing stories for newspapers and for the schools literary magazine. His literary careen didn't blossom until he traveled to the Yukon during the Alaskan Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th Century. He didn't find his fortune in the Yukon but came back with a stock of colorful characters and images that he turned into successful stories.

His tales of the raw frontier and driven men were well received by the American public. His style was bold and choppy, strongly influenced by the works of Kipling. He was quickly catapulted into the literary spotlight. He also became know for his outspoken radical politics that he wore like a badge of honor. He was a Socialist that blended Marxism with Darwinism. But, in the years before the bloody Russian Revolution of 1917 such views were seen in an almost academic light.

With the publication of his masterpiece The Call of the Wild, his success was assured,White Fang and Sea Wolf would follow. London was sought out by newspaper and magazines to cover the events of the day from the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 to the great San Francisco Earthquake and fire of 1906. He even covered the 1910 Mexican Revolution and the US Occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914.

In time his books started to become almost biographical with his works Martin Eden and The Valley of the Moon. The hero in Martin Eden was a thinly disguised version of London himself. In the end of that novel the hero takes his own life giving many to believe that London's death was a planned act of self destruction.

London was married twice. The first in 1900 to Elizabeth May “Bessie” Madden. They grew apart but the union produced two daughters, Joan and Becky. They divorced and in 1905 he married Charmian Kittredge whom he met doing Socialist lectures. He was passionately in love with her. They bought “Beauty Ranch” at Glen Ellen, California and began to build his great stone mansion he named “Wolf House.” Sadly, days before they were to move into the massive pile, it mysteriously caught fire and burned.

Charmian wrote that this loss in 1913 began a slow decline in Jack. The house was never rebuilt and she said it was deliberately burned by Jack's enemies. The cause of the fire was listed as accidental. His health was in decline, made all the faster by his lavish lifestyle and exotic diet. He made unwise business deals (the bane of many successful writers) and plans for future projects dried up. His books started to reflect Spiritualistic concepts he had rejected in the past. Still, there were movie projects, plans for future novels (Like “The Golden Man”) and trips. He had much to be optimistic about.

As one of the first modern writers, Jack London paved the way for other great American writers in the 20th Century, such as Hemingway and John Steinbeck. His easy-to-read style and the focus on individualism made him a breath of fresh air as the world moved out of the stiff formalism of the Victorian novel. His life was only forty years but in that one lifetime he compressed as many adventures as five other men. It is as he wanted it. He expressed in this quote:

“I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze, that it should be stifled by dry rot, I would rather be a meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

A Cast of Suspects

Charmian London, his wife. Clearly she had the opportunity to poison him but what would have been her motive? London was a notorious womanizer and alcoholic. Perhaps her inability to produce a child might have caused his eye to stray? Still, in all their travels he seemed to express his love for her.

Bessie Madden, his first wife. They never had a passionate relationship, their union only being described as “friendly.” She did produce two daughters that Jack did love very much. Could her jealousy have caused her dislike to become hate?

Eliza Shepard, his sister. She was staying at the ranch and it was she who called the doctor believing the violent stomach pains were ptomaine poisoning. She would have had opportunity but no motive.

George Sterling, friend who told Upton Sinclair that Jack took his own life over his love of an Hawaiian girl he met on his last trip to the islands. He was not present and what would be the motive of spreading such a tale to the California writer? Could this have provided a motive for Charmian to do something?

Dr. William Porter who was his doctor and treating him for a variety of ailments for the last three years. He signed the death certificate listing uremia and renal colic as the cause of death. But did he see something else and fail to list it?

Nakata The Japanese servant. He told people Jack told him that he had poison in his strong box to give him if he was unable to enjoy life. He had the means to kill himself quickly.

Jack London himself in an accidental overdose of Morphine to control the pain that was growing worse as his body developed a tolerance for the pain killer or in an act self destruction?

Suspicious circumstances

  1. Two empty phials of Morphine Sulfate and Atropine Sulfate were found on the floor of the room where he was, but no syringes were found. They would have been present if he took the drug. What happened to the syringes? Why were they removed?

  2. A notation was found on his night table listing tabulations of a fatal dose of Morphine. Was this done to take his own life or was it listed so as to not take too much of the drug?

  3. Body was quickly cremated and as his death listed as “natural causes” there was no autopsy or investigation. As was his wish, he was buried near the ruins of Wolf House, under a massive stone from the house.

What killed Jack London?

The cause of his death has been disputed almost from the first and is still debated to this day. Suicide was speculated from the first and it seemed to conform to London's writings, many of the heroes were simply versions of London himself—in two novels the heroes take their own lives. Many saw this as a morbid fascination with self destruction on London's part. Suicide seemed “logical.” But, outside of the account of George Sterling, we have no evidence that he took his own life. Medical knowledge was in its infancy in the early years of the 20th Century and many have speculated that many factors could well have been a contributing factor in his death at age forty.

I Alcoholism He drank a great deal starting each day with a glass of whiskey. He used a great deal of tobacco products smoking many cigarettes and using a water pipe. The over use of the Chinese style pipe may have caused lead to have been deposited in his system. This would have rendered him infertile.

II Mercury Poisoning On his voyage to the South Seas, on his yacht, the Snark, He and Charmian contracted several topical illnesses including Yars. In those years before antibiotics the only cure for Yars was Mercury Chloride. It would settle, slowly, in the kidneys causing swelling of hands among other things. Mercury was also used as a cure for syphilis. As a notorious womanizer who frequented prostitutes (his first wife locked him out of their bedroom fearing he would bring a venereal disease to her. ) Perhaps he had contracted such an illness and Mercury was used to cure him, leaving a deposit of Mercury, his Yars would deposit more, helping to destroy his kidneys.

III Lupus Dr. Andrew Bomback M.D. Speculated that Jack London may have contracted Lupus that weakened him. A dosage of morphine would have been helpful to control pain until his body would need more and more of the narcotic to be effective.

IV Poor diet, Gout. Many sited London's poor diet as a factor. His high protein diet made worse because of his love of under cooked Wild Ducks. These were “aged” (permitted to rot) and lightly cooked causing some to speculate that this was the real cause of his death. His doctors warned him such things were bad for him. This high protein diet lead to him developing gout!

V Suicide The social stigma of suicide could very well have stimulated a cover-up. There may have been legal reasons as well. If he took his own life insurance may not have paid his wife. But, listed as “natural causes” by a respected doctor would have prevented and disputes with the will. This was not an uncommon practice at the time. This might explain why the syringes vanished and his body was burned to get rid of any evidence.

New York Times obituary describes his death. Jack London Dies Suddenly On Ranch


SANTA ROSA, Cal. Nov. 22.--Jack London, the author, died at his Glen Ellen, Cal., ranch near here at 7:45 o'clock tonight, a victim of uremic poisoning. London was taken ill last night and was found unconscious early today by a servant who went to his room to awaken him.

His sister, Mrs. Eliza Shepard, summoned physicians from this city. It was at first believed that the author was a victim of ptomaine poisoning, but later it developed he was suffering from a severe form of uremia. Dr. J. Wilson Shields of San Francisco, a close friend of the writer, was summoned during the day.

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