William Chaney

© 2005 by Clarice Stasz, Ph.D.

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William Chaney was a man of the 1800s: like many men always on the move, but more as an explorer of ideas rather than of new economic opportunities. He was born in a log cabin in Chesterville, Maine on January 13, 1821. He came from a family line of early settlers, farmers like his father, who owned 1500 acres. When he was nine, his father died, and with his young sisters he was bound out, essentially sold as labor to another farmer. At sixteen he escaped to the sea, after which followed a variety of activities that included the Navy, piracy, clerking at a store, reading law, editing newspapers, writing novels and poems, making speeches, preaching sermons, and generally wandering about.

By temperament an intellectual, he explored ideas that supported liberal humanitarian ideals and believed in the improvement of mankind. Yet he was also mercurial, by turns a Congregationalist, a Methodist, and a Baptist before turning on Christianity completely and calling it a fake. His wives would by his own account add up to six. He also admitted to being hot-headed and difficult.

Chaney's life became somewhat more settled when he befriended Luke Broughton, an immigrant British doctor who had come to the United States to popularize astrology. It was Chaney who would accomplish that task. He believed astrology "the most precious science ever made known to man." Knowing a child's horoscope, he explained, could help one "develop all that is good" in the child's character. He incorporated in his astrology the ideas of Herbert Spencer, with his notions of the inherent superiority of Anglo-Saxons. During his many wanderings, Chaney prepared and published an ephemeris, the reference required for calculating horoscopes, as well as lectured and trained students. He was thus responsible for introducing rigor into what had been a haphazard approach to astrology in the United States before his proselytizing.

In the early 1870s, Chaney met Flora Wellman in Seattle, and the two became intimately involved. Whether they actually married, as he claimed, will always be unknown because the reputed place of marriage, San Francisco, lost its civic records in the great fire of 1906. At that Western port city the couple became part of a group that published Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas. They were "pro-labor, pro-Negro, pro-Grange," for free love, free thinking, and against organized religion. Chaney published essays in that magazine, and became a noted lecturer on such topics as prison reform, the Bible as fiction, and of course a strong defense of the value of astrology.

When Flora became pregnant in 1875, newspapers reported that he abandoned her when she refused an abortion. Although he stayed in San Francisco, he never saw his newborn son--if it was his son. Although most evidence points to his fathering Jack London, and Flora even gave birth as "Mrs. Chaney," the truth will never be known for certain. When his purported child contacted him years later, he denied that he was a father. He accused Flora of having other lovers at the time of Jack London's conception, and claimed he was himself sterile.

Chaney's later life was spent in further wandering. Poor out of choice, he poured all of his income into his astrological publications. In 1900, fellow astrologers praised him, and observed how at age 80 he was still working every moment. He also continued to deride religion, particularly Christianity. He died in Chicago on January 8, 1903. Several months prior, while in good health, he had predicted his death, thus designed his own funeral plans. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery during a snow storm, his friends in purple regalia as requested. Because only twenty-five years of grave maintenance were paid, years later his body was disinterred, and placed in some unmarked spot to make room for another.

Decades later, his purported granddaughter, Joan London, did extensive research toward a biography of Chaney, but she died before she could complete the manuscript. Part of her motivation was to correct the biographers who portrayed him as feckless and irresponsible, when in fact he had lived during a time of great mobility. A well-trained historian, Joan noted to a friend that Chaney was "like many Americans of his time, who sought more favorable environments for their hopes and ambitions,...when the frontier was moving to the west and southwest." He might have had an element of charlatan within him, she concluded, but he was "in that mainstream of nineteenth-century idealism best recognized today by the names of his three contemporaries: Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman." Her reappraisal went too far, perhaps, but her intention was to defend her father's reputation, to correct the view that he was the bastard son of a ne'er-do-well crank.


Chaney, William. Primer of Astrology and American Urantia. St. Louis: Magic Circle Publishing Company, 1890. [Chaney quotes were taken from this book.]

Dyer, Dan. "Chasing Chaney." www.jacklondons.net.

London, Joan. "W. H. Chaney: A Reappraisal." American Book Collector, (November, 1966): 11-13. Notes on her planned biography are in The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Mood,Fulmer, "An Astrology from Down East," New England Quarterly, 5 (1932): 769-99. [Joan London helped Mood prepare this article. I corroborated their sources.]

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