Had Martin Tarwater behaved himself, he would have died peacefully at home near Mark West Creek and been quickly forgotten. Instead, he did something so crazy that he was immortalized in one of the best stories written by Jack London.

London spent a few weeks with Tarwater during the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush. Martin was 66 years old at the time and had no experience with prospecting or, for that matter, surviving in extreme weather conditions, having lived his entire adult life in the placid clime that is Sonoma county. He lacked backcountry gear and didn’t arrive in Alaska with much money, in stark contrast to the others who were pouring off the boats equipped with a ton of outfitting and grubstakes to pay for whatever else they would need. What Martin Tarwater had instead was a boundless cheery attitude and indefatigable certainty that in spite of everything he would triumph in the end. And because of that, Jack London made him a hero.

On a genealogy web page one contributor sniped, “It is hoped no one will find that story (included in one of his books, the title I have forgotten at the moment), because everything written about Martin Tarwater is complete fiction.” The story is “Like Argus of the Ancient Times” and is so named for Martin’s love of singing even if he didn’t always remember the correct words to the song. That title was part of his scrambled substitution lyrics for the Unitarian version of the Doxology hymn (“From all that dwell below the skies…”).

As for everything London wrote about him being “complete fiction,” I don’t think that’s at all true, although the Tarwater character in the story is instead named John and came from Michigan, not Missouri. But mostly everything in the story up to the ending tracks very well with what appeared about Martin in local newspapers and in writings of his Klondike compatriots. No spoilers here, but you’ll enjoy the rest of this article more if you take a moment and let Jack London introduce him to you.

“Mart” Tarwater – as apparently everyone called him – came here in 1853, which is to say he was here before Santa Rosa was here. He and wife Sarah had several hundred acres near the headwaters of Mark West Creek and like most of his neighbors, proceeded from logging redwoods to ranching to grapes. He had the largest sheep ranch in the area and nine children, not all of whom lived to adulthood. His eldest son died in his arms after a farming accident. There is still a Tarwater Road off St. Helena Road and there was a Tarwater school district with a one-room schoolhouse which served for dances and other get-togethers. Oddly, they named their micro-community “America.”

In a Believe-it-or-Not! twist, Charmian London met the unforgettable Mr. Tarwater first, while her future husband was still playing oyster pirate. In volume two of her biography of Jack she wrote of accompanying her aunt, Ninetta Eames, as she trekked about the North Bay researching an article. Charmian wrote she “made a pilgrimage to his mountain cabin and sketched that abode and himself for an illustration,” but that’s not entirely true; while the article had drawings (by Grace Hudson, no less) it was a photograph that appeared in the August, 1892 Overland Monthly captioned, “A Shepherd’s Arcady.” Thus if she’s right about meeting Martin, that’s him in this picture:1

Jack’s story begins in the summer of 1897, as does the provable history. “Grandfather Tarwater, after remaining properly subdued and crushed for a quiet decade, had broken out again. This time it was the Klondike fever,” wrote London. “The multitudinous family had sat upon him, but had had a hard time doing it. When all else had failed to shake his resolution, they had applied lawyers to him, with the threat of getting out guardianship papers and of confining him in the state asylum for the insane.”

The fictional Tarwater sneaks out of the house the next morning and took the horses and wagon to Santa Rosa, where he sold them and other items, raising $42.50 before taking the train to San Francisco. “A dozen days later, carrying a half-empty canvas sack of blankets and old clothes, he landed on the beach of Dyea in the thick of the great Klondike Rush. The beach was screaming bedlam.”

In truth, we know nothing about Martin’s departure – which suggests Jack London had it mostly right. When local residents left for Alaska (or were even rumored to be possibly thinking about going, maybe) there was an item about it in one of the Santa Rosa newspapers. For Martin there was not even the customary single-line mention of his going to San Francisco, which strongly implies the family kept it quiet.

Among Mart’s fellow travelers over the next week would be Fred Thompson of Santa Rosa. Fred is worth special mention because he left a diary (which scholars often cite) and wrote several letters to the Republican newspaper (which most scholars don’t seem to know about). Fred was a court reporter and brother of Rolfe L. Thompson, well-known to readers of this journal for being the lawyer who led attempts at reform efforts in the years after the Great Earthquake.

Through Thompson’s first letter, dated August 1, we meet the other four members of his party: Someone else from Santa Rosa and a carpenter with some experience building boats, plus “J. H. Shepard, 1068 East 16th street Oakland, Cal., who is an attorney and quite a well to do man and an old prospector and miner–a personal friend of Judge Crawford who can tell you all about him; Jack London of same address as Mr. Shepard and a brother-in-law. Mr. Shepard is backing Mr. London, who is a sailor and marine engineer.” It’s amusing that 21 year-old Jack London was trying to pass himself off as a “marine engineer,” but even more howling was James Shepard claiming to be a sourdough miner and “well to do.” Shepard, the subject of the previous item, was a ne’er-do-well military pension lawyer whose wife mortgaged the home in her name to fund his misadventure.

The first glimpse of Mart on his odyssey comes from Santa Rosa blacksmith John Poat, who wrote on Aug. 12 that he and another Santa Rosa fellow, Clarence Temple, were on the same boat bound for Alaska as “Old Man” Tarwater. As it turned out, our local blacksmith found it too much to endure and was back in town by the end of the month. He gave an interview to the Republican and told them, “I left Tarwater and Temple in Juneau. The former, when saying good-by to me the day I left, said he was going to do his best to get in with a party and work his way over one of the passes.”

The narrative resumed with an Aug. 24 letter from Clarence Temple. He wrote to the Republican that Mart had fallen in with a party and gone to Skagway, expecting to go over the pass at once. The “old man” was in luck for he was not well equipped with cash and could not have gone over the pass alone, the paper summarized.

All of the Santa Rosa adventurers told the paper of the daunting conditions. “At Juneau it is believed that hundreds will perish on the way to Dawson,” wrote Poat. “Those who have taken tents will find them useless when winter sets in. They say at Juneau that the only way one can pass an Alaskan winter is to build log huts, make them almost air tight, and then keep a roaring fire going all the time.” Another correspondent told the paper he had just left Dawson City – the destination camp everyone looked to as a refuge – on Aug. 26 because stores and restaurants were already closed for the winter because there was no food to sell.

The surprise correspondent was James Shepard, whose letter appeared in the Republican Sept. 27. By then he was sleeping in his own bed back in Oakland, having given up five days into the trek (he lied and claimed he made it all the way to eleven). Shepard – who supposedly had a mild heart attack even before leaving the Bay Area – wrote that he was only doing cooking chores while the other four members of the party were lugging their collective 6,000 pounds of supplies up the mountain, from 4 in the morning until around 9 at night.

Before continuing our story, it may be helpful to review Klondike 101: Tarwater, London, and the rest of our pals were on the Chilkoot Trail, later dubbed “the meanest 32 miles in history” and remembered for those photographs of the ant-like procession of men crawling up the mountainside. As the goldfields were actually in Canada, “stampeders” had to pay custom duties on their supplies at a Mountie station located at the summit. The Canadian government also required each man entering the Territory to bring along enough food for an entire year, which alone weighed half a ton. Add in camping and mining supplies and the need to combine resources with others was essential to keep the weight down.

Climbing the Chilkoot was easiest in winter when the trail was packed snow, as supplies could be pulled by sled; Jack London and the others were on it at the peak of Indian Summer when temperatures were close to 100 degrees, which meant backpacking up a craggy slope in multiple trips. Shepard wrote that when he left, their company was making 1¼ miles a day – and that was before the trail got really steep. As they were about to start the climb, London wrote to a friend how this relay would work:2

I expect to carry 100 lbs. to the load on good trail & on the worst, 75 lbs. That is, for every mile to the Lakes, I will have to travel from 20-30 miles. I have 1000 lbs. in my outfit. I have to divide it into from 10 to fifteen loads according to the trail. I take a load a mile & come back empty that makes two miles. 10 loads means 19 miles, for I do not have to come back after the 11th. load for there is none. If I have 15 loads it means 29 miles.

The day after James Shepard turned back, Thompson entered this in his diary: “August 15. Very warm today—-did not do much. Met Tarwater of Santa Rosa–took him as a passenger, exchanging board and passage for his work.” Five or six days later, photographer Frank La Roche took the picture below, which is the only known image of Jack London in the Yukon.

Left to Right: Jim Goodman, Jack London, Martin Tarwater (partially obscured by pipe), unknown man with pipe and Fred Thompson3


For all his faults, Shepard had contributed money and a full outfit to their party; Mart Tarwater looked like nothing but burden. He had little but the clothes on his back and was a dozen years older than the old man he was to replace. As London wrote in his short story, it wasn’t easy to convince the others to take him on. But once he was accepted in their ranks, London wrote, “Old John Tarwater became a striking figure on a trail unusually replete with striking figures. With thousands of men, each back-tripping half a ton of outfit, retracing every mile of the trail twenty times, all came to know him and to hail him as ‘Father Christmas’…On a trail where hard-working men learned for the first time what work was, no man worked harder in proportion to his strength than Old Tarwater.”

Aside from bearing his share of the burdens, London tells us Mart kept everyone’s spirits up with his enthusiastic singing: “…as he worked, ever he raised his chant with his age-falsetto voice…Weary back-trippers would rest their packs on a log or rock alongside of where he rested his, and would say: ‘Sing us that song of yourn, dad, about Forty-Nine.’ And, when he had wheezingly complied, they would arise under their loads, remark that it was real heartening, and hit the forward trail again.”

Another returnee from the Yukon told the Press Democrat of running into Mart unexpectedly:

“Suddenly while we walked along the wooded trail, a voice broke the stillness of the night. The sound of that voice seemed familiar to me. Who can it be I asked myself? As we came nearer the spot I was more convinced than ever last I knew the singer. In that strange land it was so good. Presently we came opposite the place from whence the singing came. I stood rivetted to the spot. The singer was warbling the old song “How the Miners Made Pancakes in ’49.” Leaning against a tree, his face muffled almost to hide his features, back of him the smouldering embers of his little camp fire, was a man whom I afterwards learned was none other than mv old friend. Mart Tarwater, of Mark West, the old mail carrier. Away up on the Skaguay apparently all alone old Mart was just as merry as he was when driving along the Healdsburg road in his little old mail wagon. There was no mistaking that noise. I would have known it anywhere in the world.”

It was now September and the freezeup was a few weeks away; plans to survive the coming arctic weather had to be made before winter slammed in and made them for you. It was decided they would join with another party and construct a pair of boats to speed their journey. It was grueling work; in his story, Jack wrote, “They worked night and day. Thrice, on the night-shift, underneath in the saw-pit, Old Tarwater fainted.”

Near the end of that month, a Santa Rosa man wrote the Press Democrat: “Yesterday a party from Santa Rosa, consisting of J. E. Goodman, Fred H. Thompson, Mart Tarwater, and seven others launched a 32-foot boat in the lake and sailed gaily out of sight. They were a gay and happy looking crowd.” Over the next few days they pushed on through strong freezing winds, snowstorms and ice, not to mention shooting the boats down rapids which few attempted even in best conditions. This is the stuff of high adventure and is retold in several Jack London stories and novels.

While they were still days away from Dawson City they came across abandoned log cabins built by an old trading company. London and the Santa Rosa boys saw this as great good luck, particularly since their guide book said gold had been found in the area. The party in the other boat would continue on, with Martin Tarwater aboard. It was the last time Jack would see his elderly friend.

Mart and the others had made a terrible choice. They were unaware that Canadian authorities had just posted a notice that there were not adequate food supplies at Dawson, even with the cargo of a recent supply steamship which would be the last to make it in before spring. Any prospectors without enough personal food for themselves would have to evacuate immediately to Fort Yukon. Tarwater was among them.

A few updates appeared in the Press Democrat over the winter, among them a letter from Fred Thompson saying their group was doing well. There was also word that Mart was writing for a local paper (!) and had filed a mining claim where he was picking up $10 in gold every day off the ground. “This news is good. No one deserves to get rich any more than does Mart.” Of course, both were completely untrue.

Then came the news: Martin Tarwater had died on May 20, 1898 at Fort Yukon.

The family received a letter from a man named Orion T. Thomas, who had linked up with Mart after the Dawson evacuation. They built a cabin together but “as Mr. Tarwater had very little money,” wrote Thomas, and without the protectorship of his Santa Rosa friends, he was compelled to work, cutting wood for $5 per cord in weather 40 degrees below zero. He quickly became seriously ill. In Jack London’s story “his creaking and crackling and the nasty hacking cough” was often mentioned and Thomas wrote, “the doctor says the cause of his death was acute asthma.”

The next year Orion Thomas popped up in Santa Rosa and stopped by the Press Democrat, giving the newspaper an opportunity to write a second obituary for a favorite son.

Before he was taken sick, Mr. Thomas says Old Mart was the life of the camp. His Sonoma county friends will always remember his ready wit and his ability to launch out in verse to suit a popular air. He was the same in the frozen north, and could always be relied upon to have a stock of verse on hand concerning the Klondike, to keep all those around him in good humor.

Thomas, who was a bugler for the Union during the Civil war, “carried a cornet with him all through his travels,” the PD reported. “He says it was very amusing to see the interest taken in his music by the Indians, who had never seen such an instrument before. Whenever he played in his cabin he could always have a large audience of Indians, male and female.”

How fitting that the last word on Martin Tarwater is from someone who shared his enthusiasm for making music. And you can bet as Orion tootled his cornet on those winter days, old Mart was howling along with the tune, even if he didn’t properly recall the right words. It was surely that odd duet which drew the Gwich’in native people over to their cabin in -40° temperatures – after all, you don’t hear unearthly sounds like that every day. No sir, you don’t.


1 Robert Tarwater had a large spread in Anderson Valley and a little item in the 1875 Sonoma Democrat mentioned Martin driving a herd of a thousand sheep up there. Robert moved there from Santa Rosa in 1857 and was likely a brother or cousin of Martin’s. I don’t particularly enjoy genealogy research, so if anyone wants to shake the Tarwater family tree, here’s Robert’s obituary.

2 Letter to Mabel Applegarth; The Letters of Jack London: 1913-1916. Volume three

3 The identification of the men was made by author Dick North in 1981 and discussed at length in his book, “Sailor on Snowshoes.” North speculated the unknown man could be Dan Goodman’s brother James or famed author and John Muir companion Samuel Hall Young, but it seems to me that it is more likely boat carpenter Merritt Sloper, who remained a member of the London party through the next year. Credit: Frank La Roche Photograph Collection, University of Washington


Moore, Thompson, Goodman and Tarwater Are all There
In a Letter Virgil Moore Says He Saw the Party Lauch a Boat and Sail Away

For many weeks past the families of Fred Thompson and J. E. Goodman of this city, and Mart Tarwater, the veteran mail carrier of the Mark West Springs district, have been looking for letters from them.

In a letter received last night from Virgil Moore, the Bulletin correspondent in Alaska, dated Lake Linderman. Sept. 29, he speaks encouragingly of the trio mentioned above. The news will be received by their friends here with pleasure.

The writer says: “Yesterday a party from Santa Rosa, consisting of J. E. Goodman, Fred H. Thompson, Mart Tarwater, and seven others launched a 32-foot boat in the lake and sailed gaily out of sight. They were a gay and happy looking crowd and had only been on the road sixty-three days.”

From this piece of news it would appear that the Santa Rosans are doing first-rate. All of the boys have good, genuine grit, and if any one can succeed they will. Their friends here will always be glad to note their success.

– Press Democrat, October 20, 1897
Away Up on Skaguay Trail
Mart Tarwater Sings
Neal Brieson of Mark West Returns From Alaska and Greets His Santa Rosa Friends

“I and my partner were walking slowly along the Skaguay trail one evening many weeks ago. The shades of night were falling fast. Pretty soon it got almost dark. We were making for a certain point that night. We were feeling pretty tired. My partner urged me to hurry along before the darkness got too dense.

“Suddenly while we walked along the wooded trail, a voice broke the stillness of the night. The sound of that voice seemed familiar to me. Who can it be I asked myself? As we came nearer the spot I was more convinced than ever last I knew the singer. In that strange land it was so good. Presently we came opposite the place from whence the singing came. I stood rivetted to the spot. The singer was warbling the old song “How the Miners Made Pancakes in ’49.” Leaning against a tree, his face muffled almost to hide his features, back of him the smouldering embers of his little camp fire, was a man whom I afterwards learned was none other than mv old friend. Mart Tarwater, of Mark West, the old mail carrier. Away up on the Skaguay apparently all alone old Mart was just as merry as he was when driving along the Healdsburg road in hie little old mail wagon. There was no mistaking that noise. I would have known it anywhere in the world.”

This interesting incident was told to a Press Democrat reporter on B street Friday morning by Neal Brieson, the former superintendent of the R. L Crooks ranch at Mark West, who left San Francisco on July 31, on the same ship carrying Hy Groshong, for Alaska, and who returned from there last week. Mr. Brieson went to Alaska to obtain ail the information he could relative to the resources of the country. He returns impressed with the idea that the country is very rich and one capable of marvelous developments. He went to Dyea and along the Skaguay [sic] trail. Friday morning he pulled from his pocket a bottle filled with rich golden nuggets from Dawson City. From what he learned while in Alaska, Mr. Brieson says, the horrors of the Chilkoot Pass have never been adequately described in the newspaper accounts. In fact he thinks it would fail the human tongue to describe them. He heard of Clarence Temple, Fred Thompson and Jim Goodman but did not see them. Mr. Brieson came back from Dyea with three men who were from Dawson City. These men had been on the Yukon for three years and were going home for winter as they said thev would not stay on their claims for $l0,000 during the winter for they feared a scarcity of food. Brieson says many of those now in Alaska are wishing that they had waited until spring before going. They complain very bitterly of the fairylike visions of gold told by those who came out from the Yukon when the excitement first commenced. Mr. Brieson had an exceeding interesting time in Alaska and gained lots of information. His many friends here are glad to see him again.

– Press Democrat, November 20, 1897
About Mart Tarwater

Everybody remembers the veteran mail carrier Mart Tarwater, the former driver of the mail cart from here to Mark West Springs, and who in conjunction with a few others got the gold craze last fall and went to Klondyke.

For several months nothing has been heard of Mart in any way and lots of the veteran miner’s friends have wondered what had become of him.

Thursday it was learned that Mr. Tarwater’a family had heard indirectly from him through a Calistoga man who returned from the Stewart river district a few days ago.

The returned miner brought the news that he had seen old Mart on Stewart river just before he left; that he was well and that he was making things “stick.” The man said that Mr. Tarwater had a claim on Stewart river and in taking out ten dollars’ worth of tbe shining metal per diem “right off the surface.”

This news is good. No one deserves to get rich any more than does Mart.

– Press Democrat, February 5, 1898



After a long silence a letter was received here Tuesday by Deputy County Clerk R. L. Thompson from his brother Fred, who in company with Jim Goodman of this city and others left last fall for Dawson City.

The letter bears date: “Stewart City, on Henderson creek, N. W. T., October 10.” [EDITORIAL NOTE: This date is clearly wrong, as Jack London and others had formed the camp. This letter was most likely written in December or January. According to Charmian’s biography, they were in Dawson from about Oct. 20 to Dec. 3. -je] The writer says that his party are well and are pleased with the country. They had a terrible time crossing the Chilkoot Pass.

The Thompson party claim the distinction of having come across a spot on Henderson creek on which was an old unoccupied cabin and having named the place Stewart City.

Four days after their arrival at Stewart City they prospected on Henderson creek, and finding good color, located claims. Fred Thompson went on to Dawson City and filed on claims for each member of the party. He remained in the vicinity of Dawson City tor seven weeks and located other claims, one being on Sulphur creek. While there he says he was offered $4,000 for one of his claims on the Henderson creek, but refused to sell. At Dawson City he met the former poet-journalist of Santa Rosa, Virgil Moore, and had a very pleasant talk with him.

Fourteen claims are owned by Thompson’s party. They are now working the claims on Henderson creek. The writer’s description of the way in which they made their boats at Lake Linderman and shot the White Horse rapids is very graphic.

The boys seem confident of success and all their Santa Rosa friends sincerely trust that their hopes will be realized to tbs fullest extent. The receiving of the the letter here wae a great pleasure to the relatives of both Messrs. Thompson and Goodman.

– Press Democrat, February 16, 1898


Editor Mart Tarwater

News received from Yukon state that Mart Tarwater, tbe former mail carrier from Santa Rose to Mark West Springs, and who went in the rush to the golden north early last fall, ia now writing for newspapers started in that region.

– Press Democrat, July 6, 1898


Reported Death of Mart Tarwater.

News has been received of the death of M. Tarwater in Alaska, sent, it is stated, by the minister who read the burial service at his funeral, says the Press-Democrat. When last heard from Mr. Tarwater was sick in the hospital near Dawson City. Mr. Tarwater, it will be remembered, was the veteran mail carrier to Mark West Springs and Altruria, and for events which have transpired in California and Sonoma county in early days, he was an encyclopedia. Few men were better known, and at every fireside in Sonoma county, he was a welcome guest.

– Healdsburg Tribune, July 28, 1898

 Martin W. Tarwater Laid to Rest at Fort Yukon
 Pathetic Letter From His Companion Confirms the News of His Death

Last Saturday morning the Press Democrat published a report of the death, in Alaska, of Martin W. Tarwater, a pioneer of Sonoma county and formerly mail carrier between this city and America postoffice. No confirmation of the report could be secured by this paper at that time.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tarwater then had in her possession a letter received last Thursday from Orion T. Thomas, formerly of Los Angeles, containing news of the death of Mr. Tarwater on May 20. Mr. Thomas was a constant attendant of the deceased during the last days of his life. Mrs. Tarwater, who resides at America still has hopes that her husband is alive, despite the conclusiveness of Thomas’ pathetic letter, which is herewith printed:

“Fort Yukon, Alaska, May 22, ’98.

“Mrs. M. W. Tarwater— Dear Madam; It is my sad duty to inform you of the death of your husband, which occurred Friday morning, May 20, 1898, at 3 o’clock. Mr. Tarwater had been sick nearly two months, and the doctor says the cause of his death was acute asthma, although he also suffered from liver trouble.

“The burial took place Friday evening from the Episcopal mission, Rev. J. W. Hawksley officiating. The remains were interred in the Fort Yukon graveyard. I had a headboard painted with his name, age, time of death and native state (Missouri) placed at the head of his grave.

“I first met Mr. Tarwater last November on my arrival here from Dawson City; we worked together on a large cabin, and on its completion we bunked together, but as Mr. Tarwater wrote you a long letter, sometime in December, I think he undoubtedly told you of the hard trip into this country, and working in the woods with the thermometer forty degrees and more below zero.

“Early in March, Mr. Tarwater and I bought a stone, axes, etc., and went to an island about three miles from here, to cut wood for the North American Trading and Transportation Company, for which we were to get $5 per cord. We had to wade in snow about three feet deep and cut brush to fall the trees on, to keep them from being buried in the snow, and cutting, splitting and piling wood under such circumstances was hard and necessarily slow work, especially for a man as old as Mr. Tarwater—-fifteen years older than myself. We had been working about three weeks when your husband took sick aud we had to leave the island and come back to the cabin at the Fort, I pulling him part the distance on a sled.

“When Mr. Tarwater took sick he gave me your address and requested me ‘if anything should happen to write to you and take charge of his effects.’

“Mr. Tarwater seemed to improve after he got back here and we thought he would he able to start for home on the first boat down the river; I went to Lieutenant Richardson and he promised me he would provide him transportation home, as Mr. Tarwater had very little money; both of us together only cut twenty-six cords of wood.

“We all had hopes, and Mr. Tarwater was confident that he would be well enough to start home on the first boat, but he suddenly grew worse and be passed away peacefully–regretting that be could not be at home where loving hands could help and soothe him in his last hours.

“I did what I could for Mr. Tarwater–cooking, washing and care–and I must say I never saw a man with more patience–I never knew him to become angry with anyone, no matter what the provocation.

“There was not much expense. I paid the doctor, gave the two men tbat made the coffin each an ax and gave the cooking utensils, etc., to the men who were in the cabin and assisted in getting ready for burial. There is a little money left, and although the men here say I more than earned it in taking care of him, I will if I ever get out of here alive and with any money, send it to you-—not charging anything for my services.

“Inclosed is a certificate from Minister Hawksley, which I asked him to give me.

“I left my home in Los Angeles the 26th day of last July, and like Mr. Tarwater and hundreds of others, found myself down here in November, where we were compelled to come in order to get provisions. I expect to leave here in a day or so for Dawson City. I will mail this letter at Circle City on the way up.

“Please accept my sympathy in this bereavement. Sincerely yours,
“Orion T. Thomas.”

Following is the certificate of burial by the Episcopal clergyman, which was enclosed in Mr. Thomas’ letter…

– Press Democrat, July 30, 1898


Fred Thompson Writes

Yesterday a letter was received from Fred Thompson, who is at Dawson City, which contained much of interest to his family. With Mr. Thompson at Dawson City when the letter left there, were James and Dan Goodman, also of Santa Rosa. The trio were engaged in shipping logs from Stewart river with which to build a cabin for the winter. All the Santa Rosa boys, the letter stated, are well.

– Press Democrat, November 12, 1898



O. T. Thomas, who was with Mart Tarwater, the former veteran mail carrier of Mark West springs, when he closed his eyes in death in far-off Alaska, called at the Press Democrat office last night, and from him was learned much to interest the old pioneer’s friends all over the county.

Mr. Thomas and Mr. Tarwater shared a cabin together while both were chopping wood. The old man seemed to suddenly break down, Mr. Thomas said last night, and finally grew so weak that he had to give in. Very tenderly Mr. Thomas watched over him until the summons came, which ended his long and eventful career.

Before he was taken sick, Mr. Thomas says Old Mart was the life of the camp. His Sonoma county friends will always remember his ready wit and his ability to launch out in verse to suit a popular air. He was the same in the frozen north, and could always be relied upon to have a stock of verse on hand concerning the Klondike, to keep all those around him in good humor. Mr. Thomas took quite a liking to Old Mart. He bore his last illness bravely and without a murmur.

Mr. Thomas talks very interestingly of the time he spent in the north. He carried a cornet with him all through his travels. He says it was very amusng to see the interest taken in his music by the Indians, who bad never seen such an instrument before. Whenever he played in his cabin he could always have a large audience of Indians, male and female.

– Press Democrat, March 29, 1899


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“We never did learn whose hand applied the torch,” Charmian London wrote in her biography of husband Jack London. She thought of the unknown arsonist as an “assassin” because “The razing of the house killed something in Jack…something in his heart burned out that night and was destroyed forever.”1

“The house” was Jack’s baronial arts & crafts castle called “Wolf House,” which was in the last stage of completion when it burned down in August, 1913. At the time no one doubted an arsonist had set the fire. “Many people were accused of the firing, a good part of them in anonymous letters sent to Jack,” Irving Stone noted in his acclaimed biography, “Sailor on Horseback.” Among the suspects “…A workman whom Jack had thrown off the ranch for beating his wife was seen in the vicinity; he was accused. An ill-tempered foreman was accused.  [Chief contractor Natale] Forni was accused, jealous socialists were accused, disgruntled tramps were accused.”2

There was even gossip Jack or Charmian set the fire. Long before construction was underway Jack had written ominously in a 1906 essay, “it will be a happy house – or else I’ll burn it down” and in the months before the fire the pair were anything but happy. His health was failing and she had a miscarriage after three days of labor; freakish weather destroyed most of his crops and someone shot one of his most valuable horses; he was nearly out of money and had mortgaged everything he could. In the Forni family a story was handed down that the couple was overheard fighting with Charmian saying, “You’ll never live in this house.”3 Irving Stone also supposedly was told by a workman that he saw Charmian walking away from the house swinging an empty gasoline can and saying, “It’s going to be a hot night tonight.”4

Years later, Natale Forni told Stone he wondered if the cause might have been spontaneous combustion, as earlier that day workmen had been rubbing down the interior woodwork and there was “turpentine-saturated waste.” Since a solvent like turpentine is used on finished wood only in combination with other things such as linseed oil, it’s presumed he meant there were oily rags lying around. And when a 1995 team of forensic experts looked at the Wolf House fire they concluded that yep, it was spontaneous combustion, all right.

Not everyone agrees with that. Jonah Raskin (local author of “The Radical Jack London” and other books) was told by an SSU anthropologist it’s an example of “hollywooding” – neatly wrapping up the mystery by making scapegoats of the nameless workers and letting everyone else off the hook.5 And as I explained in “TIME TO REOPEN THE JACK LONDON FIRE INVESTIGATION,” data in the 1995 study supporting that spontaneous combustion theory is clearly wrong, making the matter far from settled. To be fair, it has to be acknowledged the fire could have been caused by burning rags – only not in the very specific way claimed in that investigation.

But if the cause wasn’t spontaneous combustion we are probably looking at arson. It was easy to rule out financial gain as motive; the place was famously underinsured because Jack presumed a stone and concrete building like that couldn’t burn. There was a single $6,000 policy – less than one-tenth of the building’s estimated value – and that payment apparently went to the bank holding the most recent mortgage. And despite what anonymous letter-writers were telling Jack, odds for the fire being started by jealous socialists or disgruntled tramps were pretty low (the guy who was fired for wife-beating might have been worth a second look, though). But in his listing of suspects under consideration, Irving Stone dropped in this little nugget: “Shepard, whom Eliza was divorcing, had quarreled with Jack that very day.”

“Eliza’s husband shoots up the ranch,” was the May 3, 1913 entry in Charmian London’s diary. That was about fourteen weeks before the fire.6

“Eliza” was Eliza Shepard, one of Jack London’s stepsisters. She was his business manager, the superintendent of his ranch and construction boss of the Wolf House project. Jack depended upon her utterly – as he had for much of his life.

She and her 13 year-old son lived near Jack’s cottage in a little house he built for them (and likewise mortgaged shortly before the fire). They had arrived on the ranch in 1910 after she separated from her husband, Captain James H. Shepard.

What happend that day in May, 1913, is unclear. Both the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier stated James lived on the ranch, but it is more likely he was there to visit his son who was seriously injured in an electrical accident a few weeks earlier. Also involved in the incident was Eliza’s sister, Ida and her husband Jack Byrne, who lived in Glen Ellen.

From accounts in the PD (transcribed below) it seems Capt. Shepard pulled his pistol on Jack Byrne. Eliza grappled with him for the gun and it fired twice, injuring no one. Apparently Jack London heard the shots and ran next door, jerking the gun out of Shepard’s hand. The next day Shepard went to Santa Rosa and filed assault complaints against both Jacks, claiming Byrne held him defenseless while London choked him. They were arrested and released on $50 bail. Charges were quickly dismissed at a hearing the following week. In her biography, Charmian wrote this:

An old man ran amuck one night and ‘shot up the ranch.’ Jack landing upon the scene, in the space of three seconds had disarmed the lunatic, who, in retaliation, haled [sic] him into court for ‘choking an old man into insensibility.’ “Me, choking an old man into insensibility!” Jack fumed. “Can’t you see me?”

Self-serving, yes, but what’s striking about her telling is that she went considerably out of the way to avoid identifying the “old man” as Jack’s brother-in-law (none of the newspapers mentioned the family connection either). Charmian was emotionally close to Eliza and dependent upon her her managerial skills as much as Jack was, so she was presumably shielding Eliza and her son, Irving.

But within the family, an entirely different story was told. In his oral history the grandson of Eliza and James Shepard said he was told grandpa hated Jack London so much he was there with a gun in 1913 because he intended to murder the author. “He came to the Ranch, and he was going to kill him because he claimed Jack London stole his wife…He blamed Jack for the breakup.”7

Eliza London was roughly eight years older than Jack and from his earliest days was a combination playmate and surrogate mother. When she was sixteen she married a man who was lodging with their family and moved away. Her husband was 41 and brought with him a family of three, the youngest still an infant.

His name was James H. Shepard. Little is known about his personal life except he was born in Bergen, New Jersey in 1843. The name of his first wife is a mystery, as is what became of her. A profile of him appeared in an 1895 San Francisco Call which shows he was a Captain during the Civil War, posted at the San Francisco Presidio and Fort Yuma, where he was nearly fatally wounded in the southwest Indian wars. After that he spent nearly twenty years at the surgeon-general’s office in Washington, D.C. He returned to California in 1884 and almost immediately met and married Eliza. Besides having three kids and a teenage wife he also had lots of bills, and legal notices appeared in the papers stating he was insolvent.

Shepard became a veteran’s pension attorney, which is to say he helped old soldiers or their widows obtain the federal pensions for military service which was their due. It was also considered the most sleazy aspect of the legal profession.

Drawing of Shepard from the July 21, 1895 San Francisco Call

The government paid $25 to a pension attorney for every awarded claim – and in an era when a skilled workman was lucky to get 25¢ an hour, that was sweet money. The Commissioner of Pensions estimated there were 50,000 pension attorneys beating bushes nationwide looking for potential applicants. In 1887 a widow in Texas who had never applied for a pension was awarded one for a husband who supposedly fought in the Revolutionary War (take a moment to ponder the number of generation gaps in that relationship). Commissioner Evans asked Congress to abolish the pension attorney system because the pension rolls were filled with fraudulent claims. “The ordinary pension attorney is worse than the most pestiferous varmint that ever invaded a hen roost,” he said. The San Francisco Call felt compelled to explain “varmint” was not libelous because Evans came from Tennessee, where a jury would not consider it derogatory to the reputation of the person accused.

By all accounts Captain Shepard was the rare good guy, advertising in the newspapers as “J. H. Shepard & Co. The Old Reliable Attorneys.” He was a high-ranking officer in the regional G. A. R. (Grand Army of the Republic – the organization of Civil War and Mexican War veterans) and was apparently the whistleblower exposing graft and fraud at the veteran’s home in Yountville, then operated by a private association. He lobbied the state legislature to eliminate a fee on claim forms (and won) and testified in one court case where he had worked for nine years to have a Civil War claim approved. Eliza joined the office as a notary public and herself became a lifelong advocate for veterans, national president of the American Legion Auxiliary 1925-1926.

Jack remained close with Eliza and in the sphere of the Shepard clan. James’ son Hubert, three years older than Jack, got him a laundry job in 1897. That summer Jack decided to join the Klondike Gold Rush and the Shepard home in Oakland was mortgaged to finance his grubstake, with one condition: James insisted he tag along. James was then 54 and not in the best health.

James reportedly had a mild heart attack just before their ship left for its eight-day voyage to Alaska, making the older man more of a burden than equitable partner. Onboard they formed a party with three other prospectors to share equipment.

Once ashore they joined the parade of miners headed for the Chilkoot Pass, the impossibly steep trail to the goldfields. James gave up after two eleven days, claiming his rheumatism wouldn’t allow him to go further. He went home to Oakland as Jack and the others split up his supplies and pushed on. (The very next day Jack met Martin Tarwater of Santa Rosa, who became a memorable character in one of the Klondike stories. Despite the awful conditions, Tarwater kept such a cheery disposition he appeared to be nuts. A correspondent to the Press Democrat wrote of coming across “Mart” alone in the wilderness that winter merrily bellowing out an old music hall tune.)

Once home, James faded. The only notable event in his life during the following dozen years was the 1899 birth of Irving (Washington Irving Shepard, actually) his only child with Eliza. The pension attorney advertisements stopped in 1901. He was mentioned briefly in 1904 for having his son-in-law arrested for abandoning his wife. In 1909 he offered himself as a longshot candidate to lead the national G. A. R. Meanwhile, Eliza’s star was in ascendance. She often appeared in the legal notices for buying and selling property around Oakland as well as her many activities as a leader of the local Women’s Relief Corps, which was the G. A. R. auxiliary. When she took Irving and moved to Glen Ellen in 1910 she wasn’t just turning away from a failed marriage – she was leaving a social network which meant everything to her.

To Geoffrey Dunn, Captain James Shepard remains the prime arson suspect: “By lighting a fire to Wolf House, Shepard would have been exacting revenge on the two targets of his burning rage – London and Eliza.” Dunn, a Santa Cruz historian and investigative journalist whose deep dive into the political background of Sarah Palin was a longtime Amazon bestseller, adds that Shepard uniquely had “motive, opportunity and the capability to commit the crime.”

Start with motive: Shepard blamed Jack for his wife leaving him, according to their grandson. But he was also sour on Eliza – in 1915 he sued for divorce charging she had deserted him. According to the FBI profile of “personal retaliation” arsonists (see part one), fire locations are meaningful, specifically chosen to show it was an act of vengeance. Jack and his sister had everything invested, both financially and emotionally, in the completion of Wolf House.

Opportunity: Shepard was at the ranch that very day and arguing with Jack, according to author Irving Stone. The FBI says this type of arsonist is opportunistic – he walks to the fire scene, rarely breaks in, and starts the blaze using materials already there. Wolf House was then completely open (even the windows were not installed), unguarded and Natale Forni was probably right that workmen had stuff lying around.

Capability: Shepard’s grandson said he wanted to kill London in that gun-waving incident a few months earlier and Dunn points to another incident in his past: At an 1896 G. A. R. convention, Shepard angrily said to an opponent, “if you say anything about my character that you cannot prove I’ll make you bite the dust.” That may read like corny cowboy dialogue today, but in context of the era it was very clear he was making a death threat. But these were examples of dramatic emotional behavior, not violence – he didn’t draw a gun on the guy in 1896 and if he was determined to shoot Jack he could have attempted that; instead, the gun fired only while Eliza was trying to wrestle it away. These episodes demonstrate, however, that he wanted to make a show of pushing back hard when he felt his honor had been wronged – and that’s significant.

There’s no question that Shepard had been on a downward spiral for some time. Contributing factors could have been drugs or drink or simply his age – he was 70 the year Wolf House burned down. He was living in Knights Ferry, a Gold Rush ghost town which was enjoying a second life as a tourist stop thanks to the new fad of automobile excursions. There he worked at a jewelry shop where his son was allowed to visit in the summers.8

Capt. Shepard’s last hurrah came in 1916 when he revived his pension advertisement (for a single day!) in the Oakland Tribune. He had been divorced from Eliza for a year with her retaining all the property; he now sued claiming some of it had been bought with his money. As ownership was settled in the divorce, the case was thrown out. He died in 1917 a fairly poor man, with a little over $2,000 and no possessions to speak of.

There is no proof James Shepard set the Wolf House fire, but there is no better suspect; if it was arson it was almost certainly by his hand. What I think happened is this: Late that night he walked into the building, still stewing over the earlier argument with Jack London. I doubt he had pre-meditated plans. Perhaps he saw a bucket with sawdust, wood scraps or even oily rags; perhaps he dropped in a cigarette; perhaps he thought he’d be getting even with his unloving wife and her unsympathetic brother by causing them headaches with a little fire. It would cause some damage, sure, scorch the woodwork, stink up the place, and maybe set back the completion date, but it certainly wouldn’t take down the whole building. Not a big magnificent house like that.

1 London, Charmian; The Book of Jack London, Volume 2; 1921, pg. 263

2 Stone, Irving; “Sailor on Horseback,” 1938, pg. 300

3 Raskin, Jonah; “Burning Down the House.” The story was told to Gaye LeBaron by William Forni, whose father heard the argument while playing in the house the month of the fire.

4 Shepard, Milo oral history: “The Jack London story and the Beauty Ranch” 2001, pg. 17

5 Raskin, Jonah; “Burning Down the House,” Valley of the Moon Magazine January, 2016, pg. 47

6 Stasz, Clarice; “Jack London’s Women,” 2003; pg. 172

7 Shepard, Milo, op. cit. pg. 8

8 Shepard, Milo, ibid

ABOVE: Detail of 1984 drawing of Wolf House by artist William Johnston; image courtesy Sonoma County Library
BELOW: Ruins of Wolf House viewed from the other side, probably 1914-1917, when the surrounding redwood trees were cut down. Photo: California Parks Dept.


Tenant on Novelist’s Glen Ellen Place Charges Writer with Assault and Battery

Jack London, the famous novelist, and John J. Burns of San Francisco, a bookkeeper for the Southern Pacific Company, were arrested Monday morning on warrants issued by Justice of the Peace Atchison, charging them with assault and battery. The complaint was sworn io by J. H. Shepard, who lives on the London place at Glen Ellen. A cash bail of $5O was deposited in each case and the matter set for trial next Monday morning.

Mr. Shepard states that there was trouble between his wife and her sister in which the sister upbraided the wife. He claims that Burns was present and did not take Mrs. Shepard’s part. Burns was invited to the Shepard home, but Shepard decided that he could not be admitted.

When Burns came to the house Shepard, who had a pistol in his side pocket, went to the door and ordered him away. Mrs. Shepard came out during the trouble and found that her husband was abusing Burns. Fearing that he would draw his gun she took it out of his pocket. Her husband then attempted to get it away from her and Burns interfered. In the tussle that ensued the weapon was discharged twice.

Mrs. Shepard retained the gun after the trouble between Burns and Shepard; she then appealed to London, whose home is not far away. When London came he sided with Burns and this so angered Shepard that he again tried to wrest the gun from his wife. Both Burns and London then interfered and Shepard claims that Burns grasped him by the wrists and held him while London choked him.

– Press Democrat, May 6, 1913


Took Gun from J. W. Shepard When Latter Was Striking Wife and After Threats Had Been Made Against Burns

At the conclusion ot the cross examination of the third witness in the case against Jack London and John Burns in Judge Atchison’s court Monday afternoon District Attorney Clarence Lea moved to dismiss the charge as the evidence did not warrant a conviction in his opinion.

The charge was assault and battery and was preferred by J. W. Shepard after a quarrel in which London and Burns were called upon to interfere. The evidence showed that Shepard was armed and had made threats against Burns and that in grappling with his wife the weapon was discharged twice the trigger being pulled by Shepard.

Mrs. Shepard stated that her husband was striking her with one hand while grasping the weapon with the other and that she called upon Burns to help her which he did. London had been summoned and he jerked the gun out ot Shepard’s hand.

– Press Democrat, May 13, 1913



The interior of Jack London’s nearly completed new home on his ranch near Glen Ellen, was gutted by a fire that started shortly before midnight and which was still burning at 1 o’clock this morning. At that hour the fire was reported to have spread to the wooded hillside and the canyon beyond the new home.

A man employed on the London ranch told a Press Democrat representative over the long-distance telephone this morning that the origin of the fire was unknown. At the time he was ’phoning from the old house at present occupied by Mr. and Mrs. London, he said the novelist and his wife were at the scene of the fire.

The magnificent stone castle on the hillside which Jack London has been building for a long time was nearing completion and the damage done by the fire, of course, was necessarily confined to the expensive woodwork and finish that has been installed, not damaging the walls. The house was to have been ready for occupancy in the fall and a large force of men have been employed on the place.

A telephone message to The Press Democrat from Sonoma this morning also confirmed the news that it was the new London home which the fire destroyed. A fire would do considerable damage to the scenery and wooded hillsides and canyons if it spread to any extent.

At 2:30 this morning, Q. R. Wickham. of the Sonoma State Home, telephoned that he had just returned from the scene of the fire and that the entire building had been gutted, leaving nothing but the masonry standing. The fire did not spread to the timber owing to the prompt action of guards on the place when the fire was discovered.

Mr. Wickham said he talked with Mr. and Mrs, Jack London, who had been on the place up to 6 o’clock, and the foreman, who left at 8 o’clock, and none of them had the least idea how the fire originated. The loss will be very heavy.

– Press Democrat, August 23, 1913


Damage by Fire Is Estimated Between 30,000 and 40,000

The spirit of Jack London is not depressed by a fire, even if the flames do devastate the interior of a majestic castle he has been building for a couple of years on the hillside on his big ranch near Glen Ellen, occupying the most romantic spot in all the country round. The author of “The Sea Wolf” and other thrilling stories, decreed Saturday that the work of reconstruction of the castle shall commence immediately after the Insurance adjuster has inspected the premises. Be it known that Mr. London had $10,000 insurance on the castle, In three companies represented by Luther W. Burris of this city. His loss however, will be between $35,000 and $40,000, according to the estimate furnished on Saturday.

As stated Saturday morning in The Press Democrat’s account of the fire, the walls of the castle are still standing, but the interior of the building is gutted. The roof of red tile, which had just been completed, cost $6,000. The marble work, hewn and carved by the experts in that line, until its finish excelled anything like it in this state. This is where the great loss comes in, in addition to the magnificent oak and walnut and the other wood furnishings. As to the origin of the fire, it may have been the work of a discharged employee and it may not. Anyhow, it is still a mystery and when the red glow leaped from the turrets of the castle on Friday night shortly before midnight, it surprised everybody who saw it, and particularly surprised Mr. and Mrs. London, who were aroused from their slumbers in their old home some distance away with the news that the castle was burning. It was hard for people here and elsewhere to realize how a fire could do so much damage in a massive stone building and to glance up now it seems harder to imagine with the stout walls and the turreted sides still standing.

– Press Democrat, August 24, 1913

There are many people taking a peep at the standing walls of Jack London’s castle near Glen Ellen, the scene of the Friday night fire. A large number of people took a drive down to Glen Ellen for the purpose and not a few city residents motored up from the different resorts to take a look at the ravages wrought by the flames upon the interior of what was rapidly assuming shape as one of the finest country homes in the State or in the West. The insurance adjusters went out to the place on Monday to inspect the premises. London will get ail of the $10,000 called for in the policy as the loss is complete and only the walls of the building remain.

– Press Democrat, August 26, 1913

L. W. Burris, fire insurance agent of this city and H. M. Farrar, loss adjuster, visited the scene of the Jack London fire Tuesday. It was only a formal viewing of the remains as the flames of early Saturday morning left nothing except bare walls to view. There is a strong belief that the disaster was not accidental, but no clew has been extracted from the mystery. Mr. London will begin rebuilding at once. He was working on his last story, a sea yarn, the color of which he gathered in his recent voyage around Cape Horn, and he finished the last chapters two days after his rare house burned down.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 26, 1913


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Every Sonoma county schoolkid knows well the story: A suspicious fire in 1913 destroyed the mansion built for Jack London just days before the celebrity author and his wife were to move in. Rumors of arson circulated for decades until a 1995 study concluded it was started by spontaneous combustion of oily rags left by careless workmen. I completely believed that theory until I saw the newspapers from the day and began reading primary sources about the incident. Now I’m convinced it was arson after all – and it seems pretty certain whodunnit.

To begin, we have to look at problems with the 1995 report, written by a team of crack forensic investigators. Unfortunately, we can’t read the full document – neither the county nor the SSU library has a copy – although there is an 800-word summary published at the same time (some additional details can be found here). Should the whole report turn up and contain info that contradicts my assumptions I’ll gladly publish corrections here.

Their main conclusion was spontaneous combustion caused the disaster due to discarded cloths soaked in linseed oil used to finish interior woodwork. Natale Forni, masonry contractor of the project, also blamed spontaneous combustion but thought it was because of the “turpentine-saturated waste with which the woodwork had been rubbed down.”*

Turpentine? Linseed oil? Which was it? The answer is both – mixed with other ingredients. And this reveals a weakness of the 1995 top gun team: They included engineers and criminologists, but apparently no architectural historian.

Let me interrupt here to mention my other preoccupation: Old house restoration. Over the last decade my wife and I have returned Santa Rosa’s 1905 Comstock House to mostly its original condition and along the way I’ve immersed myself in the study of turn-of-the-century wood finishing methods. Just as Sherlock was always hectoring Scotland Yard detectives about different types of tobacco ash, I can bore anyone to tears about those archaic varnishing formulas (unfortunately, I can even tell you how some of them taste). Visit one of my other blogs, “Restora Obscura” for more on this topic.

As the workmen were in the final stages of finishing the woodwork, they would not have used pure linseed oil inside the house. That stuff was only applied to wood as a first coat before it was brought inside and put into place (in order to cover the back and ends of the piece as well). When it came to finish work, they would have used a recipe of linseed oil and turpentine along something else, depending on how they wanted the surface to look and be preserved. Most probably it was the old standby 1:1:1 mix of the two with beeswax, which forms a paste (think shoe polish) that fills any imperfections and polishes up beautifully.

But the 1995 investigation didn’t explore waxy rags, instead considering linseed oil alone. As stated in the summary: “A loosely piled handful of cotton rags dampened with boiled linseed oil has been shown by our experiments to be capable of self-heating to flaming ignition in a few hours.” Well, yeah, that’s a popular middle school science fair project. Visit YouTube and enjoy hours of videos showing little autoignition bonfires with linseed oil rags. (My personal fave is the one where the guy got bored because it took too long and left the smoldering pile, only to conclude the video by showing a lump of charcoal. “The wife came home and said ‘your rags are on fire.’ So. There you go.”)

Those home videos always show test rags piled on concrete driveways or in Weber grills, places where heat will collect on sunny days. That’s the other important factor in getting rags to burst into flames – the higher the ambient temperature, the more likely it is a fire will start. And the investigators emphasized that night was extremely warm: “The one striking observation of London’s neighbor was that the night of the fire was the hottest night in memory,” supposedly still over 100° after dark.

That is absolutely false. According to the weather reports in the Press Democrat and other Bay Area newspapers it was a typical August day, with highs in the low 80s. There was a light westerly wind in the afternoon and marine layer fog overnight.

The mistaken neighbor of London’s was thinking about the record-breaking heat that happened six weeks earlier with the hottest day in Santa Rosa history – 113 degrees at one o’clock, with 126 recorded in direct sun (see “HUGE WILDFIRES, DROUGHT, RECORD HEAT: THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913).”

The provable temperature gaffe and likelihood the investigators tested the wrong material are reasons enough to question spontaneous combustion as the cause. But what about arson? They concluded it was a “low probability” because there was apparently just a single point of origin – the high-ceiling dining room, where there was no certainty the fire would spread and destroy the whole building. Nor would a dedicated arsonist be content with setting a single blaze, they concluded.

It’s now understood there are six motives for arson, as defined by The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (part of the FBI). One of the motives is revenge. According to the Center’s textbook, a subtype involves personal retaliation, where the fire is “intentional, pre-meditated and targeted. Although he may sometimes set a fire impulsively…He blames his actions on conflict with others that leads to feelings of anger while setting the fires.” The fire will usually be “set using available materials found at the scene” inside buildings were there is open access.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you in the following article to Jack London’s troubled brother-in-law Captain James Shepard, who quarreled with Jack a few hours before the fire.

1 Stone, Irving; “Sailor on Horseback,” 1938, pg. 300


Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

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