Jack London was a pretty busy fellow in early 1911, what with his leading the revolution in Mexico and all.

That February, newspaper readers around the country learned the famous novelist and outspoken socialist was fighting to overthrow the Mexican government. “JACK LONDON LEADS ARMY OF MEXICAN REBELS,” a headline in the San Francisco Post proclaimed. “Jack London Reported at Head of Mexican Insurrecto Band,” the Los Angeles Times declared and London was the “first of hundreds of American socialists to assist the rebels,” readers of the Des Moines News were told. “Jack London, the novelist, has invaded Mexico and is spreading death and destruction and hell and smoke with his trusty pencil,” reported the Dallas Times-Herald. London was also said to have been arrested and being held in a border town (Washington Post) and was wounded in combat (San Francisco Call).

Not a bit of that was true, but a Mexican-American labor activist from Los Angeles named Simon Berthold and about sixteen other gringos, joined by a couple of dozen Mexican insurrectos and all only armed with a few old rifles and revolvers, had indeed captured the border town of Mexicali while firing only a single shot. This surprising victory in their quixotic campaign drew scores of Americans to join their ranks in the following days.

The virulently anti-labor LA Times – which relished calling union members “anarchic scum” and worse – was quick to exaggerate the importance of Mexicali. According to the paper it wasn’t about the Mexican Civil War at all, but was really a stalking horse by U.S. radicals plotting to turn Baja California into an independent socialist republic on America’s doorstep. “BANDITS SACK MEXICALI,” was the first Times headline, then later, “HOBOS AND CRIMINALS FLOCK TO STANDARD OF ‘INSURGENTS.'” The latter article called the rebels a “chicken thief band…most of the revolutionists are either Mexican criminals or mongrel Americans who have good reasons for not risking their presence again on American soil.”

It was that article that inspired Jack London to pen a short letter “To the dear, brave comrades of the Mexican Revolution:”

We Socialists, anarchists, hobos, chicken thieves, outlaws, and undesirable citizens of the United States are with you heart and soul.  You will notice that we are not respectable. Neither are you.  No revolutionary can possibly be respectable in these days of the reign of property.  All the names you are being called, we have been called.  And when graft and greed get up and begin to call names, honest men, brave men, patriotic men and martyrs can expect nothing else than to be called chicken thieves and outlaws.  So be it.  But I for one wish there were more chicken thieves and outlaws of the sort that formed that gallant band that took Mexicali. I subscribe myself a chicken thief and revolutionist.

The letter was read at the regular Saturday night meeting at the Los Angeles Labor Temple in support of the revolutionaries. Two days later, the first stories appeared about London being a combatant.

As with the previous item about a juvenile delinquent supposedly being sentenced to live and study with Luther Burbank, it fell to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to debunk the story by simply knocking on a door and asking if it were true. No, London said, he had not been fighting or wounded or arrested in Mexico – but he thought “Jack London” might be the culprit. Our Glen Ellen novelist, it seemed, had a doppelganger.

For years, London told the PD, he had heard about a lookalike passing himself off as the famed author, tricking fans into hosting the impostor to free meals, lodging, and who knows what else. “I lost track of him last fall,” London said. “I presume he has gone on down into Mexico for excitement and gotten into trouble and is using my name to assist him to get free.”

It was actually worse than that; widow Charmian London later wrote he was plagued by a legion of ersatz Jacks:

…Still others led girls astray, and many the piteous letters, addressed to places where Jack had never set foot, or when the pair of us were on the other side of the world, begging restitution for anything from stolen virtue to diamonds. Jack tried to get in touch with these floating impersonators, promising safe departure if they would only come to the Ranch and entertain him with their methods. But even when his letters never returned, there were no replies. While we were honeymooning in Cuba, according to one side of a correspondence that came into Jack’s possession, a spurious J. L. was carrying on an affair with a mother of several children in Sacramento, California.

The evildoing identical twin is a familiar theme in bad fiction, of course, and it’s to London’s credit he never once used that plot device, despite being somewhat an expert on the subject.

More about Jack London’s 1911 adventures in a following post.

Author at Home in Glen Ellen While Double Suffers

The telegraphic accounts of the wounding and arrest of Jack London, the novelist, a well-known resident of Glen Ellen, came as a great surprise to many of his friends in Sonoma county. Even Mr. London himself was greatly surprised, as he was at home on his ranch near Glen Ellen, when the news reached him Sunday.

London returned from an extended visit in Los Angeles a week or ten days ago, and after spending a week in Oakland and San Francisco returned to the ranch in Sonoma county Saturday evening. Great was his surprise on reading the papers Sunday morning to see the article relating to his having been injured and arrested charged with violation of the Mexican neutrality laws while the United States District Attorney and United States Marshal at Los Angeles had gone to investigate the case.

Mr. London denied to a Press Democrat representative Monday night that he had been in Mexico, or desired to [illegible microfilm] said London. “I have been in Oakland and San Francisco for several days and returned home to the ranch Saturday night. I was naturally interested and amused by the press dispatches Sunday.

“The report is due to a double I have. I first discovered the fact several years ago when through correspondence and press clippings I located the man in Tennessee. This man has represented himself as Jack London and I have letters from people who had entertained him for a week believing he was the author. By the letters of people interested and newspaper clippings received from time to time I have been able to trace his movements.

“After leaving Tennessee he went to Arkansas, thence to Oklahoma, Indian Territory and finally to Arizona, where I lost track of him last fall. I presume he has gone on down into Mexico for excitement and gotten into trouble and is using my name to assist him to get free.”

Conductor George E. Andrews of the Southern Pacific local between Vallejo and Santa Rosa recalled having had London as a passenger Saturday night and Arthur Luc who came up on the train from Sonoma recognized him as a fellow passenger.

Mr. London is now engaged in a series of short stories for the Cosmopolitan and working his ranch. He is setting out 30,000 young eucalyptus trees on the ranch as a part of his plan to reforest a large section of his holdings.

– Press Democrat, February 21, 1911

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A judge in 1911 sentenced a juvenile delinquent to live and study with Luther Burbank. Amazing? Yes. True? No, but it was such a cracking good yarn that newspapers nationwide published the story (often on the front page) even after it was revealed to be untrue.

The item first appeared on March 22 in the Press Democrat and San Francisco Call (it was probably also in many others around the state, but only a very small percentage of historical newspapers are available online). Datelined the day before from Los Angeles, it reported that Burbank had invited Donald Miller, a 15-year-old in trouble for “truancy,” to live with him indefinitely and study botany. Judge Wilbur of the Los Angeles juvenile court was quoted as saying it was the best possible sentence that could be imposed on the boy.

The next day the PD asked Burbank if the story was true and if the young man would be the “subject of a series of experiments at Burbank’s hands, in order to cure him of his tendency to run away from school.” Burbank replied, “I am not conducting a conservatory for bad boys…I have not undertaken and will not undertake any experiments upon him or upon any other boy. I am engaged in rearing plants, not children.”

“The whole story is just somebody’s yarn,” said Burbank, explaining that he knew the boy’s grandfather many years ago. “So when I was asked if I would either give him employment or find him work with some one else, I said I would do it.”

Thus within 24 hours, the tale was firmly debunked; Burbank had simply written that he was willing to help find work for a relative of old family friends, and either Judge Curtis D. Wilbur or other officers of the Los Angeles juvenile court misunderstood Burbank’s letter. And the idea wasn’t completely far fetched; while Burbank would never have offered to take the boy under his wing as an apprentice, he certainly did employ teenagers. In a 1967 TV documentary, Hilliard Comstock described working for Burbank shortly after his family arrived in Santa Rosa (skip forward to 13:35).

The same day Burbank’s denial was in the Press Democrat, an enhanced version of the original story began appearing in papers around the country. Donald Miller was no longer to be simply living and studying with Burbank; now the boy was being granted “a golden opportunity to become famous by becoming a specimen for Luther Burbank,” as if he were about to step into the magical world of Willy Wonka:

…After a mass of evidence had shown the boy to be confirmed as a truant, a letter from Mr. Burbank was read. The plant wizard, according to the letter, believes that he can cure the boy of truancy….Mr. Burbank did not detail the method of treatment that he will use, but it is understood that the boy will be given sunshine, a reasonable amount of work, several hours play a day, a course in botany–and at least an hour’s walk through the wonderful garden of Santa Rosa.

Those additional made-up details were mostly drawn from Burbank’s popular 1906 essay, “The Training of the Human Plant,” which offered a variety of sensible child-rearing tips (as well as squirm-worthy sections about “mingling of the races” and “marriage of the physically unfit” which made it popular with the eugenics crowd). It was a safe bet to speculate Burbank would follow his own advice, of course, so aside from adding the detail about Burbank supposedly writing he could “cure” the boy, this version doesn’t really stray very far from the original goofed-up report.

Both versions came from a wire service such as Associated Press or United Press but we don’t know which ones – news syndicates were never identified in those days. The March 22 story could even have been a rewrite of the March 21 item after a syndicate editor decided the original needed to be fluffed up a bit. But a third version that started appearing on March 23 came from a completely different source. And sadly, it was the most untruthful version yet and also the one that seems to have appeared in the most newspapers, including the prestigious New York World and Washington Post.

Version three is easy to spot because it misspells the boy’s name as “Millar.” Some newspapers compressed it down to the essential (mis)information: “Luther Burbank, the plant wizard, had undertaken to transform Donald Millar, an irresponsible, incorrigible, truant boy, into a normal person.” The full length article, however, pretended a reporter had interviewed Burbank and found him downright chatty:

Luther Burbank the plant wizard, gave some hints today as to the course to be followed in the transformation of young Donald Millar…

“…I believe most children go to school too early, and are kept there too steadily. I shall give the boy a home a minimum of care, and plenty of life in the open. He will be called on to work a little more and study a little less than the usual run of boys. I knew Donald Millar’s grandfather in Massachusetts many years ago and I am glad to help the boy.”

When it was suggested to Mr. Burbank that he might be deluged with requests to train other boys, he said, “I am not conducting a conservatory for bad boys. I am engaged in cultivating plants. Donald Millar is the only boy I shall try to train.”

Note the “conservatory for bad boys” quip, which also appeared in Burbank’s denial. This shows the wire service reporter knew the story wasn’t true at all – yet wrote it up anyway, complete with phony Luther Burbank quotes.

Thus over the course of a few days in mid-March 1911, most of the nation probably came to believe that young Donald Miller/Millar was the kid who lucked out to become Robin to Burbank’s plant-breeding Batman. And here’s the believe-it-or-not twist: Of the multitude of newspapers that printed any of the three versions of the story, it appears not one ever printed a correction or retraction. Did Burbank receive penpal requests from boys and girls addressed to Donald, wanting to how how his enchanted life was going? I’ll bet he did.

So kudos to the 1911 Press Democrat, for apparently being the only newspaper in the United States to tell the true story. Alas, the PD coverage also causes the plant wizard to lose a little of his wizardly status today; while debunking the story Burbank told the paper that all sorts of crazy things were attributed to him, such as developing a seedless watermelon – and that could never exist, of course.

Judge Wilbur of Los Angeles Juvenile Sends Donald Miller of Pasadena to Santa Rosa for Indefinite Period

Los Angeles, March 21–Judge Wilbur has imposed upon Donald Miller, the 15-year-old son of Mrs. H. G. Miller of Pasadena, a sentence to study botany, flowers, trees, and plants for an indefinite period in Santa Rosa under Luther Burbank.

The boy has been wayward and became acquainted with Judge Wilbur of the Juvenile Court. When Judge Wilbur learned that Burbank was a friend of the Miller family, and had written to Donald inviting him to come and live with him and study botany, he said it was the best possible sentence that could be imposed.

– Press Democrat, March 22, 1911

Burbank Denounces the Faker Who Sent a Dispatch Crediting Him With Undertaking Experiments

“I am not conducting a conservatory for bad boys,” said Luther Burbank yesterday when asked if it were true that Donald Miller of Pasadena is to be sent to Santa Rosa to become the subject of a series of experiments at Burbank’s hands, in order to cure him of his tendency to run away from school.

“All there is to the matter is this: I knew Donald Miller’s grandfather in Massachusetts many years ago. So when I was asked if I would either give him employment or find him work with some one else, I said I would do it. I have not undertaken and will not undertake any experiments upon him or upon any other boy. I am engaged in rearing plants, not children.”

The whole story is just somebody’s yarn,” declared the breeder of plants. Burbank has had many occasions to be displeased with the frequent yarns that are printed concerning him. He is widely quoted as saying things he never said, concerning things that he has never even though of, and these false quotations are read by people who believe them genuine and who criticise [sic] Burbank for having expressed views that he never held, and as having claimed achievements that he never thought of attempting. One of them two years ago said he had invented or developed a “seedless watermelon”…[illegible microfilm]…Of course, a “seedless watermelon” is as impossible as “seedless wheat” would be.

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1911

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Too bad Robert Ripley wasn’t drawing his famous cartoon series in 1911; he would have loved the story of Harold Casey, dubbed by the Press Democrat as the “crippled messenger boy.”

Readers of this blog were introduced last year to the “Rapid Messenger Service” and its odd little ad seen here (why the running character looks angry or demented was never explained). That earlier item also reproduced a funny comic strip that appeared only once and showed a bicycling messenger racing between Santa Rosa and Petaluma at rocket speed. Here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! twist: Messenger boy Harold Casey only had one leg.

Harold’s right leg had been amputated just below the hip when he was nine, the result of a pair of usually routine accidents. He used crutches. He was certainly a plucky young fellow to take such a job, and fie on the local newspapers for not telling us more about him and how he coped with his handicap in 1911 Santa Rosa. Bicycles were the main type of speedy transportation in those days and he certainly could have used a bike with some sort of handbrake installed.

But we only know about 16 year-old Harold Casey at all because of an unusual benefit held to raise funds for a prosthetic leg. “The performance this evening for Casey’s benefit is intended and expected to ‘fix him up’ as good as new,” the Press Democrat said. “Everybody is invited to attend. There has never been anywhere an entertainment and charity ball for a purpose more worthy.” Among the entertainers were “Tom Pierpont, the human canary,” “Hoey and Lee, Hebrew impersonators” (um…), and “Jack Mathews will also be on hand with a mysterious stunt which he refused to talk about.” As the previous item revealed, barkeep Jack liked to dress up and warble minstrel show tunes while wearing blackface, so perhaps it’s best he kept mum about his “mysterious stunt.”

Hopefully a grand time was had by all and Mr. Casey collected enough money for a good quality leg to make his job easier. The messenger service appears to have closed about a year later and while one of the articles below states he was attending school, there’s no record he graduated from Santa Rosa High. His trail disappears after the benefit dance although it’s likely he is the same Harold H. Casey who can be spotted in the 1920 and 1930 census working as an elevator operator, first in Portland and later in San Francisco.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1911)

Entertainment and Dance to Provide Funds for Purchase of New Leg for Harold Casey, the Crippled Messenger Boy

Everybody is going, or ought to go, to Harold Casey’s benefit entertainment and ball at the rink tonight. This affair has been arranged to help the crippled messenger boy to stand on two feet again, to buy him an artificial leg [illegible microfilm] as well as may be the limb that was amputated when the lad was nine years old. He is now 16, and has so nearly attained his growth that the makers give assurance and guarantee that the leg made to fit him now can be adjusted as he grows heavier, and that it will last him to the end of his days.

Harold is a native of Santa Rosa. While living at Windsor, and when three years old, he sustained a wound in his right knee which became infected. Blood poisoning followed, and the leg did not fully heal. When he was nine the same leg was broken and amputation became necessary. Since then the boy has gone on crutches, attending school and working to earn his living as best he could. Part of this time he has been with the Messenger Service, and after today he will become proprietor, the business having been donated to him by W. Clay Silver, for whom the boy has worked for the last eight months.

The performance this evening for Casey’s benefit is intended and expected to “fix him up” as good as new. Everybody is invited to attend. There has never been anywhere an entertainment and charity ball for a purpose more worthy. The program offered will be one of the best of the kind that has been presented in this city. Among those who will participate are the Rose City Quartette. Hoey and Lee, Hebrew impersonators; Tom Pierpont, the human canary; Professor Madison, magician; Dan Leno, cartoonist of the Bulletin, and Frank Greene, Jr., the local sketch artist, who will make life-sized drawings and cartoons of well-known Santa Rosans.

As an additional attraction the management has secured a Moonlight machine and the dancers will glide ‘neath the silvery light of the calcium moon. Mrs. Berry’s orchestra will render several selections at the opening of the performance and play for the dancing afterwards. The committee of arrangements have announced a good program, a fine floor and excellent music. Nuf Sed.

– Press Democrat, February 2, 1911


Everything is in readiness for the big benefit that is to be given tonight at the Pavilion rink for Harold Casey, the one-legged messenger boy. The floor is in first class condition and Mrs. Berry’s ten piece orchestra will furnish the music and from the number of tickets that have been sold there is sure to be a large crowd. It is a worthy cause and should be well attended…

…The first part of the evening will be devoted to a vaudeville performance, and some splendid stunts will be given, and following that the floor will be cleared and dancing will ensue until midnight.

Dan Leno, the Bulletin’s famous cartoonist, came up from San Francisco on the 1:15 train to participate in the evening’s fun. Jack Mathews will also be on hand with a mysterious stunt which he refused to talk about. A big surprise is expected when Jack appears. A moonlight dance has been arranged by the management as an addition attraction.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1911

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