Clarence King’s ancestry went back to Alfred the Great, the Magna Carta, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There was no doubt about King’s Anglo roots. But people believe what they want to, and pale, blue-eyed King lived a double life as a white man and a black man, which spanned the breadth of New York society.
King’s mom was only 15 years old when she got married, and her 21 year old husband was already an established businessman. King was born while his father was in China on business, and he was raised with the help of a colored nanny. When King was only six his dad died in China. The family also lost two baby girls leaving only mother and son.
A pattern of financial troubles and sickness that would follow King for the rest of his life started in 1856 in Canton, China when the family business was destroyed by mobs who hated foreign-owned businesses, and King’s mom was left almost destitute. Three years later, 17-year-old King dropped out of high school before graduating, giving the vague reason as “illness.” He moved to Brooklyn to work for a flour merchant. He and his mother always remained close, but she remarried a widow and had a second family.
King might have been considered bi-polar. He was prone to depression, a source of future illness, and yet very sociable. His friends characterized him as smart, compassionate, well read, an excellent conversationalist and story teller, and a good writer. Politically he was a staunch abolitionist.
THE CALL OF THE WILD With the financial help of his step father, King went to Sheffield Scientific School which offered the best scientific training in the country. He received a Bachelor’s degree in 1862. After graduation, he and some buddies immediately set off for Lake Champlain to row from New York into Canada. Not realizing that a draft had been instituted to fulfill the Union quota for soldiers, they were surprised to be stopped at the border as suspected draft dodgers. They managed to convince the inspector that they were not avoiding the draft and finished their trip. King was adamantly against slavery, but he was also a pacifist. When the adventurers returned home, King headed to California to do some mountain climbing and feed his curiosity about geology, conveniently escaping his need to enroll in military service.
King, along with two friends, may have avoided the dangers of war, but he had some harrowing experiences that were equally as life threatening. Near Fort Kearney, Nebraska King hired a guide to take him on a buffalo hunt. After chasing a bull for almost two miles, King shot the animal, and it turned and charged King’s horse which fell on top of him. A buffalo herd a mile and a half long rushed by him, parting just enough to avoid the horse which had King pinned to the ground, keeping him from being trampled.
King and his best friend James Gardiner found ways to earn just enough money to make their way to San Francisco, and King joined the California State Geological Survey as an unpaid assistant geologist. King and the others on their expeditions worked in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and named Mount Tyndall, Mount Whitney, Mount Gardiner and Mount Clarence King after themselves.
NOT FOR LOVE OR MONEY After a trip to Nicaragua in 1865, where King got malaria, he stayed at mom’s house to recover before going west again. He returned to New York a year later when his stepfather died, leaving his mom with three children to raise, several servants to support and no money. King borrowed money from Gardiner to help with the immediate needs.
In 1867, King was appointed U. S. Geologist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, and he successfully lobbied for federal funds to conduct his survey. His salary was $250 a month, and he hired Gardiner as a member of his crew. Despite the rugged environment, King preferred to dress the part of boss by wearing linen with silk stockings and low shoes. During their first season, King and his team surveyed 12,000 square miles and collected over 3,000 specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils.
In Virginia City, Nevada, both King and Gardiner fell in love, and in April 1868 King announced his engagement to Ellen Dean, a teacher. But in September when Gardiner married Josie Rogers, something was wrong, and King didn’t even show up to his best friend’s wedding. A few months later when they all convened back in Washington D.C. King was acting despondent. He wrote in a journal that loyalty to mother and God trumps passion.
After a third season surveying along the Fortieth Parallel, King earned his reputation as a captivating storyteller. He had essays published in the Atlantic Monthly, and in 1872 he published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, tales of his adventure peppered with social commentary. It was so popular that it went through nine printings in two years.
The book may have made King popular, but apparently it did not make him rich. He needed money to help his family, so he testified as an expert witness for a California mining company for $5,000. Then in late 1873, he ended up back in New York to set up the survey laboratory. He was resigned to being city bound and would express his restless in a different way, the beginning of his double life.
AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY By day King worked hard at the tasks at hand, but at night, either alone or with a friend, he went “slumming” around the neighborhoods of the poor and ethnically diverse. He was not looking for sexual experiences or to gawk or assert his superiority. King saw especially the African American neighborhoods as a frontier to explore, and in the cover of darkness he could experience cultures forbidden to him in his mainstream life.
King was recognized for his contributions in geology when the United States Senate confirmed his nomination as the first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in April 1879, a position he held for almost two years. In 1881 King resigned in order to oversee several mining interests. When most of them became losing propositions, he went to Europe to find investors. He was nominally successful, but he did amass an impressive art collection which he either lent to friends or placed in storage in New York.
When he returned to New York in 1884, he rented rooms in various elegant residential hotels and belonged to several social clubs. This arrangement allowed him the maximum freedom to come and go for long periods of time, often without telling his friends when he was leaving. Although he had embedded himself in New York society, he was not at all attracted to the women of that class. He preferred more “natural” women who were not obsessed with fashion, as he put it, with whom he could have a deeper conversation. On one trip to California he had a relationship with a Native American named Luciana who came very close to his ideal. Back in New York, King was haunted by her memory, and his friends gave up trying to find dates for him.
TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH Sometime in late 1887, King met a woman named Ada Copeland, probably while he was slumming around New York at night. There is no record of their meeting or courtship. She was an African American who had migrated from Georgia to New York as a single woman and lived with a widowed aunt doing laundry in their home until she got a job as a nanny. She was probably in her mid to late 20s when she met King, but she didn’t have a birth certificate to confirm her age.
The couple fell in love, but since interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the country, King introduced himself as James Todd, a Pullman car porter from Baltimore. This was the only identity she ever knew. King’s proficiency at storytelling served him well, and Copeland never doubted his veracity. Despite his light complexion and eyes, by choosing that profession, it was assumed that he had black blood in him, and the presence of any amount of black blood, despite appearances, was enough to be considered Negro.
Ada Copeland became Mrs. James Todd in September 1888 in a small religious ceremony at Copeland’s aunt’s home. Since they did not get a civil marriage license, they only had a common law marriage which had legal ramifications later in life. There were only a few guests at the ceremony, and none of the groom’s family or friends attended or even knew about it.
Being married allowed Todd to move up in status and it allowed King to have a real home somewhere. He set her up in an apartment in Brooklyn giving her an unusual amount of independence and privacy for a black woman. But for King, supporting his mother’s household and a wife became very expensive, and the demands on his wallet were exacerbated when he and Todd had children. There was a boy, Leroy, who was born only a year after they married and then died when he was about two. By 1897 the family had grown to two girls and two more boys. All of the children were called “colored” on their birth certificates.
Children made for a happy family, but it added to his burden of debt. King borrowed money from John Hay, one of his dearest friends he met when he worked in Washington, D.C. When they met, Hay was the assistant secretary of state, and then became President Lincoln’s private secretary. King appealed to Hay for a loan, something he would do many times, and within the first year and a half of his marriage, King was $43,000 in debt.
FOR RICHER OR POORER, IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH Both King’s private and professional lives were very full. He received an honorary doctorate from Brown University, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in Europe dealing with mining projects. He had perfect alibis for whenever he wasn’t around. His wife believed he was traveling across the country on a train working as a porter. While he was gone, he wrote passionate love letters to her, and there were joyful reunions upon his return. His friends and business colleagues thought he was with his mother or had disappeared for a while because of his depression. When he did visit his mother, he kept the truth about his indebtedness from her. When he confided his fears and feelings about life to his friends, particularly Hay, he talked about everything except his family. He kept that a well guarded secret.
King’s financial situation continued to worsen. In 1886 he had organized the national Bank of El Paso and, as the main stockholder, he appointed a friend as the bank president. In 1893, the friend’s bad management caused the bank to fail, and King lost everything. The burden of living a double life and increased debt started taking its toll. That fall, a disheveled, bearded King was arrested at the Central Park zoo for disorderly conduct. He had gone into a wild rage, but he was released on bail posted by a former classmate who worked at the facility. King was then examined by two doctors who diagnosed him as exhibiting acute symptoms resulting from a non-specific mental disturbance. The doctors and three friends sought help in dealing with King, and a judge committed him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane. The cost of his treatment was paid for by two friends who visited him almost every day.
In January 1894, after two months in Bloomingdale, King was declared “recovered” from “Acute Melancholia.” He had had no contact with his wife while he was institutionalized, and then almost immediately left for a business trip to the Caribbean. He didn’t arrive back in New York until May before heading out to California again. To help alleviate some of his financial burden, King started selling off some of f his art collection.
Life for the “Todd” family got easier while it got worse for King. Todd spent the money she received on the family, moving up the ladder into more middle class neighborhoods and adding a nanny, music teacher, cook, maid and laundress to the payroll. King had a mild heart attack in 1897 while in Colorado. Perhaps he suspected that something would happen because in his correspondence to his wife he admonished her to keep their relationship a secret and to burn his letters.
King went to Arizona next where he contracted whooping cough, and the doctor found a spot of tuberculosis on his lung. He kept traveling, exacerbating the condition, and when he went back to New York to visit his family and his mother, there was a feeling that it might be the last visit. King told Todd to move the family to Toronto and to buy a house with the money he had gotten from friends, which she did.
Again King went to Arizona for the climate. He had another heart attack and ventured to Pasadena, California to find a doctor who could help him. He had lost 40 pounds and was plagued by headaches caused by fever. Hay continued to send money to support his friend. King, sensing the beginning of the end, started to evaluate his life, wondering why someone as intelligent as himself was such a financial failure, a question his friends had been asking themselves for a long time.
TIL DEATH DO US PART King went once more to Arizona in a desperate attempt to recover. He admittedly knew that was impossible, so he finally unburdened himself and wrote a letter to Todd revealing his true identity and the deception he had kept from her for 13 years. He suggested she write his real name in her Bible in case she forgot it.
On December 23, 1901, Todd celebrated her 41st birthday in Toronto. On December 24, King died in Arizona, one month before his 60th birthday. He had told his wife that he had provided for the family after his death, but the only will he had was written before he got married, making his mother the beneficiary. Because King and Todd only had a common law marriage, she was not entitled to anything.
For all of King’s accomplishments and failures, his life choices were a living illustration of what he believed: “People are looked at in only two ways, with the brain and with the heart. If you take the former method you initially classify and judge people by their differences with other people usually yourself. If you see them with the heart you have your conceptions on the similarities between them and some other people usually yourself.”1
QUESTION: What do you believe in so strongly that you would have it influence your life choices?
©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
1Sandweiss, p. 173.
Sandweiss, Martha A., Passing Strange, A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.
http://www.summitpost.org/mount-clarence-king/150502 (A description of Mount Clarence King)