Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Passing Strange

Historians, and history itself, have not treated Clarence King kindly. King was at one time one of the most famous and admired people in the United States but, if you are like me, you likely have never heard of the man. Born into a wealthy family in 1842, King became famous as the geologist responsible for surveying and mapping diverse regions of the western United States. Always the self-promoter, he published a book about his adventures, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, that became a best seller of its day and made him into a national figure. Two of his closest friends were author Henry Adams and career politician John Hay, former secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. King traveled in the highest circles of society, even dining in the White House on at least once occasion.

All of which makes even more astonishing the fact that Clarence King lived a secret life that even his closest confidants knew nothing of until King was near death or had actually passed. King’s friends were well aware that King, the sole support of his elderly mother and an extended family, was hard pressed to meet his financial obligations. His financial difficulties were so serious, in fact, that King was only able to maintain his standard of living by accepting repeated loans from John Hay and others of his friends, often offering items from his personal art collection as collateral for the money loaned to him.

What King’s benefactors and admirers did not know was that, for some thirteen years, King was living two lives: one as the famous explorer of the American West and another as the husband of a woman who, in 1861, had been born into slavery in Georgia. King represented himself to ex-slave Ada Copeland as James Todd, an extremely light-skinned black man from Baltimore whose work as a Pullman porter required him to be away from home for months at a time. In a day in which a single drop of black blood was deemed to distinguish a black man from a white one, his story was believable enough for King to be accepted into the community in which Ada bore him five children.

Clarence King loved Ada Copeland but he lied about their relationship because he feared the scandal that would result from his marriage to a black woman. He knew that by publicly acknowledging his black wife and mixed-race children he would lose his friends and any chance of earning the income necessary to support either of his families. Although Ada may have suspected that her husband had something to hide, even she did not know the extent of her husband’s secrets until his confessional deathbed letter.

Clarence King’s story is a fascinating one and Martha Sandweiss tells it well. Almost as fascinating is what happened to Ada and her children after King’s death. Ada, who lived to be 103 years old, did not die until 1964, outliving her husband by sixty-two years. Passing Strange includes an account of her determined effort during the 1930s to be recognized as King’s rightful heir and the resulting court case that explains much of what happened after his death.

If this were a movie, no one would believe it.

Rated at: 5.0

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