© 2013 by Clarice Stasz, Ph.D.
Flora Wellman was born on August 17, 1843 to Marshall and Eleanor Garret Jones Wellman of Massillon, Ohio. Her father was a successful canal builder, contractor, and wheat distributor. Flora was the fifth child and fourth daughter in the family, yet a favorite of her father's, particularly after her mother died when she was four. When her stepmother Julia Hurtzthal bore four more children, Flora seemed determined to stand out from her siblings.
The Wellman home had seventeen rooms, and Flora's etching of her name on a glass panel still exists. That mischievous marking presaged her later personality: independent, flouting of convention, and self-assertive. Flora's childhood was marked by considerable comfort and advantage; her clothes, for example, were bought in New York City. She had the best tutors and schooling, along with piano and elocution lessons. She enjoyed being the center of attention by giving dramatic performances of memorized poetry.
The Wellman family beliefs were those of liberal Protestantism of the day: universal public education, temperance, women's rights, and abolitionism. A nearby uncle's house was a well-known resting place for runaway slaves. Flora would retain these progressive ideas throughout her life. Another belief prominent while she was growing up was Spiritualism, and she determined she had a gift for predicting the future and communicating with the dead. (In this regard, though he absorbed her political views, her famous son would later much disagree.)
Two events ended the girl's idyllic life. At age 12, typhoid left her height stunted below five feet, her hair sparse, and her eyesight much weakened. At age 15, the great financial panic of 1858 wiped out her father's fortune. For reasons yet unknown, in 1860 Flora left home, to return episodically. During the Civil War, she volunteered with the Sanitary Commission. After that, her whereabouts are a mystery until the early 1870s, when records place her in a boarding house in Seattle. There she met William Chaney, whose intellect and progressive beliefs appealed to Flora. She may not have known of his previous wives and or his wandering soul, which made it difficult for him to settle anywhere or with anyone. By 1874, they were living in San Francisco, where Chaney lectured on astrology and a critique of religion. Flora taught music and was assistant to feminist publisher Amanda Slocum. With her friends she supported the liberal social causes of the day, including Negro rights, workers' rights, and women's rights.
Flora gained notoriety on June 4, 1875, when newspapers headlined, A DISCARDED WIFE. She had shot herself in the forehead (a grazing wound) when Chaney insisted she "destroy her unborn babe." Flora moved in with friends and gave birth to son John on January 12, 1876. Chaney never recognized himself as father. Too sick to care for her son, she left him with Virginia Prentiss , an ex-slave who had just given birth to a stillborn child to be a nurse maid.
On February 19, 1877, Flora married carpenter John London, a widower with two young daughters still at home. Civil war injuries hampered his ability to work. The family struggled for many years as they tried various schemes to support themselves: farms, a store, boarding house. In Oakland, where they rented a seies of houses, Flora baked bread and taught piano, and (according to one of Jack's young friends) was a good cook and house keeper. She saw that Jack learned to read by age 4, and taught him piano. Though not a warmly expressive person, she was known for her attentiveness, and interest in all his school and other activities. Still, the economic hardships on the parents meant they were not so available as the children may have wished. Also, Flora's interest in sceances and tendency to be overly dramatic were embarrassing to her sensitive son.
By adolescence Jack was often away from home. Very little survived of Flora's letters to him during this time. In one fragment, she wrote, "When we did not get a letter for three weeks I worried so that I could neither eat nor sleep....Now my dear son take good care of yourself and remember our thoughts and best wishes for your success, happiness, and safe return are always with you." When he decided to attend high school at age 19, she supported his decision, even though it would have been better for the family if he went to work full time. She also encouraged him to compete in a newspaper contest,which resulted in his first publication. After her husband died in 1897, Flora encouraged her son's writing when all others thought he should join the post office. She took care of him while he labored at improving his craft and placing stories with magazines.
Upon achieving success in the early 1900s, he provided her with a house and regular financial support. Nonetheless, his feelings for her grew strained after he learned his real father was probably William Chaney. Nor was she supportive when he divorced and married Charmian. Also, he disapproved whenever Flora's actions drew newspaper coverage, and of her continued interest in spirituality.
She often saw her grand daughters, who found her a solitary, undemonstrative person. Yet a grandson found her warm and generous. Crippled with arthritis, and Flora spent her final years in the company of Jennie Prentiss, who eventually lived with her. She died on January 4, 1922, having outlived her beloved son. In her obituary, the local paper noted how he had made many public tributes for her encouragement of his literary career.
In biographies, Flora is often presented as cruel and unmotherly to Jack. As an adult, he estranged himself, and that certainly colored the views of his first biographer, second wife Charmian. Other writers followed her model, until Flora's memory became a caricature of maternal failure. Certainly she could be difficult, given her drive, compulsions, and unconventional beliefs. Just as evident is how her life of promise was repeatedly stifled, yet she would not give in for convenience's sake. She would be herself, even if it meant the wrath of her son. And through the difficult economic times, she spurred her son to sit at home and write. Had she not met Chaney, she may have gone on to become an active figure in civil rights for women and blacks. But she met Chaney, and gave us Jack London.
Hershberger, Dorothy. "Flora Wellman: Her Early Life" and "Jack London: Feminine Influences." Canton, OH: unpublished manuscripts, n.d.
Johnston, Carolyn. Jack London--An American Radical?. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Biography of Jack London. New York: Crown, 1979. [Includes copies of the correspondence between Jack London and Chaney.]
London, Joan. Jack London and His Daughters. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1990.
Stasz, Clarice. Jack London's Women. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.
Walker, Franklin. Notes for unpublished biography of Jack London. Franklin Dickerson Walker Collection, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
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