Martha A. Sandweiss (2009) Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York, The Penguin Press, 370 pages (including 57 pages of footnotes and index), hardback, $27.95, ISBN 978-12-59420-200-1. Available through Exclusive Books, Riverwalk.
Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line is an unusual work of thorough investigation by an accomplished historian and professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, United States of America (US). Martha Sandweiss taught at Amherst for 20 years and became an expert on the history of the "American West". She has published a number of books on the frontier and now teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey. Passing Strange is at first the public story of Clarence Rivers King, one of the heroes of the American West, its so-called discovery, exploration, exploitation and naming. King's accomplishment extended to writing - he is famous for two romantic books, one on the opening of the West, the other on a search, The Helmet of Mambrino. He has been lauded by his friends and biographers in many books, with two more published in 2006. This new book bears no relation to Spike Lee's film or the two books Passing Strange, also released this year, as all three belong to the famous Stew musical. What the many studies of King failed to explore was his secret life; his true love and passions as they lay across a line that was not to be passed in the late 1800s. King kept from his friends and benefactors who he really was as he knew that in late 19th Century America any revelations concerning his double life would damage his reputation, hurt his mother and other Kings, and even impact on his hidden family.
King was a "blueblood", one of the American aristocrats, born in Rhode Island in 1842, educated in New Haven, employed in Washington and famous for his expeditions. He was loyal to his mother who led a turbulent and difficult life. His adventures and double life allowed him to escape her. As a youth he was a pacifist who avoided serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. King officially remained a bachelor all his life. His ability to vanish from his friends and relatives was made possible by their acceptance of his various escapades in the American West, in Europe and the islands. When in New York City he met people at elite clubs and at hotels that catered for long-term residents where he took rooms. He had two black employees who worked for him as his valets, often travelled with him and kept his secrets. Though he repeatedly failed as a businessman and investor King's great accomplishments were when her was young, including surveying the 40th Parallel, plotting the altitude and naming many of the high peaks in the high Sierras, and prospecting for minerals over a vast area. He became the first director of the United States Geological Survey in Washington in the 1870s. His main wealth resided in an art collection he had assembled when living in Europe for a few years. This he bequeathed to his friend and benefactor, John Hay, who became Secretary of State in Washington, DC, and who for years had covered his expenses and paid his debts. King died of TB on December 24 1901, alone in Phoenix, Arizona, where he had gone for a cure. His last words to his doctor who was treating him with heroin for the pain, were, "Very likely many a heroine has gone to a better head than mine is now" (page 241). He was not yet 60 years old. The heroine who had gone to his head was Ada Copeland, born a slave probably in 1858, at West Point in Harris County, Georgia, in the Deep South. King met and fell in love with Ada Copeland around 1887 in New York City, maybe when he was "rambling" or "slumming" in parts of Manhattan. Or did they meet crossing the footpath on the Brooklyn Bridge as the cover of this book suggests? He introduced himself as James Todd, 20-years older than her, and claimed he was a Pullman sleeping-car porter (a job reserved for blacks on the great railways that stretched across the country). He first said he was from Baltimore, later he established a new identity for his family that he was from the West Indies and now worked in a steel factory - this put him at a greater distance and made it harder for Ada to discover he was not from Baltimore and had never been Pullman porter. There were only 100 coloureds from the West Indies in New York City then
James Todd and Ada Copeland were married in a small ceremony in Manhattan in September 1888. Until then Ada had worked in white homes as a nursemaid. They were to live together for 13 years in Brooklyn and Queens, where eventually Ada "acquired a house" (but it took her 30 years after King died to become the owner). Ada, the matriarch, lived on to 103, dying in April 1964 - "she had outlived her husband by 62 years". African-Americans in New York County in 1888 were only two percent of the population. Recorded marriages between races were about 10 a year (it would never be known how many African-Americans passed as "white", crossing the colour line and then got married to whites - a study estimated in the decade of the 1890s 25,000 "passed").
Ada and King's two daughters would do this too. This was never easy as it meant denying your family who were black (in their case their mother Ada could not be present at their weddings). When King married Ada as James Todd he had no friends or relatives present because he had passed the other way, from white to black, and did not want any of them to know - they also would have blown his cover as they, reflecting their prejudices, would have reacted in horror. King was not to confess his double life until he was dying. Then he wrote to Ada telling her who he really was and that he had told one friend in confidence so he could administer a "Trust" for Ada and their four surviving children (one had died). He failed to tell her who that was, but having left the United States to live in Toronto, Canada, when she was told she was a widow and was on the way to become "Ada Copeland Todd King", she very craftily learnt who her new supporter was, returned to Flushing and resumed her life there. The politics of race was important during the later half of the 19th Century and worse in the 20th when a dichotomy black or white was enforced. King, as James Todd, wrote Ada love letters, and asked that she burn them. She kept enough to prove she was his spouse and the children were theirs.
After he died she lost some of King's letters to the executor of King's estate, ones that were even more convincing about their relationship. Thirty years later when she tried to claim her Trust (after some years of litigation and consuming eight lawyers) she learned in court hat the descendants of King's best friend and benefactor, John Hay-Hay's daughter Helen Hay Whitney and husband Payne Whitney-had continued sending monthly cheques to Ada through the Legal Aid Society. My Aunt was living on the Whitney estate in Scarsdale, New York, during the 1930s, but I never heard anything about this court case from her. Martha Sandweiss is to be commended for her investigations and historical accuracy. She carefully avoids speculation and sticks to the sparse facts she has unearthed. She does allow "what if?" statements makes cautious assumptions and carefully educated guesses, but she does not "fictionalise" or fill in missing gaps with florid details. These are left to the reader's imagination. She is hurt that King's best biographer in 1958 devoted only five pages to Ada, ignoring King's double life, and failed to interview Ada who was alive and lucid and only a mile from where he lived. Sandweiss does explore many aspects of "passing" but neglects the broader theme of "double lives", something that may be even more common worldwide.