When Ada Copeland met the man she knew only as James Todd sometime in 1877 or 1888 (the record seems unclear on that point), it marked the beginning of what would be one of the strangest romances in the turbulent racial atmosphere that marked New York society in the late 19th century. The legal nightmare it would later spawn would drag on for years.
Certainly Ada Copeland's life story was humble enough. A former slave who had gained her freedom after the U.S. Civil War, she was working as a domestic in Manhattan when she first met the man who would become her husband. Being light-skinned herself due to her mixed race heritage, she apparently had no suspicion when James Todd told her his own life story of being a Pullman porter who spent considerable time on the road. There were few other jobs available to African-American men during that era and the prospect of settling down with a man with a good job and a steady income certainly appealed to Ada.
James Todd was also a born storyteller (and his skill at spinning stories would be apparent enough after his death). Even among African-Americans who shunned interracial relationships, marrying a light-skinned man like James seems like a step up on the social ladder. That he managed to court her without ever once introducing Ada to his friends or family somehow failed to set off alarm bells for her. She had little free time and James seemed like a good enough catch despite his being twenty years older than she was.
Under the Jim Crow laws governing most U.S. states at the time, the "one drop of blood" principle dominated racial politics. Having even a single African-American grandparent or great-grandparent meant that you were "colored" yourself. While many light-skinned people of African descent often escaped the racial prejudice facing former slaves by "passing" for white, there was nothing remarkable about James Todd being considered "colored" despite his clear Caucasian features. Why would anyone claim to be a Negro unless he really was? The idea of a Caucasian passing for African-American was so unheard-of that nobody would have considered it possible.
In September 1888, James Todd and Ada Copeland were married in a quiet ceremony at the home of Ada's aunt. Only Ada's friends and family attended and they were too polite to ask why not a single person from James' side of the family came to the wedding. Since there was no formal marriage licence, the marriage of James and Ada Tod was purely common-law but still recognized as legally valid by the state of New York. After their wedding, James and Ada settled into an apartment on Hudson Avenue in Brooklyn in a largely African-American neighbourhood. Though the apartment was decent enough, the area where their building was located was particularly run-down. Still, Ada had more freedom than she ever did before.
That James was frequently away on business was a drawback though the marriage was happy enough. They would eventually have five children together. Given the high infant mortality rate among African-American families of the time, they were particularly fortunate to lose only one of those children at the age of two. Considering the time he spent away from her, James managed to conceal many things from Ada and he was a virtual stranger to their children. He also managed to conceal one brief psychiatric hospitalization from her since it occurred during one of his long absences. Despite financial problems, of which Ada knew nothing, James Todd managed to see his family moved into a new home in 1897. Along with moving to a better neighbourhood in Flushing, New York, it also meant a middle class existence for Ada and her children, something that the former slave likely saw as a dream fulfilled
By 1901, James Todd's health had taken a turn for the worse although Ada had been carefully shielded from most of the details relating to his declining condition, including his heart attack. After leaving his family for what would prove to be the last time, he left a letter for Ada instructing her to sell the house and move the family to Toronto. Considering the recent racial rioting in New York, Ada likely had few objections. The move was finalized in May, 1901, but James Todd, probably suspectig that he was close to death, wrote Ada a letter in which he finally confessed his true name: Clarence King. Aside from this one revelation though, Ada had no idea who Clarence King/James Todd really was but the confusion was only just beginning.
On December 23, 1901, Ada Todd celebrated her 41st birthday with her children. Her husband, by whatever name he used, died the next day at the age of 59 of complications from tuberculosis. Although Ada received a telegram from his doctor providing her with the news, that was the only concession she received. It was only through the many obituaries on Clarence King that she learned exactly who the father of her children really was.
Born in 1842, Clarence R. King was born and raised in Newport, Rhode Island. His father died when he was just six years old and his mother, Florence, threw herself into overseeing her son's education. Though she remarried when Clarence was eighteen, she would remain a dominant force in her son's life. Clarence, for his part, excelled at his studies and and later graduated from Yale University with a Ph.B. in chemistry. Establishing himself as a geologist, he joined the California Geological Society (and, not incidentally, avoiding taking part in the U.S. Civil War). and became one of the best-known American geologists of the 19th century. Through numerous surveys of the then-unexplored western territories, he established himself as an adventurer, mountaineer, and palaeontologist by unearthing some of the best fossil deposits up to that time. Becoming U.S. Geologist for the Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel in 1867, he spent the next six years exploring Wyoming and much of California. He earned additional fame by exposing a major diamond hoax which saved numerous businessmen from being swindled.
Cultivating a wide circle of friends, all of whom thought of King as an eccentric bachelor, nobody had a clue that the distinguished geologist frequently chafed at the restrictions of his academic life. He certainly had a jaundiced view of society matrons and the hopeful debutantes, all of whom viewed him as a prize catch. He frequently escaped into less respectable parts of New York City to spend time in clubs and hangouts which he turned into his private sanctuary. Being able to move among different classes in society became a well-established habit for him and he did much the same whenever he traveled abroad, whether to Europe or South America.
But the full extent of his double life would only become apparent after his death.
To be continued