Monday, March 28, 2011

Martha Sandweiss, Passing Strange

This is a story of eminent geologist Clarence King (1842-1901) and the secret he kept from even his closest friends – that he led a double life. A white man from the upper classes, he had met, married, and fathered children with an African American woman.

Ada Copeland, born into slavery in Georgia, knew him only as James Todd, a black Pullman porter, whose work kept him away from home for long periods. The thoroughly researched book Sandweiss has written about them is a fascinating portrayal of post-Civil War social history.

It uses a personal story to illuminate almost a hundred years of race relations in America and the shifting legalities of the color line. Most amazing was King’s ability to pass in 1888 as a black man. In spite of his skin color, he need claim having only one black ancestor. Such was the one-drop test of white racial purity.

Clarence King, director USGS, 1879-1881
Success and distress. Were it known, of course, Clarence and Ada’s union would have scandalized not only his upper class social world, where his closest friends included John Hay and Henry Adams, both prominent figures in Washington. It would have been a blow to the professional prestige he had attained.

By the age of 30, he had been recognized as a brilliant surveyor of the mineral resources of the now-opening West. After successful expeditions well funded by the federal government, he proposed and, in 1879, was named head of the U.S. Geological Survey.

It was a secret marriage that lasted only a dozen years. King died short of his sixtieth birthday of tuberculosis, revealing to his wife only his real name but little else. A promised trust fund for herself and four children never materialized, as King died penniless and in debt.

The irony of his life was that he was the sole supporter of yet another family: his aging grandmother, his mother, and half-siblings, one of whom was in an institution for the mentally ill. While a highly respected scientist, he was unable to convert his expertise into a commercial enterprise, and he was the victim of failed investments.

Meanwhile, he kept up appearances in the social whirl of New York and Washington and was much admired for his intelligence, his wit, and a kind of Gilded Age manly grace. It was only a continuing flow of loans from his friend John Hay that kept him afloat. After he died, it was John Hay who secretly continued to provide for Ada and her children.

Pullman porter and passenger, 1880s
East vs. West. Early western novelists complain almost in unison about the corrupting influence of the civilized East. King, who spent time in both East and West, held the belief, along with other western writers, that western life was much healthier.

Its chief benefit was the absence of stress produced in an urban environment. The challenge of roughing it also helped a man recover his manhood. The so-called “camp cure” helped men toughen up who otherwise languished and succumbed to anxieties while confined in the congested cities of the East.

King thrived on the western expeditions, though he stopped short of giving up all his creature comforts. Instead of clothes suited to the open air, he dressed in his finest and kept a servant at his side – always a young black man. He also professed to being charmed by the women of color he found in the West, who seemed sensual and voluptuous by comparison with the stiff, shallow white women of his class back East.

King lived in residential hotels. Fifth Avenue Hotel, 1886
Color lines. King was of the opinion that a true “American race” would result from racial blending. The bitter differences between North and South that followed the war would be resolved in the growing dominance of the racially diverse West. (He called this process “amalgamation.” It was a neutral term already being replaced by “miscegenation,” a slur-word devised by racial purists.)

From a family of staunch abolitionists, King saw the growing anxiety around racial intermingling take the form of segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. These had their proponents in the North as well as the South. His own children in New York were barred for a time from attending a whites-only school.

Reading Sandweiss’s account of these years, it’s easy to recognize assumptions about race and color that show up in early western novels. Written for a white audience, they are often flagrant in their racial prejudices and stereotyping. Crossing the color line happens rarely, though with melodramatic effect, as in Zane Grey’s Heritage of the Desert (1910), where the hero falls in a big way for a half-breed woman.

King used Brooklyn Bridge to cross to Ada's home (1892).
Wrapping up. Sandweiss is a historian. She stumbled across this story in her other research and not until looking at census records did she (or maybe anyone) discover that King had kept his marriage secret by passing for black. A major undertaking, the book has four pages of acknowledgements and 45 pages of notes, plus an extensive index.

As a personal story, her book has a strong emotional pull. Today, when the secret lives of public figures are cause for one exposé after another in the press, reading this story is something different. It is finally unutterably sad.

By all accounts Clarence King was a principled man who lived for others. Cherished by his friends, admired and respected in his profession, he was undone by a world that denied him the simple right to marry and live openly with someone he loved.

His is also an object lesson in the psychological toll of living a double life. The emotional stress of maintaining a façade in both his lives, while confiding in no one, required him always to be living a falsehood. This daily undermining of his own sense of personal integrity, compounded by duties, obligations, and financial problems, finally broke his health. He suffered both mental and physical breakdowns.

John Hay (1838-1905), by John Singer Sargent
His is a telling story to set by that of a contemporary, the flamboyant Charles Lummis, another champion of racial equality (his biography reviewed here recently). Still, Lummis never let the ill opinion of others stand in the way of his own self-indulgence. Though married, he seems to have easily excused his sexual indiscretions.

Meanwhile, the door was open to one and all at his home, where he loved to entertain and play host to the celebrities of his adopted hometown, Los Angeles. He was a self-styled public figure in a city that seems always to have thrived on publicity.

King seems almost innocent by comparison. To have a home, it had to be in secret, where not one of his many friends was ever entertained. There was no blending here of his public and private life. To have the private, intimate life he yearned for, he had to become a stranger to all who knew him – and arguably to himself.

Martha Sandweiss is also the author of Print the Legend, reviewed here recently. Passing Strange is available at amazon and Abebooks.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: Willard Wyman, High Country


  1. It's amazing to me that he could keep his secret life secret being somewhat of a public figure.

  2. You have a knack for spotting and reviewing absorbing books. All this is new to me, even though I am familiar with King's remarkable explorations.

  3. That must have been amazing for Sandweiss as a historian, to discover such a fascinating story for the first time.

  4. Oscar, I agree. More amazing that he could invent a completely different persona for his wife and family.

    Leah, I think so, too.

    Richard, absorbing it was. Truth being stranger than fiction, it would be difficult to top this as a novel.

  5. Elisabeth, reading the book, you understand the monumental job of piecing it all together. As a university professor, she must have relied on a team of assistants scouring old documents and records.

  6. You hear about passe blanc but seldom about the other direction. THat sounds pretty fascinating.