The World of Jack London


1843 – 1922

Flora Wellman was born on August 17, 1843, in Massillon, Ohio, the youngest child in a family of five. Her father Marshall Wellman, was one of the wealthiest men in the area. Her mother, Eleanor Garrett Jones, was born in Brookfield, Ohio in 1810, the daughter of "priest Jones," a devout circuit-rider of Welsh extraction. Flora's mother died when she was a baby, and when she was four her stepmother, Julia Frederica Hurtzthal Wellman, joined the family. Flora resented her and never allowed her to become a mother to her.

Little Flora was deluged with culture, taught elocution, music, and manners. She was showered with anything money could buy and spoiled beyond belief. But at a young age she came down with a terrible fever that ruined her beauty forever. Her growth was so stunted that she never came close to reaching five feet; her hair was so badly damaged that she had to wear a wig the rest of her life. In her adult years, she wore a size-twelve child's shoe. Most significantly, the fever affected her mind, causing instability and melancholia.

At sixteen she left home to stay with her married sisters—until she wandered off on her own. Her family in Massillon never heard from her again. Nothing else is known of her life from the time she left Massillon until she appears as a boarder in the home of Mayor Yesler and his wife in Seattle. It was in the Yesler home that she met Chaney.

The thought of San Francisco life was a great temptation and certainly played a major role in her decision to move in with Chaney. She loved excitement and San Francisco was full of that. Even the horsecars that ran up Market Street toward Twin Peaks seemed to be more exciting than the ones in Seattle. San Francisco was a fun city and life was evident everywhere. Even death was exciting. Where else would a funeral procession be headed by a band? Parades were common. Few people worried about morals. It was a carnival atmosphere.

An Englishman, Joshua Norton, quietly built a fortune through his real estate office on Montgomery street in the gold-mad town. Just as quietly he lost his fortune, went mad and thought he was an emperor—Norton The First, Emperor of the United States, Mexico, and China.

He was one of the city's pet diversions and nearly everybody accepted his bogus money as genuine. Why should they put him in a mental instituion? As long as he wanted to be Emperor they would be his subjects. Gold was still king, and rumors of new bonanzas were common in 1874. The rich, especially the new rich, were building massive, showy homes on Nob Hill.

Flora looked out across the city and pronounced all this splendor good. Life here with Chaney would be fun, and the free spirit of the citizenry would be a real asset to their business.

Pregnancy shattered all of Flora's dreams. Jack was her "badge of shame" and always remained so. He was never to experience a moment of love from his mother, but he was expected to contribute to the family budget as soon as he was old enough to carry a newspaper. By the time he was ten years old he was a work beast.

Flora was not strong and birth was difficult. She had been through a lot and had little desire to live and little strength to sustain life for herself or her baby. The doctor advised a wet nurse and suggested Mrs. Alonzo Prentiss—probably one of his patients—who had recently lost her baby in childbirth. Jack was taken to Mrs. Prentiss's home at 15 Priest Street on Nob Hill. Here was real love, and Aunt Jennie never failed to love her little white child. That love was returned fully by Jack, who loved his black mother far more than his own.

Jennie Prentiss was a proud woman and especially proud of being black. Jack's mother taught him that all other races were inferior. In later years his love for Kipling led him to believe in the "white man's burden' and to have an inordinate pride in his Anglo-Saxon heritage. Aunt Jennie thought the black race was superior. Jack thought everybody should be equally proud of his own race. It was this belief that caused him to become a racial purist. Whether right or wrong, he always believed that both races were weakened by interracial marriages. In Kipling's Beyond the Pale, Jack had read "A man should, whatever happens, keep his own caste, race and breed." In Jack's own A Daughter of the Snows, Corliss says, "It's common characteristic of all peoples to consider themselves superior races—a naive, natural egoism, very healthy and very good, but none the less manifestly untrue." While Jack must be coinsidered an advocate of racial purism, it in incorrect to call him a racist in the modern sense. In many of his short stories he demonstrated his sympathy for an understanding of the oppressed of all races. In "The Mexican," "The League of the Old Men," "The Chinago," etc., he reveals his own race as brutal oppressors and portrays minorities with sympathy and understanding.

Now that the burden of the baby had been shifted to Jennie Prentiss, Flora grew stronger. Her health improved rapidly, and she was able to start giving piano lessons again. In addition to her other skills, she was an expert seamstress. Because she had no money to pay for Jack's care, Flora made some shirts for Mrs. Prentiss's husband in appreciation. This outpouring of generosity and appreciation paid double dividends—it earned Flora the heartfelt thanks of the Prentisses as well as a new husband. Mr. Prentiss worked for John London as a carpenter and told him about the wonderful shirts Flora made for him. John wanted to buy some and asked for Flora's address. Flora was an interesting woman and John was a lonely man. Flora needed a home for her baby and John needed a home for his two girls. It seemed quite natural that they should get married.

Source: Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Biography of Jack London. New York: Crown, 1979.
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