Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The 1860 Census, Mrs. Marks, and Ottilia Assing

Alas, some time has passed since my last post, what with the research, and the moving, and the moving again, and the moving yet again but across the ocean and then the writing of papers and the writing of a book and so forth. This little blog kind of got left out of the fun. Yet, I still have so many little, silly observations and things to share.

Here is one. When I was researching in the Walter O. Evans Collection in Savannah, he showed me a framed letter. He didn't think it was of much use because it had been mounted and framed with Douglass's picture by the seller, and he had bought it early in his collecting days. On the face of it, the letter wasn't on the level of, say, the one from Lewis Douglass, written to his fiancee' the night before the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry Volunteer Infantry stormed the barricades at Fort Wagner (that's the final scene of the film Glory, if you want a reference point). The letter was just a note from Douglass to "Mrs. Marks" saying that, no, he had heard nothing from their friend, Ottilia Assing.

Ottilia Assing was a German Jewish journalist who was friends with Douglass for about 20 years. The German, American Studies scholar Maria Diedrich wrote about this relationship in her 1999 book, Love Across Color Lines. I could go into this book and its methods and conclusions, but not yet. Suffice to say that there are some contradictions, but I'm not sure how important they are until I see the documents on which much of the book is based, and those documents are written in German handwriting and living in Krakow. Let's just take the conclusions as they are. The conclusions say that Douglass and Assing had an extra-marital affair for those twenty years. Any mention of it could be a clue toward fleshing out parts of the story. So, I made a note to investigate Mrs. Marks, which also served to let me engage in my fantasy of being a mystery novel detective.

I had come across Mrs. Marks, who turned out to be a different person, in another document in the Post Papers up in Rochester before I finally sat down and focused on her. Since Douglass had written to her in connection with Assing, I looked in the index of Diedrich's book. There she was, "Marks, Mrs., 143, 217, 218, 260, 275." Turns out she was Assing's landlady in a house on Washington St. in Hoboken, NJ. Assing boarded there with Marks, her daughter, and other boarders from 1857 until 1865. She supposedly gave Douglass shelter as he escaped from arrest after being implicated in the Harper's Harpers Ferry raid, and she supposedly had no problem with two unmarried people engaging in open miscegenation under the same roof as her adolescent daughter.* 

I wanted to know more about Mrs. Marks. Why, for instance, was she no longer able to provide Assing with a home? Who else was living in the boarding house? What was her first name? None of this was probably going to end up in the book, but I just can't stop my impulse to annotate a letter.

If you have not already, or if you don't have access to a good genealogical library, or if you don't have a friend with a subscription, get one to HeritageQuest, available in many public libraries, is not as good. In HeritageQuest, you have to write the name correctly, or at least as it is spelled in the document, and it will only return the head of household's name for the U.S. census. will think a little more creatively for you and turn up variations on the spellings, names, and places and provide you with a list of alternate possibilities. That is much better because databases of public documents have all sorts of variables that will make the name you are looking for appear much differently in the database than in your notes. The transcriber may not be familiar with abbreviations of names, the handwriting on the document may be so impenetrable that one person's guess about the name as good as another's, the census taker or other bureaucrat may have written the name differently or phonetically, and so forth. Ages are always fun, as are skin colors. Anna Douglass, for instance, is never consistently older than her husband. Ruth Cox Adams was mulatto in one census and black in another. Sally Hemings was white the one time she appeared. We aren't even getting into the people who weren't at home the day the census taker showed up. They didn't try to track people down in those days like they do now.

All of this is to say that I had some difficulty with Mrs. Marks. I knew where to find her at one point in time, but she would not show up there. She actually showed up at other times, but not where she was supposed to be when she was supposed to be, or anywhere else during that time. So, I began to look for variations on her name. Then, I began to look for any female with a name beginning with M living in Hoboken. Finally, I just resorted to scrolling through each page of the 1860 U.S. Census for Hoboken. Do I know how to spend a Saturday night,  or what?

This is what I found:

Here is the closeup of the relevant part:

The head of household is "Clara Morse" and one of the people in the household in "Otilla Hassie," who is also listed as a male. Now, I know from the census before and after this that Mrs. Marks is named Clara, and I know that she has a daughter named Pauline, and I have a questionable source that says Assing taught music (which is the profession that she has listed here) and was from Hamburg (her place of birth listed here). All of the ages match with those of the other sources. So, is this my Mrs. Marks and Ottilia Assing?

Incidentally, the Neel or Neil Douglas a the bottom there, doesn't have any aspects of his description that match any aspect of Frederick Douglass's description except the phonetic spelling of the last name. Wouldn't that be interesting if it were otherwise? No, Douglass was back at home in Rochester with his family, for perhaps the only time in the census with no boarders in his house.

Of course, the census taker misspelled Rosetta's name as "Rosana" and Lewis as "Louis." This is why a good historian should always corroborate their sources.
* As did the Koehler family, with whom Assing boarded after she left Marks's home. I would jest "those Germans and their libertine ways!" but that seems to be the argument in answer to that question. Apparently, no one, including Douglass had that problem, either. Those Victorian New Yorkers and their libertine ways! But, I said I was not going to engage with the arguments of the book yet, and here I am, kidding-on-the-square about them.

ETA: Strike-throughs are corrections made courtesy of proofreading by Douglas Egerton. Thank you!


  1. There are times I've spent ages following some tantalizing scent and then realize I've been chasing something that it totally tangential. But, oh, the mystery is fun. And I feel like such a scholar as I chase things...

  2. I know! So frustrating, and yet, the intoxication of the mystery. We want to KNOW dammit! Which is, I suppose, the reason that we became scholars in the first place.