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Originally published Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Passing Strange:" racial deception in the name of love

"Passing Strange" is historian Martha Sandweiss' strange but true tale of an accomplished 19th-century white man who "passed" for black so he could marry his true love, a black woman.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line"

by Martha Sandweiss

Penguin Press, 368 pp., $27.95

In the late 1800s, Clarence King was a figure of public renown. He was a mining consultant with jobs all over North America. He had founded the U.S. Geological Survey, mapped part of the Sierra Nevada, argued in journals of geology about the age of the Earth, hobnobbed with the secretary of state and dined in the White House. He was also a white man who had a secret life in which he pretended to be black.

In "Passing Strange," Martha Sandweiss, professor of history at Princeton University, undertakes to tell the story of King's secret marriage to an African-American woman.

A modern reader will ask how a white man with light hair and blue eyes could pass as "colored" for 13 years. A reader of Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson," written in 1894, will know: Anyone with one drop of "African blood," no matter what he looked like, was considered colored. Such a person might pass as white, but he was breaking the "one-drop rule."

King undertook to pass as black. At 47, he met Ada Copeland, 28, a nursemaid, telling her he was a Pullman porter named James Todd. He married her and they became Mr. and Mrs. Todd, while his associates continued to know him as the famed geologist Clarence King, resident of a Manhattan hotel.

In an age with no TV, few published photographs and no worry about driver's licenses, bank cards or computer databases, he could get away with it. The America of that time offered less racial tolerance but more privacy.

For Sandweiss, that is a problem. Clarence King left a trail of correspondence and records. "James Todd" didn't. And Ada Copeland is almost a blank.

The chapter devoted to her says she was born in West Point, Ga., that she moved as an adult to New York, that she had a relative there, that she joined the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and that she became a housemaid.

Those are all the facts specific to her in 19 pages.

The rest is general history, the place and time. Lacking the specifics, the reader is asked to imagine them: "Ada most likely lived with the family that employed her. ... She likely had a dark and poorly ventilated living space."

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In letters to his friends, King expressed an attraction to women of brown skin. He was known to go on walks at night into the African-American quarter. But he said nothing to friends about Ada. How he met her is left to the imagination.

He was loyal to her, and she to him. He supported her and wrote her passionate letters, and she bore him five children. King was gone most of the time, ostensibly as a railroad man and actually as a mining consultant — once staying for 10 days in Seattle at the Rainier Club.

In 1900 he caught tuberculosis and died. From his death bed in Arizona he wrote his wife and told her who he was.

While he was alive, Ada didn't know the public man, Clarence King — and the reader of this book will know only a few documented details of the private life of "James and Ada Todd."

The reader has to imagine almost all of it — and as Sandweiss skillfully describes the social life of black maids, men who lived in Manhattan hotels, how people "passed" for a different race, the work of imagination becomes easier and easier, even on such an improbable story.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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