The subject of Harriet Bailey Adams -- or Ruth Cox Adams -- began as a puzzle. Actually, the subject of Harriet Bailey began as a difficult annotation when Douglass's letters to her were chosen for inclusion in the first correspondence volume of his edited papers. The letters themselves had only become available to the public in 1979, when Alice V. Coffee and Opal M. Pollard donated the set of Harriet Bailey and Ruth Adams letters to the Library of Congress. The papers relating to their accession described the items as, “Seven letters from Frederick Douglass to Ruth Cox, later Ruth Adams (often addressed by Douglass as Harriet Bailey)…” They did not give any explanation as to why “Ruth Cox, later Ruth Adams” was “often addressed by Douglass as Harriet Bailey,” or what led the donators, Alice V. Coffee and Opal M. Pollard, to identify Cox, Adams, and Bailey as the same woman. In a 1979 article analyzing the letters, Ellen Ginzburg Migliorino and Giorgio G. Campanaro, both of the Universita di Torino, also identified the recipients as the same woman based upon the tone and subject matter of the letters, and the fact that they were found together. Historians aware of these documents, such as Douglass biographer William McFeely, continued to identify Harriet Bailey and Ruth Adams as two separate women living in the Douglass household as two of the myriad of guests taken in by Douglass and his family. Since the identity of Adams was not at all central to most discussions of Douglass, she remained a passing, obscure mystery. For the editors at the Douglass Papers editing project, however, she required some identification, particularly since she was the recipient of such an unusual set of letters.
With no prior research into this figure, evidence from within the letters provided clues toward documenting the life of Adams. Her name, “Harriet Bailey,” and the address “Sister,” pointed most logically to a supposed sister of Douglass, born around 1826 and valued at $10.00. That Harriet Bailey appeared in inventory of slaves of Aaron Anthony, Douglass's master in Talbot County, Maryland; and both she and Douglass were passed to Thomas Auld after Anthony’s death.
The second clue to Harriet Bailey’s identity within the letters was the mention of her engagement in 1846. This clue led to the Vital Records of Lynn, Massachusetts, which revealed that Harriet Ann Baily, age 25, married Perry F. Adams, also 25, a farmer from Springfield, on November 11, 1847. Harriet Bailey, then, was also Mrs. Perry F. Adams, and evidence of her life could be traced forward to 1860 through the U.S. Census and the Springfield City Directories. Yet, questions still remained. Was Harriet Bailey really the same woman as Ruth Cox? If so, what was the explanation for the two different names, particularly when one was the same name as Frederick Douglass’s mother and youngest sister? Also, What became of her after 1860?