- Essay -
Jack London auf der Roamer

No Suicide!
Protocol of a discussion

On the unreliability of biographers
by Reinhard Wissdorf 
translated by Jack Mulder
Basically it was never a question for me: Jack London, proud adventurer, was finally brought to his wits' end by life and all his problems and put bullet in his head. And all of thirty books I read all merely offered the same short information: suicide.  

Until I finally went to Glen Ellen myself, that is. I hotfooted it all over the ranch, visited the venerable ruins of the wolfhouse, and of course entered it against the rules (well, here you are, now I can own up to it). I shed a tear at his grave (right, I know his body's not in there, because had himself burned, but it's a nice gravestone!). 

And then, in the museum, I happened upon a strange document. A Death Certificate. Signed by four M.D.s: death by kidney failure. At first, I didn't recognize it for what it was. But later, back home in Germany, it started worming it's way into my consciousness. Waddayamean? Kidney failure?? I right away took a look at what DTV (a German paperback publishing house) had to say to this, and came up with the probably silliest biographical note ever:  

Jack London was born on Dec. 12th, 1876 in San Francisco and grew up in poor circumstances. He tried his luck working in a factory, as an oyster pirate, hoodlum, and seaman, finally got his grades and started to study. He then went to Alaska as a golddigger, lived for months in the London slums, was taken prisoner in the russian-japanese war, where he was a war correspondent, and generally travelled the world.  On Nov. 22nd, 1916 on his farm the famous writer puts an end to his life ruled by alcohol and extravaganza. 

The first two sentences are more or less on the mark. But then they are followed by story of being a prisoner in the Russian-Japonese war. He didn't travel the entire world either - he never set foot on the old continent, nor did he ever visit Africa, Australia or India. But the greatest baloney was left for the end: on his farm the famous writer puts an end to his life ruled by alcohol and extravaganza. 

Quite inbelievable! A life ruled by alcohol, no less! Which should at least amount to starting off the day with after shave and at least killing a casque of whiskey before the sun sets. London, the pissed poet. But he is not only heavy on the bottle, but also not impartial to some extravaganza! Whatever that is supposed to mean. Cheers! What did he do, breakfast on candied worms? Did he put a golden pisspot on his head, singing "My darling Clementine" thundering across the Yosemite in a flying coach? Or did he simply give a reception for the Liechtenstein court once a week? If for the esteemed author of those lines - who is talking about a very successful author here, no less - building a stone house, constructing a small yacht and being the literary mentor of Upton Sinclair is equal to extravaganza, I would like to hear what this puritan sour-face would have to say about Michael Jackson - on the other hand, maybe not.  
But then I got myself into a bit of a rage. I looked up said poet in Bertelsmann's „Modernen Lexikon". Being the institution it is, it merely states that London has died - nothing to say against that. But I only had to go as far as Meyers Universallexikon to read: commited suicide. So I go out and put down a load of money to buy Microsoft Encarta (all right, I had been looking for an excuse to do that for a long time) and look up Jack London. And what do I find in the German edition? 

„1916 London killed himself in Glen Ellen, Ca.." 

Was I lucky that I had bought the „Jack London Homes Album" back then in the Jack London Bookstore. There it is, at the end, for everybody to see - the picture of the  „Physicians Bulletin after death" on page 46: 

At about 6:30 p.m., November 21, 1916, Mr. Jack London partook of his dinner. He was taken during the night, with what was supposed to be an attack of acute indigestion. This however, proved to be a gastro-intestinal type of uraemia. He rapidly entered coma and died at 7:45 p.m. November 22, 1916. 
W.S. Porter, M.D. 
A.M. Thomson, M.D. 
W.B. Hays, M.D. 
J. Wilson-Shields, M.D. 

And there's even better: 

London Ranch, Glen Ellen, Calif., Nov. 22, 1916, 6:30 p.m. Mr. London is in a state of uraemia following an error in diet, causing a faulty elimination of the kidneys. His condition is serious. Further bulletins will follow. Signed: 
A.M. Thomson, M.D. 
W.B. Hays, M.D. 
J. Wilson-Shields, M.D. 

So Mr. Porter was consulted only afterwards. A team of doctor's was fighting for London's life (!) throughout the night. Maybe he was even given morphium to for the immense pain he had to suffer. And maybe the phials were still lying ón the floor in all the commotion that followed. And maybe some reporter saw them and....but let us first take a look at what Uraemia means: 
Uraemia is a condition of blood poisoning which occurs when the kidneys fail to function properly, as in Bright's disease and fail to excrete urea which is retained in the blood and upsets the nervous system, causing drowsiness, headaches, giddiness and in extreme causes coma.
A question to the "experts" concerning Jack London came up with the following:  

Reinhard Rael Wissdorf wrote: 

Dear expert,: 
What do you know about Jack London's cause of death? Think too that he killed himself? And if so, why?  

And the "experts" answer: 
The roror-biography of Jack London states:  
"London finally could no longer make sense of himself and the world he lived in. He commited suicide. Two empty phials with Morphiumsulfat and Atropinsulfat written on them were found on the floor next to his bed." 
Hope it helps 

Two empty phials? And what about the syringes? You'd need those. Never mind that reading rororo's Jack London biography, which is rather old and out of print, does not make you a Jack London expert, I do indeed take this answer seriously and look up morphium: 
Morphium poisoning: if given more than 0,1-0,2 g , Sympt: Deep sleep, reddened face, pupils small and rigid, slow breathing and shallow, thus cyanotic, heart slows, coma follows, Cheyne-Stokes-breathing, death by respiratory failure. Treat with Morphium antagonists. 

The atropinsulfate mentioned is indeed an antagonist, as it speed up the heartbeat considerably, among other things, but it would not be first choice. It is generally used to keep a heart beating and respiration going. Like when treating Uraemia. The Cheynes-Stoke-breathing mentioned is by the way the exact opposite of the breathing seen with Uraemia. The former is constituted by long pauses between shallow breaths, while the latter has the patient gasping for air. Wouldn't you think, dear reader, that four experienced doctors should be able to distinguish Uraemia from a morhium poisoning? I should think so - even my fourteen year old son could do so after reading the definitions.  

That's where I started searching the internet. Berkeley's site offers a number of documents, among others this one:  


And I start making myself known. To begin with, I write an e-mail to the Gutenberg-Book Club and the departement for short bios: 

Hi there, 

The information concerning the death of Jack London is wrong. London did not die of his own hand, but of kidney failure. I myself saw the death certificate in Glen Ellen. I quote the "Physicians Bulletin After Death": "...proved to be a gastrointestinal type of uraemia. He rapidly entered coma an died 7:45 pm November 22, 1916." 
Jack London suffered from a kidney condition during the last six years of his life. The condition was probably caused by Pellagra (an infection Charmian as well had caught in the South Seas). 
please change the information accordingly or at least check it. I suppose that at some point some misinformation has caused this persistent rumor of suicide. After all, this nonsense can be found on every bio around.  


The Gutenbergclub only answered recently, telling me that it would consider my motion.... 
But the German Encarta reacted faster and as follows: 

Dear Mr Wissdorf, 
here's the answer of our chief editor:: 

All our references state suicide by poison... 
I do have another source at home which I will take a look at..  
Anyway: the suicide was never questioned up to now as far as I know; thus every book by or about him has it his way... And: the death certificate merely remarks what the cause of his death what, not whether he poisoned himself willfully or not.  
I'll get back to you as soon as I know more.. 
Yours Sincerely 
Christina Storm 
Encarta Intl Program Mgr 

Here I com again: 

Hi. Thanks for the answer.  But I think the research was not thorough enough. 

>All our references state suicide by poison ... 
- there are only two German biographies, both out of print. I have not yet made contact to the authors, but I do not believe that they ever went to Glen Ellen. But I was, and have attached the death certificate as a jpg.  

>the suicide was never questioned up to now as  
>far as I know; thus every book by or about him has it his way... ...  

Wrong. As far as I know there is only one book, by a pharmacologist, who seriously considers suicide by morphium ( I was wrong on this count, as I had to find out later on)  
>And: the death certificate merely remarks what the cause of his death what, not whether he >poisoned himself willfully or not.  
Wrong again. The death certificate explicitely states acute Uraemia together with kidney failure. I do not know of any poison able to incite this acute illeness. 

Many thanks for your troubles and  
best wishes  

And because I had brushed up on my English a little bit in the meantime, I added shortly afterwards: 

Hi here's a little supplement: 
I don't want to get on your nerves, but my less than perfect English had gotten the better of me, and now I have to clear up a misunderstanding. The pharmacologist I was refering to actually states the exact opposite - namely that Jack London could not possibly have commited suicide. I quote  
Shivers, Alfred."Jack London: Not a Suicide." The Dalhousie Review 49 
(Spring 1969)" 43-57. An expert in pharmacology, Shivers convincingly undercuts claims that London killed himself with an overdose of morphine.  



Mrs. Storm then answered, very much concerned about the truth, I must say:  

Dear Mr. Wissdorf, 
many thanks for your notice, do please keep us posted! As I have already told you, our chief editor pertins that all reference books sadly repeat the same "facts": suicide. The only way to state differently in a reference book is to prove with several documents. 
And that is how we go about the so called fact checking concerning all versions. Yet Herr 
Dingemann is indeed keen (also because he is interested personally) to get to the truth of it. 

The American Encarta also states: 

London, Jack (1876-1916), American writer, whose work combined powerful 
realism and humanitarian sentiment. He was born John Griffith London in San 
Francisco. After completing grammar school, London worked at various odd 
jobs, and in 1897 and 1898 he participated in the Alaska gold rush. Upon his 
return to the San Francisco area, he began to write about his experiences. A 
collection of his short stories, The Son of the Wolf, was published in 1900. 
London's colorful life, during which he wrote more than 50 books and which 
included enormous popular successes as an author, experience as a war 
correspondent, and two stormy marriages, ended in his suicide at the age of 

So if you have any clues, get them over to us! We are very much interested. 


Christina Storm 

And then, finally, news from the chief editor himself. It was almost poetic. 

Good morning Christina - 
here are the results of my little research: 
Meyers Taschenlexikon (5. ed. 1995) has "suicide" in vol. 13, p. 191. 
My private source has it as follows: "He died Nov. 21st, 1916 - 
most probably from an overdose of morphium he gave himself with a syringe - one day after our old Emperor  Franz Josef, of whose death people say that an epoch died with him. He was 40. So if you look at it, he died of old age. The fear of old age, the threat of old age... much like Hemingway, who imitated him much later even in this.  They wanted to be forever young. and that is against nature." (Georg 
Stefan Troller. Der Abenteuerer. Das kurze wilde Leben des Jack London. Guetersloh 1968, p. 155) 
Is that not a beautiful text?  
I could keep quoting it for hours.... 
Maybe it was no suicide. But London himself had his part in the legend, frequently talking about  death fantasies... 
In the German speaking world the suicide theory is still the most widely accepted.  
Both versions do have something going for them: suicide for fear of old age and the "tough guys don't kill themselves" myth, but are victims of poisoning etc. pp.  
If it - provably - was no suicide, we will have to correct this of course; legends are not our business, after all.  

Greetings across the pond 

The time had come indeed to say thank you.: 

Thank you for taking my query so seriously. I would like to assure you that my urest is not the result of some Podsnappery but that I am only concerned with finding out the truth. It would not diminish the esteem I hold for Jack London should he indeed have commited suicide.  (...) 
He of course does presage a few things in "Martin Eden". And even in "John Barleycorn". 
And a few of those letters..well. I myself wrote a few of those to my friends. But to really do it would by something else entirely. And morphium would indeed have been a bit out of style. The good old bullet would probably have been mor in keeping with this old macho. 

And Frau Storm answered (excerpt) 

Hello Herr Wissdorf, 

The entire Encarta-Team is deeply intrested in what our users think about our product and what kind of amendments they propose. Herr 
Dingemann once stated to me that many of our users are experts on certain fields and that hus much is to be learned from their feedback. (...) 
I think I am going to get my hands on one of Jack London's workd. Which one would you suggest for a beginner? 
I passed on your e-mail address to Herrn Dingemann, so he is going to get back to you in a few days.  

Yours sincerely 

Christina Storm 

Well - at least Frau Storm will now read some Jack London, but Herr Dingemann has yet to answer me. Thus i turned to the Jack London Society: 

Dear Mrs. Reesman, 

In the last week I began a little crusade to improve, that Jack Londons Death was'nt a suicide. Do you have any further information about that case? 
In Germany every library is telling the story of a suicide, and same are doing the most american biographs. But the Jack London Museum at the Beauty Ranch, Glen Ellen, possesses a document wich is signed by four medical authorities, declaring his death an gastrointestinal type of uraemia, caused by a fault in diet. 
If this should be the truth, every Short-Biography has to be corrected, and the Encarta-Guys of Microsoft promised to do so. 


And Mrs. Reesman answered (excerpt): 

The person who knows most about London's death is Dr. Earle Labor of  
Centenary College of Louisiana. Most evidence (not hearsay) suggests it  
was not a suicide. Earle is at (...) 
Yours, Jeanne Reesman 
Jack London Society Executive Coordinator 
University of Texas 

Which got me onto the aforementioned Dr. Labor: 

Hello Dr. Labor! 

Mrs Reesman from the Jack London Society was so friendly to give me your  
I am a german writer, living near Frankfurt. I am fighting a little crusade  
against the whidely spread opinion, that Jack London died by his own hand. As far  
as I found out, his death was caused by some kind of uraemia. I think the   
produce of evidence is a paper, signed by three physists, saying that he suffered  
on a kidneys insufficience. I saw that paper at Glen Ellen, California. 
Could you help me with some more information? 

Thank you very much! 

And now listen up! 

Dear Mr. Wissdorf, 

I applaud your crusade! I've been trying for nearly four decades to 
spread the word that there is not one shred of evidence to support the 
suicide canard.  
Four attending physicians issued a bulletin that London died from uremic 
poisoning. I have a photocopy of his death certificate attesting to this 
as well. Alfred Shivers conclusively refuted the possibility of suicide 
from overdose of morphine more than twenty years ago in THE DALHOUSIE 
REVIEW (Shivers was trained in pharmacology). More recently Charles Denko 
has published an article attributing London's medical problems and 
ultimate death to lupus (in THE JOURNAL OF RHEUMATOLOGY). As for my own 
research, I've come to the conclusion that the death was caused by stroke 
and heart failure (not to discount Denko's theory of lupus as a 
contributing factor). Of course, the truth doesn't always sell as well as 
sensationalizing and fabrication. 

Good luck with your crusade! 

E. Labor 

And March 10th 1998 proved to be the day: Herr Dingemann from Encarta wrote to me the following e-mail (excerpt): 

Guten Tag Herr Wissdorf - 
Christina Storm passed on to me your extensive documentation pertaining to the death of 
Jack London. We feel pleased to take up your intensive research and shall alter the text in our next edition of Encarta as follows: 

"On November 22nd, 1916 he died on his ranch in Glen Ellen, Ca. . Whether  it was of his own hand by poisoning himself or not, remains disputed." 

Thank you! 

Reinhard Wissdorf 
March 1998  


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