Book review: Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss


I wrote before how I stumbled across the strange story of Clarence King (1842-1901), the first director of the US Geological Survey who for the last 13 years of his life, led a secret double life as a black man in order to marry a former slave Ada Copeland (1860-1964). I have now been able to read this fuller treatment by Sandweiss who tries to reconstruct how and why this fair-skinned, blue-eyed man managed to successfully hide his double life from all his family, close friends, and colleagues and even his wife while having five children with her, revealing his secret to her only in a final letter written on his deathbed in Arizona.

King was a boy wonder, getting an Ivy League education and making a name for himself as an intrepid explorer at a very young age because of his mapping out of the western parts of the US at a time when much was unknown. He dined at the White House, was a favorite of Congress that funded his explorations, and was a prominent part of the Manhattan social scene, highly sought after because of his magnetic personality and as a raconteur of his often embellished adventures. He was, however, not very shrewd in his personal financial affairs and seemed to be perpetually borrowing money from his more affluent friends and left his family almost nothing upon his death.

So how did he manage to keep his secret? While the details of King’s life as a prominent white man was relatively easy to reconstruct, Copeland’s life was much harder because the lives of slaves were considered so inconsequential that records were not maintained about them. Indeed many of them were not even given last names. Strangely, even though Copeland died as late as 1964, and her life with King was revealed publicly much earlier and created a minor sensation, no one seems to have bothered to conduct a detailed interview with her to obtain her life story and how she met and King and what she knew of his secret. So we know very little about her life as a child in rural Georgia and exactly when as a young woman she moved to New York city and how she met King and what she thought about this man who seemed to have no family and friends or a life of his own before he met her, and was entirely alone at their wedding.

Hence Sandweiss is working very much in the dark in detailing Copeland’s life. What she does is create a possible life story for her based on general research on the lives of slaves following the Emancipation Proclamation and that information is quite revealing about how the brutalities of slavery permeated itself into the minutest details. For example, I learned that white preachers at the weddings of slaves never said the phrase “till death do you part” because for slaves there was always the threat that if they misbehaved, they would be separated. Sandweiss thinks that Copeland followed the traditional path of coming to New York like many young blacks did in order to live a freer life, joined her church which was the center of community life for black people, took on the job of nanny for white children, and met King while on one of her afternoons off.

King himself took on the identity of James Todd, a Pullman car porter on that company’s sleeping and dining railroad cars and this enabled him to be away from home for long periods of time on his surveying work without arousing suspicion. Apparently the founder of the company recruited only freed black slaves for this job, not through any sense of wanting to help them but because he felt that his white customers would get the required feeling of receiving subservient treatment. In fact, the lightest-skinned blacks were recruited as dining car waiters while the darkest-skinned ones tended the sleeping cars.

Why did King pretend to be black and how could he succeed? We do know that King had progressive views of race and indeed thought that darker-skinned people were more attractive and dreamed of a future when there would be complete intermixing of races and colors. In America the racial line was determined less by skin-color than by ancestry and occupation and passing as light-skinned black was not difficult. Just telling people you were a Pullman car porter established you as black, whatever your skin color. Also in those days, marriage across racial lines was frowned upon by both white and black communities. As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1899, “For, while a Negro expects to be ostracized by the whites, and his white wife agrees to it by her marriage vows, neither of them are quite prepared for the cold reception they invariably meet with among the Negroes.” (p. 221) Being a light-skinned black had certain obvious advantages and could have made him more attractive to Copeland than saying he was white. For her to marry a white man may have alienated her from her community and make her unwilling to take that step, something that King must have realized when he decided to pretend to be a black man.

It requires extraordinary skill for King to pull off this double life for so long, shifting between his white professional life and black personal life. Sandweiss looks into what kind of person can pull this off.

Psychologists say that to be a successful liar, one needs three attributes: the ability to plan ahead, a talent for managing one’s own emotions, ad the capacity to read the needs of other people. Whether King invented the actual details of his alternative identity with careful forethought, the very concept of it suggested advance planning triggered by his awareness that a public relationship with a black working-class woman could destroy the web of friendships, familiar connections, and business relations that sustained his world. (p. 133)

Psychologists describe the type of person best equipped to pull off a double life as an intelligent, highly personable high achiever: a person much like Clarence King. Skilled in the psychological tools of “repression,” such a person can block out the demands and complications of one life while pursuing another. (p. 136)

This is a fascinating book but also frustrating. Because there was no interview with Copeland, we do not know the details of her meeting and life with King and how much of his secret she knew. It seems clear that she must have suspected that he had some secrets because later in the relationship she shifted in her description of his background from originally being from Baltimore to being a West Indian immigrant, but did not know he was a well-known person in the white world.

What we are finally left with, however, is a quite extraordinary love story set against the backdrop of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial segregation in America.