Ottilie Assing

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Ottilie Assing
2009-05-28-assing ottilie.jpg
Born 11 February 1819
Hamburg, Germany
Died 21 August 1884 (aged 65)
Paris, France
Nationality American, German
Occupation Feminist, freethinker, abolitionist
Partner(s) Frederick Douglass (1856–1884)

Ottilie Davida Assing (11 February 1819 – 21 August 1884) was a 19th-century German feminist, freethinker, and abolitionist.

Early life[edit]

Born in Hamburg, she was the eldest daughter of a prominent Jewish physician, David Assur, who converted to Christianity upon marriage to her Lutheran-raised mother, and changed his name to Assing.[1] Her mother was the poet Rosa Maria Varnhagen Assing, who was friendly with other literary women, including Clara Mundt and Fanny Lewald, and prominent in liberal circles that supported (but failed to achieve) social revolution in 1848. Her aunt Rahel Varnhagen was a noted salon host.[2]

After the deaths of their parents and the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, Assing and her sister Ludmilla went to live with their uncle, the prominent literary figure and revolutionary activist, Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. His wife, the noted Jewish writer and saloniste Rahel Varnhagen, was long dead. Ottilie and Ludmilla soon came to blows in that household, and Ottilie left, never to return.

Career and personal life[edit]

In 1852, she emigrated to the United States, settling in New York and eventually in Hoboken, New Jersey. She supported herself by writing articles for the Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser and often wrote under a male pseudonym. At first, she wrote general interest pieces about culture, but soon her writing focused on the abolitionist movement. Through the hundreds of articles she wrote, hers became one of the central voices in translating abolitionism and the realities of the United States' slave-holding society for European audiences.

Assing read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and impressed, she went to Rochester to interview Douglass in 1856. They struck up an immediate friendship. Over the next 28 years,[3][self-published source] they attended meetings and conventions together, and she visited and stayed with his family numerous times. It was Ottilie who translated Douglass' works for her German audience, besides lining up a publisher for My Bondage and My Freedom (Sklaverei und Freiheit: Autobiografie von Frederick Douglass), distributed by Hoffmann and Campe in Hamburg in 1860.[4]

It is impossible to know whether Douglass and Assing had an intimate relationship, but her friend Helene von Racowitza mentioned in her memoirs that Assing was deeply in love with him. Eighteen years into their professional collaboration Ottilie wrote, "...if one stands in so intimate a relationship with a man as I do with Douglass, one comes to know facets of the whole world, of men and women, which would otherwise remain closed, especially if it is a man whom the entire world has seen and whom so many women have loved."[5]

In 1884, having already been diagnosed with incurable breast cancer, Assing was in Europe trying to establish her claim to her sister's estate when she found out that Douglass had married his much younger white secretary, Helen Pitts. Assing had struggled with depression during much of her life, and her physician was aware that she had suicidal tendencies. In August 1884, Assing killed herself by swallowing cyanide in a public park in Paris.[2] As per her will of November 9, 1871, her correspondence with Douglass was burned and Douglass was to receive ongoing income from a $13,000 trust fund. In a later codicil, she additionally willed him her personal album and his choice of books from her library.[6]


Further reading[edit]

  • Her letters to Douglass and her articles on the United States are published in Radical Passion which is edited, translated, and introduced by Christopher Lohmann[7]
  • "From German Cultural Criticism to Abolitionism: Ottilie Assing: "Zealous to give vent to her gall"" (2002) by Britta Behmer
  • "Love Across The Color Lines" by Maria Diedrich (Hill and Wang, 1999), a highly speculative biography of Assing that focuses on her relationship with Douglass.
  • "Women in the World of Frederick Douglass" by Leigh Fought (Oxford University Press, 2017), debunks the myth that Assing and Douglass had a romantic relationship.
  • "Douglass' Women: A Novel" by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Washington Square Press, 2003), this ambitious work of historical fiction, Douglass' passions come vividly to life in the form of two women: Anna Murray Douglass and Ottilie Assing.[8]


  1. ^ "LOVE ACROSS COLOR LINES." Diedrich, Maria. HILL and WANG: 1999. Accessed January 11, 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Fatal Attraction". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 19 February 2016. 
  3. ^ Sr, Connie A. Miller (2008-11-13). Frederick Douglass American Hero: and International Icon of The Nineteenth Century. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 9781441576491. 
  4. ^ McFeely, William S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton and Co. p. 185. ISBN 0-393-02823-2. 
  5. ^ Mc Feely, William S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton and Company. p. 185. ISBN 0-393-02823-2. 
  6. ^ McFeely, William S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. p. 322. ISBN 0-393-02823-2. 
  7. ^ Trommler, Frank; Shore, Elliott (2001-01-01). The German-American Encounter: Conflict and Cooperation Between Two Cultures, 1800-2000. Berghahn Books. ISBN 9781571812902. 
  8. ^ Rhodes, Jewell Parker (2003-09-23). Douglass' Women: A Novel (Reprint ed.). New York: Washington Square Press. ISBN 9780743410106. 

External links[edit]