The Double Life of Dr. Clarence King (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part One

A nationally known figure who frequently consulted with prominent politicians, including the President of the United States,  Clarence King also served as the first director of the United States Geological Survey.     Along with his being famous as an explorer, he was also a popular writer whose books about his travels were bestsellers.    It was hardly remarable that he would be honoured for his work including being the youngest person ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1879.  By then, he was firmly established in New York City and belonged to some of the most exclusive gentlemen's clubs and New York's literary community.   During the course of his travels, he also became a legendary art collector despite most of his acquisitions ending up in the large steamer trunks he kept in the hotel suites where he stayed. 

Racial barriers during the post-Civil War era were virtually insurmountable across the United States.   Though African-Americans were avaialable for menial jobs, any kind of social interaction between them and "respectable" society was unthinkable.   While segregation is mostly associated with southern states, New York had its fair share of race incidents as well.   Jim Crow legislation designed to prevent any form of "racial mixing" would make life even more difficult for former slaves and many of the people in Clarence King's social circle wholeheartedly approved. 

For Clarence King, the double life he established for himself became amazingly easy.  After experimenting with living in his own upscale apartment with servants, he decided that living in residential hotels was much simpler.   From his various suites in exclusive hotels,  he could travel anywhere he wished, go visit his mother in Newport, or tend to business in other parts of the city with nobody being the wiser.   He also became acquainted with many members of New York's African American community although it is unclear when he first adopted the name of James Todd.  

Keeping his two lives separate meant avoiding any places where "Clarence King" or "James Todd" might be recognized by the wrong people.   That was not especially difficult in racially segregated New York though his courtship of Ada Copeland must have raised awkward questions.   What made it work was that nobody ever suspected that a respected geologist might try "passing" for a member of the African-American community.    King's Caucasian features were no drawback either with the "one drop of blood" rule in place.  Many light-skinned people were identified as African-American (or Negro using the terminology of the time) and any passing that occurred typically went in the opposite direction.

Marrying Ada in September of 1888 meant a permanent commitment to maintaining his double life.  For his friends and family, Clarence King's odd lifestyle and mysterious comings and goings raised few questions.   Still, of all the people in his old life that he tried to keep separate from his other life, the most important one was his twice-widowed mother,  Florence King.   Left destitute by the death of her second husband, Caroline had few options but to depend on her famous son for financial assistance.  

Supporting his mother and a secret family in New York City left him strained for money and he was continually on the lookout for new financial investment schemes based on his geological knowledge.    Unfortunately, most of these investment schemes failed miserably and Clarence was forced to borrow large sums of money as a result.   That he had expenses nobody else knew about, including a common-law wife and family, was carefully hidden. 

In many ways, marrying Ada allowed Clarence King to put his own ideas about racial and ethnic mixing into practice.  He genuinely believed that race did not matter and described "miscegenation" as being "the hope of the white race."     As far as he was concerned, the United States was a divided society, where different ethnic groups might constitute a nation, but not a race as such.     In a controversial 1885 essay he wrote in North American Review, he predicted that a true American culture would only be possible, "when the composite elements of American populations are melted down into one race alloy, when there are no more Irish or Germans, Negroes and English but only Americans belonging to one defined American race."   This was a provocative idea in an era when miscegenation laws banned interracial marriage in many states.   

While interracial marriages were not exactly illegal in New York, they were hardly encouraged either.   King's decision to only enter into a common-law marriage with Ada likely stemmed from the need to provide witnesses attesting to their names and racial identities, something he would have been unable to do without giving away his secret.   Still, his marriage to Ada and the birth of his children was a way of helping to foster the raceless America he supported all his life.    That Ada herself had no idea her husband was anything else beside the light-skinned porter she had married seemed beside the point. 

It still must have been a strange existence for Clarence King/James Todd.    Simply by traveling from one part of the city to another, he could switch between identities with only a few awkward incidents to mar his married life with Ada.  That she had no idea of her husband's double life was testimony enough to his success.   Even a brief psychiatric hospitalization for King in 1893 did nothing to disturb his double life.    Despite wide publicity over Clarence King's public breakdown and the months he spent in hospital as a result, Ada was unaware that the man described as an eccentric bachelor was actually her husband.   When he finally returned home to them, things seemed to be back to normal.   For a little while, anyway.

It was only with King's death that everything changed.   All the official obituaries described his numerous achievements and listed his mother as next of kin.   Nobody had any idea that Ada and her children even existed.

To be continued.




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