Near Third and Brannan, a few blocks from my office in San Francisco, is an unremarkable building with a green and black stone façade and a plaque on its side indicating the spot where Jack London was born in 1876. It’s hard to believe this was ever a residential district. It’s a neighborhood of upscale and downscale restaurants, bars, artists’ studios, and warehouses that have, for the most part, been carved up into offices for technology companies. But the whole area was leveled and charred in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.
The day of Jack’s nativity must have been a memorable one for the neighbors. Not so much, perhaps, for the sake of the famous author the infant would one day become, but for the scandal of his peculiar mother and her troubled pregnancy. I often think of her when I walk up Third Street on my lunch hour and pass the site where the house once stood.
Flora Wellman was a native of Ohio who had run away from her well-to-do family and fled west. She wound up a boarder in the house of Henry Yesler, mayor of Seattle in the Washington Territory, and it was there that she met William Chaney, a freethinker and charlatan astrologer who was, by all accounts but his own, Jack’s father. It’s unclear if the two were ever legally married, but they relocated to bohemian San Francisco, where they went into business together and contributed to the publication of Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas. Flora Wellman was a music teacher by training, but also, like Chaney, a spiritualist, and subject to bouts of possession by the ghost of a long-dead Indian chief. She had been an especially attractive child, it was said, but had suffered a strange fever at an early age that put a halt to her growth at well under five feet and left her mostly bald: she wore a wig the rest of her life. Even in the San Francisco of the day, famous for odd characters, she must have made an impression: a dwarfish, baby-faced lady necromancer, humming as she stomped down the street, her belly more and more notably swollen.
On discovering that Flora was pregnant, Chaney insisted she get rid of the inconvenience by whatever means necessary. She seems to have made a half-hearted attempt at suicide in response, shooting herself with a pistol, but not fatally and with no very serious long-term effects. Chaney publicly abandoned her and disowned the child. Then, by all accounts, Flora Wellman lost her mind. When she found it again, several months later, she discovered that she was a mother. She and the baby would not live near the corner of Third and Brannan for long, however. Within a year, Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London, whose last name was given to her boy as well, and the little family made the first of many changes of address.