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The writer in the pen; News Book Club story brings to light an 1893 ledger documenting Jack London's jailbird days in Erie County

An original handwritten ledger entry documenting author Jack London's life-changing run-in with the law in Western New York in 1894 has been found, carefully preserved in the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.


"We are required to keep these prisoner books forever, and we have them all the way back," said Timothy Love, chief of operations of the Erie County Correctional Facility, as he and Thomas J. Diina, first deputy superintendent of the Jail Management Division of the sheriff's office, examined the large, heavy ledger. On Page 262, 12 lines from the bottom, the name "John Lundon" appears in neat copperplate handwriting.

After a new biography, "Wolf: The Lives of Jack London," by James L. Haley, was picked as The Buffalo News Book Club selection for February, Chris Clark, a sheriff's office retiree and unofficial historian, wondered whether any of the old ledger books from the Buffalo penitentiary might still exist.

"You may want to check for a ledger and see if you can confirm just what Jack was up to when the law caught up with him!" Clark suggested in an email.

A brief search turned up the ledger, which is bound in leather and covered with a close-fitting canvas cover, stenciled "Record of Prisoners 1893," the year it was started.

In his book "The Road," London wrote about his arrest and the 30 days he served in the Erie County Penitentiary.

After leaving a movement of unemployed men who were heading to Washington to protest joblessness, London, 18, visited Niagara Falls on the evening of Thursday, July 28. He wrote, "Once my eyes were filled with that wonder-vision of down-rushing water, I was lost. I could not tear myself away "

After a while, London left the falls to find a place to sleep. Somehow he had developed, he writes, "a 'hunch' that Niagara Falls was a 'bad' town for hoboes," and he was right. That very morning, the Buffalo Courier reported that "vags, tramps and prostitutes who have no place of residence find Prospect Park an agreeable place to stay on these warm summer nights. There were several persons in the police court this morning who lodged in the park last night and they were peremptorily dealt with."

London avoided arrest that night by walking "out into the country," and bedding down in a field. Just after sunrise Friday, he walked back into the city to see the falls again when he met three men, one of whom was a police officer. When London could not tell the man the name of the hotel where he was staying, "I was 'pinched,' " London wrote. "With that 'fly-cop' and the two hoboes at my heels, and under the direction of the former, I led the way to the city jail. There we were searched and our names registered. I have forgotten, now, under which name I was registered. I gave the name of Jack Drake, but when they searched me, they found letters addressed to Jack London. This caused trouble and required explanation, all of which has passed from my mind, and to this day I do not know whether I was pinched as Jack Drake or Jack London. But one or the other, it should be there to-day in the prison register of Niagara Falls. Reference can bring it to light."

Although police blotters from that time are still kept in Niagara Falls, the one that included London's arrest is missing. No Niagara Falls Court records from 1891 to 1895 can be located; a staffer suggested that they might have been damaged by a water leak and discarded.

>'Shut up!'

London wrote that he was held in a large cell in the Niagara Falls City Jail until 16 people were assembled and the group was marched up to Police Court, where they stood before Judge Charles Piper.

Each prisoner's name was called, the charge read and the sentence of 30 days imposed, with each case taking some 15 seconds. London braced for his own encounter with the judge.

"They are poor dumb cattle, I thought to myself. But wait till my turn comes; I'll give his Honor a 'spiel.' [M]y American blood was up. Behind me were the many generations of my American ancestry. One of the kinds of liberty those ancestors of mine had fought and died for was the right of trial by jury. This was my heritage, stained sacred by their blood, and it devolved upon me to stand up for it. All right, I threatened to myself; just wait till he gets to me.

"He got to me. My name, whatever it was, was called, and I stood up. The bailiff said, 'Vagrancy, your Honor,' and I began to talk. But the judge began talking at the same time, and he said, 'Thirty days.' I started to protest, but at that moment his Honor was calling the name of the next hobo on the list. His Honor paused long enough to say to me, 'Shut up!' The bailiff forced me to sit down."

An article from the Niagara Falls Gazette that morning reported, "An unusually large grist of 'vags' and 'Weary Williams' confronted Judge Piper this morning. The army of wanderers are evidently finding poor fare in the rural districts and are turning their attention to the cities "

"John Lundon" was listed as one of eight tramps sentenced to 30 days in the Erie County Penitentiary.

London was chained to his fellow prisoners and marched to the train station, "stared at by curious passers-by, and especially by a group of tourists on the veranda of a hotel that we marched past."

The chain gang took the train to a station "about five miles from Buffalo." London wrote, "I do not remember the name of this station, but I am confident that it is some one of the following: Rocklyn, Rockwood, Black Rock, Rockcastle, or Newcastle."

After a short streetcar ride, the group was led into the old Erie County Penitentiary, which stood from 1847 to 1923 on Fifth Street between Pennsylvania and Root Streets in Black Rock. The site of the jail is now under the Niagara Thruway.

Diina and Love also located a photo of the old penitentiary in which London served his time. Walls along the Erie Canal enclosed several tall brick buildings.

London wrote that the prisoners "were led into the office of the Erie County Penitentiary. Here we were to register, and on that register one or the other of my names will be found."

Nearly 118 years later, the name "John Lundon" is clear and legible on the wide page. Each prisoner's name was written on a line that stretched across both pages of the opened book. London's crime was listed as "tramp."

London gave his occupation as "sailor," stated that his mother and father were both living, and that he could read and write. "Well, we know that," quipped Diina as he examined the ledger.

While most of the prisoners listed their religion as either "C" for Catholic or "P" for Protestant, London and one other man on the page of 43 identified themselves with an A for atheist.

The ledger that contained London's name stayed in the old penitentiary until it closed in 1923, when it was moved to the prison's new site in Alden, at what is now Wende State Correctional Facility. It and the other ledgers were moved again in 1986 to the current site of the Erie County Correctional Facility.

"The records were maintained and moved along as the jail changed locations," Diina said. "They have been kept in a climate-controlled storage room."

>'Chance to fade away'

London wrote bitterly of his time at the jail. But after a few days, he wrote, his situation improved.

On the train from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, London befriended an older man who was an ex-con. His advice helped London retain some of his possessions when he was processed into the jail. For two days after he entered, London worked unloading canal boats, "carrying huge stay-bolts on our shoulders, like railroad ties, into the prison." But then, due to the influence of his new friend, London was promoted to trusty or hall-man, whose jobs included serving food.

As the days passed, the once indignant London "grew meek and lowly. Each day I resolved more emphatically to make no rumpus when I got out. All I asked, when I got out, was a chance to fade away from the landscape."

After 30 days, the group was freed. London and his new friend begged for some pennies on "the main drag" of Buffalo, then entered a saloon. With beer on the bar before them, London made "a swift sneak" out the back door, jumped a fence, and headed for the railyard. "A few minutes later I was on board a freight and heading south on the Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad," he wrote.

The trauma of the injustice he suffered in Niagara Falls and Buffalo never left London. He talked about it for the rest of his life -- and included the story in an essay titled "How I Became a Socialist" in 1903.

In "Wolf," Haley wrote that London realized that "physical labor was leading him only to the bottom of the indigents' pit That was when he turned all his faculties toward becoming a writer."

So while his Buffalo experience was difficult for London, it also shaped his future, leading to his life's work of 44 books, along with short stories, essays and plays. London was suffering from kidney disease and other painful ailments when he died at age 40 in 1916.

And the ledger that documents one of the worst periods of London's life will be carefully handled. "I have no plans to return the Record of Prisoners book to storage, but am planning on finding a suitable means of preserving and displaying it," said Diina.