- Essay -
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.
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.
„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:
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
And there's even better:
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.
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
Reinhard Rael Wissdorf wrote:
And the "experts"
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:
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:
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."
only answered recently, telling me that it would consider my motion....
our references state suicide by poison...
Here I com again:
Hi. Thanks for the answer. But I think the research was not thorough enough.
our references state suicide by poison ...
suicide was never questioned up to now as
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
And because I had brushed up on my English a little bit in the meantime, I added shortly afterwards:
Hi here's a little
Mrs. Storm then answered, very much concerned about the truth, I must say:
The American Encarta also states:
Jack (1876-1916), American writer, whose work combined powerful
So if you have any clues, get them over to us! We are very much interested.
And then, finally, news from the chief editor himself. It was almost poetic.
morning Christina -
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. (...)
And Frau Storm answered (excerpt)
Hello Herr Wissdorf,
entire Encarta-Team is deeply intrested in what our users think about
our product and what kind of amendments they propose. Herr
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?
And Mrs. Reesman answered (excerpt):
person who knows most about London's death is Dr. Earle Labor of
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
Thank you very much!
And now listen up!
Dear Mr. Wissdorf,
applaud your crusade! I've been trying for nearly four decades to
luck with your crusade!
And March 10th 1998 proved to be the day: Herr Dingemann from Encarta wrote to me the following e-mail (excerpt):
Guten Tag Herr
"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."
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