The World of Jack London

Chasing William H. Chaney

By Daniel Dyer

Author of Jack London: A Biography Scholastic Press, 1997. —Dyer received a Ph.D. from Kent State University. He became interested in Jack London when teaching The Call of the Wild to eighth graders, and subsequently published an annotated edition of the novel as well as a teacher's guide for the novel. He and his son actually visited the sites of the Klondike gold strikes, following in London's footsteps.

Author of Jack London: A Biography, Daniel DyerIn early November 2000, I was in Chicago, had a couple of extra days, and decided to visit the grave of William H. Chaney, the man who many think was the father of Jack London. I had done a little spade work beforehand: ordering from Cook County a copy of his death certificate, speaking on the phone with a representative of the Elmwood Cemetery and Mausoleum, who assured me that Chaney's remains . . . remained.

Chaney, age 82, died in Cook County Hospital on 8 January 1903, only months before London published The Call of the Wild, the book that launched his soaring, swift career. Yes, he had published before TCOW, but this was the work that established his reputation and that to a great degree still establishes it. Chaney's death certificate lists "Senile Pneumonia and Pleuritis" as the "Chief and Determining Cause or Causes of Death."

I began my search for Chaney in Chicago's Harold Washington Library in the Loop, where I looked through newspapers for accounts of Chaney's passing and examined city directories for his residences during his Chicago years. I read microfilm of the eight Chicago newspapers that were publishing in 1903 (none, unfortunately, with an index) and found only a few fleeting references to Chaney. On 10 January 1903, the Chicago Tribune had only the slimmest notice: "Chaney, William H., age 82, 385 State, Jan. 8" (p. 9). This identical notice appeared in the Chicago Record-Herald (10 January, p. 5) and the Chicago Chronicle (10 January, p. 3). The other papers either ran no notices of deaths or neglected Chaney's. In each paper, I read the issues that appeared in the weeks prior and subsequent to Chaney's death and found no other mention of him.

The city directories reveal a restless Chaney, ever on the move. The first to dig out all these addresses was Fulmer Mood in his 1932 profile of Chaney in the New England Quarterly, "An Astrologer from Down East" (pp. 769-799). Mood made no mistakes. Chaney's first Chicago appearance was in 1895; he was living at 923 West Madison and listed his occupation as astrologer just as he would designate it in each of his subsequent listings. The year 1896 found him at 425 Park Avenue. 1897: 2829 Calumet Avenue. 1898: 3104 South Park Avenue. (Also living at the address for that year was a mysterious "Miss Daisy F. Chaney," also listed as an astrologer.) 1899 has the best entry. "CHANEY, PROF., COLLEGE OF ASTROLOGY. 507 Ogden St. Free Lectures every Sunday at 2:30 p.m." He had a separate personal entry that year, also at 507 Ogden Avenue. In 1900 he had moved to 19 North Ashland Avenue. 1901: 2230 Indiana Avenue. 1902: 57 South 48th Avenue. 1903: no listing.

Someone with more time and enterprise than I could go to each of these addresses and report what now stands on the site. Public real estate records and files of photographs at libraries and historical societies might yield some further bounties. The 1903 city directories contains a small advertisement for Elmwood Cemetery. It advises visitors to get off the train at Glendon Park Station and reveals that the cemetery manager's name was A. R. Nyquist. The current address is 2905 North Thatcher in River Grove, Illinois, about twelve miles northwest of the Loop. It's not hard to find: Thatcher is the principal north-south road through River Grove. The cemetery is on the east side, just north of the business district, and I pulled in on a pleasant early November afternoon. It's a large area, generally flat, with only plants and grave markers offering any variety to the eye. No rolling hills here, or winding lakes or rivers wide. It looks less like a golf course than any cemetery I've ever seen. The office is right near the main entrance. I entered, and they told me right away where Chaney's grave was: Section 43, Block 1, Row 3, Grave 24, Interment 730. But the operative word was . . . was. Whoever made the arrangements for Chaney's burial on 9 September 1903 did not purchase the "perpetual care" option; instead, he or she paid only for a 25-year term grave. So in 1928, no other arrangements having been made, Chaney's gravestone was removed and disposed of, and the lot re-sold.

But the situation grows even more complicated. According to Ed Tannhauser, current Ground Superintendent Foreman (and most senior of all the cemetery's employees), in late 1949 or early 1950 the entire section where Chaney lay was reorganized and landscaped: gravestones removed, the earth bulldozed, sections reconfigured and renumbered. Finding his exact resting place now would be extraordinarily difficult and probably impossible. Tannhauser was kind enough to show me the area and was especially solicitous when he heard that I was looking for the grave of the man who could be London's father. He'd heard of Jack London, oh yes. We drove the few hundred feet in his pick-up, shovels banging in the back. Both of us walked around, examining headstones, all bearing dates from decades long after 1900. It was soon evident my search was fruitless. I took a few photographs and walked back to my car.

At the 2000 Jack London Symposium there were questions about exhuming Chaney to see if there remained any tissue that could yield sufficient DNA to permit a scientific solution to the paternity question. (Back in late 1996 this issue had come up, as well, on the Jack London Network.) There are apparently legal impediments in Illinois, not the least of which, according to an item posted on the Network, is that an exhumation order must be initiated by next-of-kin. Now, all of that appears moot. Chaney, ever adept in life at vanishing, has once again moved and left no forwarding address.

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