Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The Double Life of Clarence King – Podcast #48

Before we start, I should tell you that this is one of my favorite stories for two reasons. First, my college degrees are in Geology, so Clarence King the geologist is someone that I was already a big fan of. But the second part of this story, which really only became more widely known in the past couple of years, is his fascinating secret double life.

So, let’s start with the part that I am most familiar with. That is Clarence King, the geologist. In the late 1800’s he was one of the world’s preeminent scientists and lived in a world of supposed wealth and prestige. I cannot tell you for sure when I first learned about Clarence King, but I suspect that it was during the first structural geology course that I took at the University at Buffalo as an undergraduate. Those courses were taught by another King – Dr. John King – who loved to tell fascinating stories to enhance his teaching just like me.

Every story begins somewhere, and I will begin this one in Newport, Rhode Island on January 6, 1842 when Clarence King was born. His father’s family emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637. His great, great grandfather was a guy named Benjamin King who had reportedly helped another Benjamin – Mr. Electricity himself, Benjamin Franklin – with his early electrical experiments.

Clarence was basically raised by his mother Florence. When Clare was 6, his dad died while overseas working for his family’s trading company. The company, which had a shadowy connection to the Chinese opium trade, went belly-up during a Chinese uprising in 1856, leaving Florence with little of anything to raise Clarence. She did remarry in 1860, which financially allowed for Clarence to study chemistry at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University.

In 1863, with the United States involved in a bloody civil war, Clarence was nowhere to be found. He had turned his interests to geology and headed west with his friend James Gardiner to join the California State Geological Survey. With basically no field experience to speak of, just what most people would consider book knowledge at this point, King was appointed to be an assistant geologist within days of arriving in San Francisco. They really had nothing to lose – they hired him for absolutely no pay.

Clarence King at the age of 27. The image appeared on page 137 of the book Clarence King Memoirs: The Helmet of Mambrino (1904)
Clarence King at the age of 27. The image appeared on page 137 of the book Clarence King Memoirs: The Helmet of Mambrino (1904)

King, along with his friend James Gardiner and three other men, set out to explore the southern peaks of the Sierra Mountains. It was here that King and Gardener conceived the plan that would ultimately bring King fame. At the young age of twenty-five, King went to Washington in 1867 to propose doing a geologic survey along the 40th parallel of the United States. That is roughly the distance from Denver, Colorado to Sacramento, California. Funds were approved and King assembled a team to do the conduct the survey.

In 1870 King discovered an active glacier on Mount Shasta, which he named the Whitney glacier after Josiah Whitney – the head of the California Geologic Survey – the survey that hired King in the first place. This was a significant discovery since no glacier had yet been discovered in North America. In fact, other experts in the field at the time thought it was an impossibility.

Suddenly King was in demand to give talks and write magazine articles on his geologic findings. Not only was King a great geologist, but he was also a great storyteller. Starting in May 1871, a number of his essays appeared in Atlantic Monthly and were a great success. Soon after, a collection of his essays was collected into a book titled “Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada” and it was a runaway bestseller. It went through nine printings within its first two years of publication.

King was now a celebrity, but he would soon achieve even greater fame. In the summer of 1872, while the 40th parallel team was doing their last season of fieldwork, rumors of a vast discovery of diamonds had been circulating around San Francisco. The diamonds supposedly had the potential to generate more riches than any of the great gold discoveries of the West. A mining expert named Henry Janin laid claim to the discovery and estimated that more than a million dollars worth of gems could be mined each month.

Word eventually reached Clarence King and he decided to go with a couple of other men to check it out. What they found was that it was all a big fraud. The stream and surrounding field had been salted with diamonds and other gems. King raced back to San Francisco and confronted Janin with his evidence.

King had saved prospective investors from investing vast fortunes into a fraudulent scheme. King had saved the nation from an economic bubble that was sure to burst and bring the US economy down with it. King was now not just a famous author and scientist, he was now an American hero.

Upon completing the geologic survey and returning to New York, King was a celebrity and numerous honors were given to him, including being the youngest person ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1879 he was appointed as the first director of the United States Geological Survey but resigned from the position just two years later so that he could pursue work and investments in the potentially more lucrative world of private industry. While King was a great geologist, he was a poor businessman and was constantly forced to take loans from his rich friends to cover his expenses.

Clarence King. This image appeared in the 1904 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.
Clarence King. This image appeared in the 1904 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.

But Clarence King was a man of great mystery. After a typical day’s work was done and his social obligations were completed, he would just disappear. What few people knew was that King liked to go slumming. You know, head out into the darker, steamier, sleazier parts of town at night. This went on for years. Where he went and what he did was not known, at least not until he was on his deathbed.

And this is where the story gets interesting. At some point between 1887 and 1888, Clarence King met a nursemaid named Ada Copeland in Manhattan and fell in love. Falling in love is nothing unusual, but Clarence King was a white man with blue eyes and Ada was a black woman. What we would consider a normal relationship today – you know – dating, marriage, kids, and everything else that goes along with that – was not possible in the late 19th century between people of two different races. Just imagine the scandal that would have erupted if the public learned that the famous geologist Clarence King was involved with a black woman.

So, King hid his identity from Ada Copeland. He invented a whole new person. Clarence King now became a black man named James Todd. He claimed that he was a Pullman porter, which was a job only given to black men and carried great prestige at the time. It was the perfect cover for King, since being aboard a Pullman train could explain why he was gone for extended lengths of time, such as on geological surveys and trips abroad. Working on a railroad could take you away from home for long periods of time.

By day, he was the white celebrity geologist Clarence King and by night the black Pullman porter James Todd. King never allowed the two worlds to ever cross.

You are probably wondering how he pulled off being a black man. It was actually quite simple. Back then, if you had even one drop of black blood somewhere in your ancestry, you were considered black. It didn’t matter what King looked like, since just saying you were a black man back then was enough proof that no one would question it. While many light-skinned black people got away with being white, it was inconceivable that any white person would want to pass themselves off as black.

James Todd and Ada Copeland exchanged wedding vows in a civil ceremony in September 1988 and had five children. He maintained this double life until his death 13 years later.

It was as Clarence King that he earned his income, but it was his life as James Todd that seemed to bring him the most enjoyment. King lost all of his money during the 1893 financial panic and was never financially solvent again. He constantly borrowed large sums of money from his rich friend in Manhattan, but his middle-class family was never aware that this had taken place.

In late 1901, King was on his deathbed in Prescott, Arizona and wrote a letter to his wife Ada to let her know his true identity. His will, written two years before his marriage to Ada, left what little he had to his mother. But King told Ada that he had sent $80,000 (that’s ??? in today’s money) to his longtime friend James Gardiner so that she would be set for life.

But things didn’t work out that way. Initially, she received a monthly stipend, and her house was bought and paid for. When Gardiner died in 1912, payments continued, but Ada had no clue who was sending them. She decided to go to court to gain control of her husband’s estate.

After numerous attempts and lawyer after lawyer, Ada finally got her day in court on November 20, 1933 – that’s thirty-two years after her husband died – and this would prove to be a big mistake.

It was determined in court that there was no trust fund. Instead, there was some secret benefactor taking care of her expenses. It turns out that the money originally came from King’s friend former US Secretary of State John Hay. When Hay died, his wife continued the payments. Then, when she died, her wealthy son-in-law Payne Whitney continued them and when he died, his widow also did so.

Now that it was in court, the monthly payments abruptly stopped, although they did let her keep her home. It is generally believed that she only received the payments as a sort of hush money – to keep the fact that Clarence King was married to a black woman secret. Once the cat was out of the bag, that was the end of it.

I just find it amazing that King could keep his two lives so separate that they never intermingled at the slightest. Personally, I think that Ada did know more than she ever revealed about her husband and that some of King’s closest friends knew about the relationship, but that is pure speculation on my part.

Ada may have lost her income, but she lived an exceptionally long life. She died on April 14, 1964, at the age of 103, sixty-two years after her husband Clarence King – I mean James Todd – died.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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