The World of Jack London

William Henry Chaney

1821 – 1903

William H. Chaney: Jack London's real fatherWilliam Henry Chaney, an itinerant astrologer, lived with Flora Wellman during 1874-1875. Chaney deserted his common-law wife upon learning of her pregnancy and later (1897) denied to London that he could have been his father. Despite Chaney's denials he probably was Jack's father. He had been married several times before he met Flora and had lived with other women after he left her. Considering this evidence, his claim of being impotent has a hollow ring. He enjoyed living with Flora, but the prospect of being a father at age fifty-five terrified him. In addition, he probably had no intention of making his relationship with Flora permanent. At this point, a child could have made things too complicated. It is also possible that he believed himself incapable of being a father, since none of his former wives or girlfriends had become pregnant. If the thought of his own sterility occurred to him, he may have sincerely believed that he was not Jack's father.

Chaney was born in a log cabin near present-day Chesterville, Maine, January 13, 1821. His father died when William was nine, and the fortunes of the family were radically changed. There was no one to farm his mother's land, and the family broke up, each going his own way. William was bound out to a harsh farmer in the area. He refused to submit to cruel treatment and ran away. By the time he was sixteen, seven farmers had used him as a "work beast."

Fulmer Mood, in An Astrology from Down East said, "He worked for awhile in a sawmill, and tried his hand at the carpenter's bench, but always in a surly spirit, for he hated the manual labor that kept him from study and books.

"His conduct was misunderstood by the farmers and sawyers of the community. His own kinsmen gave him dark looks, and rated him as a black sheep. An elderly deacon, the censor of this backwoods society, flatly told him that he was the devil's unaccountable. Small wonder, then, that under such stress his nature soured and that he came to nourish a great detestation for mankind. The gangster had not yet entered society, but river pirates still lingered on in the Southwest, more of a plague than a romantic memory. Chaney made up his mind to join their company. But preparation was necessary. Quite seriously he set about to obtain it. A good knowledge of seamanship and navigation was essential for one who had ambitions to copy Captain Kidd's model. Accordingly, young Chaney shipped on a Yankee fishing schooner to learn something of the way of the sea. He spent two years in this mode of life, and next thought to round out his term of preparation by service in the Navy. He enlisted but remained with the colors only nine months, deserting the Columbus, a receiving ship, as she lay at Boston in July 1840.

"He aimed now to reach the gulf coast—the haunt of pirates—as quickly as possible. In the Gulf and on the Mississippi he expected to find kindred spirits and Byronic opportunites. Travelling only at night, sleeping by day, and with a price on his head, the deserter made his way Westward. At Portsmouth on the Ohio the adventurer had just signed on as a member of the crew of a flat boat that was making for New Orleans when he fell sick of an attack of chills and fever. The Captain discharged him, and Chaney, from the bank, watched his raft float off. Penniless but resourceful, his affairs were soon in good shape. So kindly did the farmers of the countryside round about treat him, with an outfit of old clothes, a show of sympathy and kindness, and the offer of a post as school teacher, that soon love of humanity rather than misanthropy came to possess his heart. There was no more talk of a pirate's career."

In the ensuing years Chaney was deeply involved in politics, journalism, and law. His was a restless spirit and no job held him for long. In his Primer of Astrology and Urania Chaney wrote, "School teachers disliked me because I repudiated so much of science and philosophy that they believed true. Lawyers disliked me because I would not run in the old rut of 'precedents', unjust laws, etc., but more especially because if employed to prosecute one of them I did not spare him any more than I would a common thief. . . . In 1857 . . . I lost everything I possessed, all my books went for rent, I could not find employment of any kind (this was after I had been editor and had been practicing law for ten years), and when my last penny was gone, sooner than beg or steal, I walked the streets of Boston for three days without tasting food. On another occasion I hired to work in a match factory at $4 a week and board myself—cheap food, but the salary kept me alive and paid for lodging."

Nothing is known of Chaney's life during the next nine years. In 1866 he comes to light again in New York City when he became acquainted with Dr. Luke Broughton, astrology. Almost immediately Broughton gained a disciple with special talents in writing and lecturing, and Chaney began a new career. He said, "Astrology is the most precious science ever made known to man" and in October published this declaration: "I shall now devote my life to Astrology."

Soon after the railroad to the West was completed in 1869 Chaney was on his way to California. His wife remained behind in New York since he was just making a short visit. It lasted seventeen years.

In 1871 and 1872 he lived in Salem, Oregon. "While in Oregon," he wrote, "I enjoyed the friendship, 'in private,' of U.S. Senators, Congressmen, Governors, Judges of the Supreme and lower courts, etc., but they were timid about recognizing me in public, except to salute me pleasantly. I helped many a one to his position, working in secret, but they dare not reward me openly, although in private they were my best and truest friends." It was probably during this period that he became a friend of Mayor Yesler and his wife, at whose home in Seattle he met Flora.

Chaney went to San Francisco in October 1873 to purchase a ticket for New York City. A pickpocket got his wallet before he got to the station. He was penniless, as Chaney explained, "A gentleman advanced money to hire Dashaway hall and pay advertising for a course of eight lectures on Astro-theology, on condition that I would share the profits equally with him. This gave me a start again.

I spent the winter in San Jose, lecturing, teaching and practicing Astrology, and had an eightdays debate with Elder Miles Grant, the great Second Adventist of Boston. By May, 1874, I had saved money enough to return east, but just before starting, recieved an anonymous letter from my wife . . . stating that she was divorced and could marry again, but if I ever married again she would have me imprisoned.

"This aroused my ire and on June 11th, 1874 . . . three weeks later . . . I took another wife. We had lived together till June3rd, 1875 . . . almost a year . . . and then separated."

During this year Chaney and Flora had a flourishing business. Though he was not enamored with Flora's spiritualism, he never interfered with her seances and lectures on the subject. She in turn sold tickets for his lectures on astrology, astronomy, and astro-theology. Flora also gave piano lessons to bring in a little extra money. Spiritualism and astrology were much in vogue in the San Francisco of the 1870s, so the Chaneys were well respected and popular. It was a very pleasant arrangement until Flora announced her pregnancy.

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