Blight draws on new archival material and insights gleaned from a lifetime in the company of his subject to shed light on the orator’s complex relationship with his wife, Anna, and the two white women who came between the couple within the walls of the Douglass family home in Rochester.
The great man’s vocation as a wandering oracle was possible because Anna, who bore five children (only four lived to adulthood), ran the household with a sure hand, hosting fugitive slaves, far-flung relatives and others who turned up at the front door in need. Anna, whom Blight describes as “largely illiterate,” could be of little help with her husband’s journalism. For that, the charismatic orator called up the British abolitionist Julia Griffiths, who put aside her life and moved in 1849 to be with him in Rochester and to get The North Star off the ground. She enabled Douglass to survive personally and professionally, managing and raising money for the newspaper and for the food that came across the Douglass family table. She helped “to polish a raw genius into a gem and, for a time, managed his emotional health as well as his bank accounts.” Together with her sister, Eliza, Griffiths relieved the Douglasses of an enormous financial burden by purchasing the mortgage of the family home. White Rochester was scandalized when Griffiths moved into the Douglass home, an arrangement that spawned rumors of a romantic link between patron and orator. It is alleged that she moved out when Anna “ordered it.”
That Griffiths loved Douglass is clear on the face of things, but any claim that the two carried on a sexual relationship right under Anna’s nose seems far-fetched. The eccentric German intellectual Ottilie Assing was another matter. She wandered into the Douglasses’ lives in 1856, seeking permission to translate his second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” into German. She remained in the family orbit for nearly three decades, serving as confidante and interlocutor — and lover. Douglass frequented her rooms in Hoboken, N.J., where the participants of her salon lionized him, validating his rise from slavery into the thinking classes. Assing shielded him when he was on the run from conspiracy charges in connection with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, when he came within a hairbreadth of being captured and marched to the gallows with his revolutionary friend.
That Assing was obsessed with the famous orator would have been readily apparent to Anna during the interloper’s frequent intrusion on the family home, where she lived for months at a time. We know nothing of Anna’s feelings on the matter — but the triangle of Frederick, Anna and the love-struck Ottilie comes through like the plot of an Edith Wharton novel. At different points, Assing referred to Anna as a “veritable beast” who kept her from her beloved Frederick, and as the “border state” that prevented her from advancing toward her heart’s true goal. As Blight writes, “Although Assing sipped tea occasionally with Mrs. Douglass, she held Anna in utter contempt, disrespecting her lack of education and even at times privately denigrating her role as homemaker.” The amorous German lingered in Douglass’s circle year after year, waiting in vain for the divorce that would allow her to “walk tall as the rightful ‘Mrs. Douglass.’”
By the time Anna died in 1882, Assing was bitterly aware that the aging orator intended to marry Helen Pitts, a well-educated white woman in her 40s, who worked for Douglass in the recorder of deeds office in Washington. The nearly 66-year-old Douglass held the plan secret even from his children, with whom he also worked daily, and who seem to have learned of the marriage from press inquiries. He failed to notify his faithful British friend Julia, who received the news secondhand from friends in Rochester. Gracious as usual, she wished the newlyweds well and hoped that the union would give him “true happiness” in the evening of his days. Later that year, Assing killed herself in a Paris park — drinking potassium cyanide — leaving her beloved a tidy sum in her will.