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.
LONDON READS OF MEXICAN ARREST WITH AMUSEMENTAuthor 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