The Truth About How Jack London Died

You don't need to dig too deep into the life of The Call of the Wild author Jack London to get a sense of how complicated a figure this writer was. He was astonishingly prolific across many mediums, an avowed socialist and atheist who also espoused some horrendously racist views, and a rugged individualist and adventurer who lived outside of the prescribed dogmas of early 19th-century life. Plus, by many accounts, he was a severe alcoholic. In other words, he was a strange and fascinating author

Despite the often dangerous life he led and the illnesses that plagued him in his later years, those close to him were shocked when he was found dead on the porch of his Sonoma County, California, home on November 22, 1916, at the age of 40. The details of London's death have created a schism in the scholarship surrounding his life. One camp believes what was written on his official death certificate at the time, which is that the author succumbed to complications from a kidney infection. The other camp points to eyewitness accounts from people who were at the scene of his death who reported that it appeared likely he'd intentionally given himself a lethal dose of morphine that he'd been prescribed to manage the pain of his illness. So which side is correct?

The conflicting reports around Jack London's death

At the time of his death, London was suffering from severe mental and physical health problems. He'd picked up an unknown kidney disease during a trip to the South Pacific that was causing him a tremendous amount of pain, which wasn't being helped by his heavy drinking. Historian Skip Sommer (via the Argus-Courier) writes that rumors of London's suicide began thanks to conflicting reports given by physicians who were called to examine his body. The first one recorded his death as having been caused by morphine poisoning, while his personal physician, who came in afterward, changed that cause of death to "acute uremia," or kidney failure.

The suicide theory was backed up by London's biographer, Irving Stone, who Sommer quotes as saying that London's body was found with "two empty vials of morphine sulfate and atropine sulfate, plus a pad of paper with a calculation of a lethal amount of dosage." Others point to documented bouts of suicidal ideation in London's past as evidence that he may have taken his own life.

Still, many academics and London fans believe these stories to be nothing but rumor, speculation, and sensationalism. Another of London's biographers, his daughter Joan, offered the fact that her father had made plans with her the day before his death, which might indicate that he wasn't planning to end his own life. But even she admitted that the reality exists in an unknowable gray area, writing of the morphine that he'd taken before his death, "Who could say whether it had been with suicidal intention or merely an overdose in the midst of agony."