Ottilie Assing

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Ottilie Assing
2009-05-28-assing ottilie.jpg
Born11 February 1819
Died21 August 1884 (aged 65)
Paris, France
NationalityAmerican, German
OccupationFeminist, 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 poet Rosa Maria Varnhagen, raised as a Lutheran, and David Assur, a Jewish physician, who converted to Christianity upon marriage and changed his name to Assing. He became prominent in his field.[1] Her mother 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, Assing emigrated to the United States, settling in New York City and eventually nearby 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 interpreting 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. She suggested that she should translate his work into German. They struck up an immediate friendship. Over the next 28 years, they attended numerous meetings and conventions together. She visited and stayed with his family numerous times, living in their home for months at a time.[3] Assing translated Douglass's works for her German audience, in addition to 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]

Douglass and Assing are widely believed to have had an intimate relationship, and he "visited her rooms in Hoboken."[3] She also gave him shelter when "he was on the run from conspiracy charges in connection with John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry", when he was at risk for capture and execution.[3]

Her friend Helene von Racowitza said in her memoirs that Assing was deeply in love with Douglass. Eighteen years into their professional collaboration, Assing 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 learned that Douglass had married Helen Pitts, a younger white woman who worked with him as his secretary in the Recorder's Office. 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. She bequeathed him ongoing income from a $13,000 trust fund. In a later codicil, she had additionally willed him her personal album and his choice of books from her library.[6]


  • Ottilie Assing: Jean Baptiste Baison. A Biography, 1851 , Verlag Meissner & Schirges, 1851, 126 p ([* Digitalisat *]); Reprint by Nabu-Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1272741174, 142 S.
  • Frederick Douglass: slavery and freedom . Autobiography from English provided by Ottilie Assing. Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 1860. Digitalisat .
  • Partly anonymous feature articles and political reports: Telegraph for Germany , Seasons , Morning Journal for educated readers , Süddeutsche Post , Journal of Fine Arts , the German-American Conversations-Lexikon (New York, 1870), as well as periodicals of German social democracy.
  • Christoph Lohmann (eds.): Radical Passion. Ottilie Assing's reports from America and letters to Frederick Douglass . Long, New York u. A. 1999, ISBN 0-8204-4526-6.

Further reading[edit]

  • Her letters to Douglass and her articles on the United States are published in Radical Passion, edited, translated, and introduced by Christopher Lohmann[7]
  • Britta Behmer, From German Cultural Criticism to Abolitionism: Ottilie Assing: "Zealous to give vent to her gall" (2002)
  • David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, (Simon and Schuster, 2018); says that Assing and Douglass were lovers and professional collaborators.
  • Maria Diedrich, Love Across The Color Lines, (Hill and Wang, 1999), a speculative biography of Assing that focuses on her relationship with Douglass.
  • Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, (Oxford University Press, 2017), argues that Assing and Douglass were not lovers.
  • Sr, Connie A. Miller (2008). Frederick Douglass American Hero: and International Icon of The Nineteenth Century. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 9781441576491., self-published, not considered a Reliable Source



  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. ^ a b c Brent Staples, "Frederick the Great: Review of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight", New York Times Book Review, 11 November 2018
  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]