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

Continued from Part Two

Dr. Clarence King's funeral was held on New Year's Day 1902 with some of the most distinguished members of New York's intellectuals in attendance.   After an impressive service at the Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, his body was later taken to Newport's Island Cemetery where it was laid to rest at the family plot next to  a grave reserved for his widowed mother.    The only significant absences (not that anyone there had any knowledge of their existence) were Ada Todd and her children. 

From that point on, it was up to Ada to fight an uphill battle for some sort of recognition of her relationship with the late Clarence King.   Despite his verbal promise of a trust fund for her and her children, the only will in existence left everything to his mother and there was no mention of another family.    As for Ada, she forced to return to New York with her children and to support herself with no financial help while she tracked down one of the few friends that Clarence had who had any idea of his double life.  

While he had told Ada that he had left $80,000 with his friend, James Gardiner, Ada still had no idea how to contact him and even resorted to placing a discreet ad in the New York Herald.    To Gardiner's credit, he quickly responded by arranging for Ada and her children to move to a single-family home in Flushing and arranged for monthly payments of $65 (not a large sum but respectable in 1902 dollars).   Though Ada was under the impression that the money came from her husband's estate, it seemed largly intended as a "hush payment" to protect Florence King from the scandal of her son's interracial marriage.    She would die without ever knowing about her four mixed-race grandchildren.

There was also the matter of Clarence King's considerable financial debts, of which Ada knew nothing.  While she was under the impression that her husband had left her a large trust fund, the money paid to her came from her husband's friends and even King's large art collection needed to be sold off to pay the debts.  Though King had over $76,000 in shares in an El Paso bank, they were largely worthless after the bank collapsed in 1893.    In a 1903 probate of King's will, a judge declared that his estate contained no assets at all.

At the same time that Ada and her children were settling into their new home, James Gardiner, Henry Adams, and other members of Clarence King's circle of friends were working on a memorial for him.   Again with no input from Ada who, presumably, knew him better than anyone else.   It was Florence King who acted as editor for the essays to her son and the book, Clarence King Memoirs: The Helmet of Mambrino was published in 1904.   Many of King's out-of-print books were released at about the same time to critical success. 

When Ada visited James Gardiner and tried to take possession of the trust fund she still believed existed, she was essentially told that the monthly payments she received were contingent on her remaining silent.   If she tried to go to court, she would be cut off completely.    Along with purchasing the house Ada and her children lived in, Gardiner also arranged for her monthly cheques to be paid through the Legal Aid Society to avoid any further direct interaction.    Even finding an attorney willing to take Ada's case was a major challenge considering that she was an anonymous African American woman fighting against a prominent white man.   Along with the racial barriers,  her husband's apparent lack of assets meant that there was little to fight over in any event.

By 1909, Ada was working with prominent African American lawyer J. Douglas Wetmore in her case against James Gardiner and, after Gardiner's death in 1912, his estate.   Though little was really accomplished in terms of winning her 51bGRRE0psL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[2]financial case, she had changed her name to Ada King and would keep that name for the rest of her life.   As for her children, the light-skinned complexion they had inherited from their father would give them another legacy as many of them took advantage of their racially ambiguous appearance to try "passing" as white.    Even their marriage licenses would identify them as white with no real hint of their complex backstory.   It would be the only real legacy Clarence King would ever give them considering the relative poverty in which they grew up. 

Ada King would largely abandon her legal fight out of fear of endangering the support payments on which she and her children depended.   There is little record of her life in later years except for a legal petition in 1921 to have her son, Sidney, declared mentally incompetent due to hs schizophrenia.   He would remain an inmate at King's Park State Hospital until his death in 1944.    As for the rest of the family, they were largely living in their Flushing home with Ada as matriarch over her children and grandchildren.  

Largely because of financial concerns, Ada delayed pursuing her case against James Gardiner and the Legal Aid Society until 1931 when she was nearly seventy years old.   By this time, her children were fairly independent and she had no further reason for staying silent.    In the trial which began on November 20, 1933, Ada Copeland King finally got her day in court as she described her life with Clarence King and the strange circumstances of their marriage.     It was a complicated case which drew considerable interest in the mainstream press, little of which was complimentary to Ada.   Headlines such as "“Mammy Bares Life as Wife of Scientist”  and “Old Negress Suing Estate, Reveals Love.” became common.   Only the African-American press treated her with any sympathy.  

By the time Ada's case was heard, Clarence King had been largely forgotten by the public.   Aside from giving his name to a mountain and a lake in California, even King's books were out of print.    Also, many of the people Ada targeted in her complaint, such as James Gardiner, were already dead and their families likely had no idea who she was.   Though Gardiner's trustees managed to establish that Clarence King died with no assets, they were eventually forced to reveal the name of the "secret benefactor" who had been paying Ada's monthly payments.     The press took a renewed interest in Ada's case when they found out that this benefactor was former Secretary of State John Hay.   Hay had died in 1905 but his family had continued paying Ada to keep her quiet.    While Ada and her lawyers insisted that the money she had been receivinng actually came from Clarence King's art collection, the case ultimately went against her.    In the final settlement of the case,  the Flushing house was confirmed as belonging to her exclusively but the monthly payments were stopped completely.

Though Ada continued living in her house in Queens for the rest of her life, the loss of her monthly stipend meant more financial hardship for her and her children.   As for Clarence King, his reputation as a scientist and explorer seemed oddly "tainted" by his interracial marriage to Ada and may have contributed to his falling into obscurity.    Even King's later biographers largely ignored Ada or downplayed their marriage as much as possible.   None of them saw fit to interview Ada directly about their life together.  

Ada Copeland King died on April 14, 1964 at the age of 103.   She is buried in Flushing Cemetery, far from the Newport grave of the husband she had outlived by nearly seven decades.  The former slave had lived long enough to see the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and the gradual unraveling of the Jim Crow laws that had forced her husband to keep their marriage hidden.     Ada's two surviving children both died in 1981.    Though Martha Sandweiss' book Passing Strange: A Guilded Tale of Love and Deception Across The Colour Line provides a balanced look of what we now about about Clarence and Ada King, too many of the details surrounding their strange life together have been long since forgotten.  

Ultimately, stories like this one seem to be a natural consequence of a society divided across rigidly defended racial barriers.   While these barriers have largely been eroded by social progress, the legacy they left behind still mark us today.


Related Stories

  • The Double Life of Dr. Clarence King (Part 1 of 3)
  • The Double Life of Dr. Clarence King (Part 2 of 3)
  • The Trial of George Spencer


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