A Paradoxical Double Life

For thirteen years, in the late nineteenth century, Clarence King lived a paradoxical double life, one as a bachelor white man and one as a married black man. The first question that comes to one’s mind is, “How is that possible?”

During the late nineteenth century, after the abolition of slavery, a number of laws were passed clearly defining which persons were black. Anyone with one black great-grandparent was considered to be a black person; one’s skin color did not matter and many light-skinned black people were able to pass themselves off as white people. Thus, in the late 1880s, blue-eyed, blond-haired, Clarence King declared himself a black person, working as a Pullman porter, when he met and was attracted to Ada Copeland, a black woman.

Martha Sandweiss, a noted historian who wrote Passing Strange, brings to life the remarkable story of two people’s diabolical lives joined together in a common-law marriage for thirteen years. This is the story of how Clarence King invented and lived a secret life for those thirteen years in order to solve his emotional need to love and be loved by a black woman.

Clarence King, born in 1842, was Yale-educated and one of the most admired men of his time, having achieved fame as an explorer and surveyor of the western part of the U.S. He was a man with many wealthy friends, one of which described him as “…the best and the brightest man of his generation.” His social life centered on numerous club memberships; he was a unique individual who could easily make friends and feel comfortable with anyone, anywhere. At night, unbeknownst to his friends, he often liked to go to “slumming,”-walking, exploring and talking with people in poverty-stricken, usually black, neighborhoods.

Ada Copeland, born around 1860, was not only a black woman; she was an ex-slave. When she met Clarence King, she met “James Todd, a black Pullman porter.” Clarence King had taken full advantage of the laws regarding the definition of a “black” person; he claimed African descent, even though it was not true. During the late 1880s it was relatively easy for someone, such as Clarence King, to adopt a secret life. “One could shed one’s personal history…to emerge new with a different name, an invented past, an imagined story…”

Throughout the thirteen years of their marriage, Clarence King lived a deceptive life, keeping his secret not only from his friends but also from his wife, Ada. Together they had five children. It was only when Clarence King was away from his family and dying of tuberculosis in an Arizona hospital did he write to Ada revealing his true identity and explaining to her he was leaving a trust fund for her and the children.

When “James Todd” died in 1901, Ada was left to raise four small children. For the next thirty years, Ada King maneuvered and struggled through the legal system to obtain access to the trust fund that Clarence King said he left for her and the children. Finally, after thirty years, her case went to trial and Clarance King’s deceptive double life became public knowledge. Ada King died in 1964 at the age of 103.

Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss, 2009, 370 pages. Ms. Sandweiss is a professor of history at Princeton University. Penguin Group Publishing, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York,10014.