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The World of Jack London

A COMPARATIVE STUDY

H0W JACK LONDON'S DEATH WAS DEPICTED BY VARIOUS BIOGRAPHERS

By Lou Leal – edited by Laurie O'Hare
See related article by Dale L. Walker [Wolf Dying]

THERE HAS ALWAYS been controversy regarding the cause of Jack London's death. Though we expect thorough research and facts from biographers, speculation and insufficient information has added to the controversy surrounding Jack's death. Inadequate research has caused some biographers to neglect important information and some biographers admit honestly that they are unsure of the cause of death. The following is a summary of the statements of eight different biographers, all with differing opinions and reports.

Russ Kingman

In a 1936 letter to Irving Stone, Dr. Thompson, the first physician to examine Jack London while he was in a coma, said he reached the ranch at 8:00 A.M. and found a partially empty bottle of morphine. Dr. Thompson said he knew immediately that Jack London had morphine poisoning. He gave him an injection of atropine and began artificial respiration. Jack's personal physician, Dr. Porter, arrived later and changed the diagnosis to uremia. Dr. Porter also expected that Jack London's medical situation would be terminal, as he had been treating him for uremia for three years. Kingman says, "It was highly possible that in the throes of his terrible suffering he had taken extra doses of the morphine prescription given him by Dr. Porter to ease his agony. It was possible that the extra morphine was a contributory factor, but the coma was induced by retention of bodily poisons his inoperative kidneys could no longer release." Dr. Porter explained Jack London's medical history and Dr. Thompson revised his diagnosis. One bottle of morphine in tablet form is mentioned.

Irving Stone

Sekine, the Londons' Japanese servant, came running into Eliza's room. Eliza telephoned to Sonoma for Dr. Allan Thompson. Dr. Thompson found Jack in a state of narcosis. Stone states, "On the floor of the room he found two empty vials labeled morphine sulfate and atropine sulfate; on the night table he found a pad of paper with some figures on it which represented a calculation of the lethal dose of the drug. He then telephoned the druggist in Sonoma to prepare an antidote for morphine poisoning, and asked his assistant, Dr. Hayes, to bring it up to him. The two doctors washed out Jack's stomach, administered stimulants, and massaged his limbs."

Stone writes that Dr. Thompson said Charmian stated that it was very important that the now probable death should not be ascribed to anything but uremic poisoning. There is no mention of the presence of Dr. Porter, Jack's personal doctor, or Jack's friend, Dr. Sheils. Prior to this account of the death, Stone does mention that Jack talked to Eliza about selecting a site for a school house and community store, and that he wanted to make the ranch self-sufficient. Also mentioned is that Jack was planning to leave for New York the following day. After the first printing, Stone's book was retitled to include the subtitle, "A Biographical Novel," to distinguish it from a biography.

Alex Kershaw

Two empty vials of morphine were found. Two local physicians arrived from Sonoma. One doctor observed the morphine vial and assumed that Jack had injected a lethal overdose. The doctor asked his assistant to bring a stomach pump and an antidote. Kershaw is the only biographer to mention a stomach pump. Others mention washing out Jack's stomach. In an attempt to wake him, Jack was put on his feet but to no avail. Jack died at 7:45 P.M. on November 22, 1916. Kershaw said that according to Jack's death certificate, the cause of death was "Uraemia following renal colic. Duration one plus ten days. Contributer chronic Interstitial Nephritis. Duration three years."

Andrew Sinclair

Sinclair writes, "Jack injected himself with an overdose of drugs." Then he goes on to say that Dr. Thompson was angry at being superseded by two other doctors, Jack's doctor and a friend of Jack's who arrived later. On Dr. Thompson's sole testimony rests the theory that Jack had deliberately committed suicide. According to Dr. Thompson's written account of Jack's death, taken twenty-one years later by Irving Stone, the two doctors concocted the cause of death in order to avoid an inquest and autopsy. Dr Thompson thought that the overdose of morphine and atropine had contracted Jack's muscles, caused him to be unable to empty his bladder, and induced coma. Uremia could have killed him as a consequence of the overdose. Sinclair states, "Thompson's bias against the specialists and Charmian rendered his testimony suspect. George Sterling also believed the suicide theory, relying on hearsay." Sinclair also says of Jack, "How much of the morphine he took is uncertain. He was already a walking corpse." He further states, "His large injection before dawn seems to have been an impulse not intended to be terminal. A needle thrust at brief oblivion, rather than a snatch at death."

Regarding Irving Stone, Sinclair said, "He was responsible for popularizing the version of Jack's suicide told by George Sterling and Dr. Thompson." Sinclair goes on to say, "Stone's biographical novel was commercially successful, and it became the chief source for the mixture of fact and fiction of Jack's later legend."

Clarice Stasz

Stasz states, "It is possible, as historian Andrew Sinclair has concluded, that he sped his death unintentionally by taking too large a dose of narcotics that evening. Yet even without that assistance he would have died naturally from the kidney disease."

Richard O'Connor

Dr. Thompson of Glen Ellen was the first doctor to examine Jack London. O'Connor states, "And, after a quick look around the room, Dr. Thompson knew that he had deliberately taken enough narcotics to kill himself." He goes on to say, "On the floor near the bed were two empty vials labeled 'morphine sulfate-¼ grain with atropine sulfate, 1/150 grain.' Each prescription was for twenty-five pills." He further states, "On the table at his bedside was a pad with figures scrawled on it indicating that Jack had calculated how much a lethal dose of morphine-sulfate would be." With Dr. W. B. Hayes of Sonoma assisting, Dr. Thompson washed out Jack's stomach with potassium permanganate solution, an antidote for morphine poisoning. A letter was found which was written by Jack and intended for the following morning's mail. O'Connor takes this as "evidence that he had not intended—until the unendurable pain began—to make an end to his life."

O'Connor states, "Charmian, according to a later statement by Dr. Thompson, argued that death must be attributed to natural causes. Whether the attending physicians were swayed by her pleas or not, they joined in concealing the cause of death; it remained a secret, so far as the public was concerned, until 1938 when Irving Stone's Sailor on Horseback was published." When Dr. Porter signed Jack's death certificate, he stated that the cause of death was "uremia following renal colic with chronic interstitial nephritis as a contributing cause." O'Connor says, "Later that night the newsboys in Oakland, outside low-life hangouts where he had freely spent his time, money, and health shouted the news that John Barleycorn had finally claimed a favorite son."

O'Connor mentions the appendicitis operation, but says nothing regarding what Dr. Porter might have said about Jack's kidneys. Later he states, "He was suffering from nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys which could turn into Brights Disease, and uremia, a toxic condition traceable to a malfunctioning of the kidneys."

Joan London

In Jack London and His Times, which was published 1939, Joan London said, "He had taken a lethal dose, but who could say whether it had been with suicidal intention or merely an overdose miscalculated in the midst of his agony." When Joan London died in 1971 she had nearly completed a second book about her father which was not published until 1990. In this book, Jack London and His Daughters, she says, "He died on November 22; mercifully, we did not know for some time that he had taken his own life. But on the morning after his death his last letter to me was delivered. Dated November 21, it invited us to have lunch with him in Oakland at the end of the week, . . ."

Joan does not explain why she now believes her father committed suicide. Her first book was published after Irving Stone's book and she claimed no knowledge of suicide then. She possibly later came to believe what Stone and O'Connor had written. Bart Abbott, Joan's son, finished and published her second book nineteen years after his mother's death. Without sufficient information we can only speculate on why Joan London changed her mind.

Charmian London

In her book, The Book of Jack London, Charmian states, "Jack, unconscious, was doubled down sideways, showing plain symptoms of poisoning." She also states, "The physicians first summoned were A.M. Thompson and W.B. Hayes of Sonoma; followed by James Wilson Shiels from San Francisco, and Jack's own surgeon, W.S. Porter." There is no mention of the death certificate or any disagreements between any of the doctors.

COMPARISON CHART
Author Morphine Death Cert. Signed Doctors Mentioned Suicide? Vessel for Ashes Overdose Calculation
Kershaw injection two doctors from Sonoma no copper cylinder not mentioned
Kingman tablets Porter Thompson, Porter, Hayes, Sheils no urn not mentioned
London, Charmian Thompson, Porter, Hayes, Sheils urn not mentioned
London, Joan yes not mentioned
O'Connor pills Porter Thompson, Porter, Hayes, Sheils yes copper cylinder mentioned
Sinclair injection Thompson, Porter, Sheils no not mentioned
Stasz unlikely urn not mentioned
Stone vials Thompson, Hayes yes box mentioned
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It is interesting to note that only O'Connor and Stone mention a written calculation by Jack London of a lethal overdose. Since we know that Stone contacted Dr. Thompson, I can assume the doctor is the source of this information. I also assume that O'Connor got his overdose information from Stone, since there is no evidence that O'Connor ever contacted Dr. Thompson. On the chart I also note that Stone only mentions the two local doctors and not Jack's personal doctor who signed the death certificate.

The seeming confusion of injection, tablets, and pills can be explained by the possibility of tablets needing to be dissolved in a liquid such as water in order to be injected.

Charmian wrote that Jack was discussing his future plans for the ranch that night with his step-sister, Eliza, before going to bed and falling into a coma. Jack also wrote a letter to his daughter, Joan, in which he mentions getting together after his trip to New York. I find it unlikely that he would have then suddenly decided to commit suicide. Also, I do not believe it is necessary to calculate an overdose. The easiest action would be to take a large amount. I believe that without any hard evidence presented by any biographer that no one should claim to know that Jack London committed suicide.

This comparative study, bibliography and comparison chart was written and compiled in 2004 by Lou Leal and edited by Laurie O'Hare. Lou Leal and Laurie O'Hare are California State Parks docents at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California.

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LIST OF SOURCES

Kershaw, Alex.  Jack London: A Life. (St. Martin's Press, 1997).

Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Biography of Jack London. David Rejl. California. 1979.

London, Charmian. The Book of Jack London. The Century Co. New York. 1921.

London, Joan. Jack London and His Times. Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. New York. 1939.

London, Joan. Jack London and His Daughters. Heyday Books. Berkeley. 1990.

O'Conner, Richard. Jack London, A Biography. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1964.

Sinclair, Andrew. Jack, A Biography of Jack London. Harper & Row. New York. 1977.

Stasz, Clarice. American Dreamers. St. Martin's Press. New York. 1988.

Stone, Irving. Jack London, Sailor on Horseback. Doubleday and Company, Inc. Garden City, New York. 1947.

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