“What a Tangled Web We Weave…”

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As Sir Walter Scott once put it “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” I thought of that when I finished the book pictured above, Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss. I checked it out of the library after seeing an intriguing reference to it in the book about Rudyard Kipling If that I wrote about a while back.

The book explores the double life of Clarence King, the first head of the United States Geological Survey, a scientist, an historian and a writer. King was white, of Puritan descent, privileged member of Newport, Rhode Island and member of New York elite men’s clubs. But in King’s other life, he maintained that he was an African-American railroad porter named James Todd. Under that name he met, married and had five children with Ada Copeland, a former slave from rural Georgia, living in an African-American section of New York City. Sandweiss meticulously researches both King and Copeland’s backgrounds. In King’s case much primary source material exists. For Copeland, Sandweiss has had to speculate from primary sources about women such as Copeland, but without specific source material about Copeland herself.

But clearly the fascinating aspect of the book is how it was possible for King to “pass” as black when he was to all appearances white. Here Sandweiss explains how King was able to exploit the particularly racist times of the end of the 19th century. At that time if a person had even one grandparent, and in some cases one great grandparent who was African American, the person was declared to be so also. While many “white” looking citizens with such backgrounds “passed” as white, this also allowed King to “pass” as African American.

King moved back and forth between both worlds without disclosing to either his friends or his wife his double life. Eventually the strain broke him. But Sandweiss draws back the curtain on an unexplored part of a famous man’s past. And she meticulously shows us the tangled lies King lived with in order to be with a woman it is clear he dearly loved.

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