MEP’s Confabulations

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Mary Ellen Pleasant (MEP) gave up to three versions of her birth in various memoirs she dictated from the late 1880’s to 1902.

The most popular version, first chosen by Helen Holdredge to include in her salacious biography of MEP was supposedly dictated to Charlotte Downs between 1880 and 1886. Charlotte apparently lost it, so she recreated what she remembered in an interview with HH during the 1930’s when she was 88 years old. I will discuss her possible bias, later.

The version goes like this: MEP was born a slave on a plantation in Georgia in 1917. Her mother was a slave and voodoo priestess who had been sent from VA to GA while pregnant with the plantation owner’s younger son, who in another context was said to favor abolition. This plantation owner is later described as a younger son of a VA governor. The mother is carted off for practicing African Religion and the overseer dropped dead from lack of a Heimlich maneuver from a voodoo spell by the dying mother. MEP does an impromptu voodoo ceremony shortly after with a other slaves watching, if not participating.

Then, she was bought by a man passing by her on horseback when she struck up a conversation. He was supposedly a slaveholder from Missouri, just passing by in GA.  He took Mep to New Orleans (NOLA) and put her in the Ursuline Convent to learn her letters. Then a year later, he had her removed from there- as slaves were not supposed to learn to read and write. She somehow moved up the Mississippi river to Cincinnati Ohio and was bonded out to Louis Alexander Williams and his wife, Ellen. After a couple of years, Louis Alex Williams  took her to Nantucket in 1827 where she was bonded out to Mary Hussey, a member of one of the oldest and most prominent families on Nantucket about age 10.

In the other version, she was born in Philadelphia on Barley street in 1914 to Louis Alexander Williams and an unnamed wife. LEW was described as a Kanaka and his wife as a Negress from NOLA. This version is very vague about how she got to Nantucket but she does get there earlier, perhaps as early as 1820, about age 6 as this version provides a 1814 DoB.

The name Louis Alexander Williams has been researched in census records in both Cincinnati and Philadelphia, to no avail. Yet the same name is given to different people in each version of her life. There are no records in the Ursuline Convent, either. Not that Americus Price, a Missouri slaveholder could ever be proven to have traveled around in Georgia, buying little girls about 6-7 years old that he passed by on the street. There are no records in GA, but the birth area is obscure in that version.

There is some interesting overlap in the Governer’s son’s plantation, Goochland and her second husband’s connections, but I will get back to that.

In fact, the first time her existence can be confirmed in either version is when she arrived in Nantucket. At one point, she did say she remembered nothing before Nantucket,  which would seem to contradict the GA, NOLA, Cincinnati, Nantucket version, and the spontaneous voodoo ceremony at age 7 or so, and, the uncomfortable relationship with LEW in that version.

Why did she vary versions of her birth? Who was the audience to which she was addressing each set of memoirs? Why the wildly different versions with an overlap of names?

Even in well researched books on MEP, there is nothing to support either version of her birth in spite of research in the relevant areas and in census records. I have long hoped to see something somewhere, but MEP purposely said in one version of her memoirs, that she thought words could better be used to conceal, than reveal. In the area of her birth, this is the most true of her entire life.

Why?

Everything everyone else has said is speculation bN (before Nantucket) The slave version is tortuous, but each geographical area, from NOLA to Missouri and Ohio, is documented as one she later learned well, before the Civil War. Knowledge of   VA and West VA comes from her marriage to Smith, then JJ, who were both from that area. Her vagueness about GA could be because she did not know it as well.

In any case, everything she learned for her later life can be traced to Nantucket, including a basic knowledge of  fine furnishings and architecture, trade and entrepreneurship, African Religion and how the white and non white worlds interfaced,  the latter of which was learned in New Guinea, or the segregated area of Nantucket where the non-white populations all lived and or socialized, together. Whatever her dna, MEP could and did, pass as either black or white, a theme that has been documented in all her work on the UGRR and her early days in SF before the war.

There is nothing in either birth story that can’t be accounted for in her Nantucket experience.

If I consider both her bios as confabulations that still retain a grain of truth, what can I wrest from each version?

First Helen Holdredge. HH. She inherited Teresa Bell’s diaries from her father. I am unable to determine how her father got them, but when HH got them, she began to research MEP’s life. So HH had a personal investment in Teresa’s diaries in spite of how incoherent and confused and vindictive they were. Let’s say she had a bias for using the Teresa Bell material, because she owned it.

She came across Charlotte Downs and in 1930, took testimony that Charlotte had once written an autobiography dictated to her by MEP. HH says Charlotte was taking this dictation in 1880 on page 178 of her book, and on page 216 in 1886 she is again mentioned as being in the course of writing the MEP memoirs. Now remember, Charlotte could not find the bio she wrote when interviewed by HH in 1930, so together, they recreated it based on Charlotte’s recollection of the first version.

So strangely enough, most of what Charlotte reported was a recollection of what she thought she remembered more than 50 years before and while Helen vouched she saw some kind of dictated memoirs, all she has at the time of her interview of Charlotte was hearsay. Mary Ellen’s words do not appear directly in that version, but filtered through Charlotte – and perhaps influenced by her uncle James E Brown.

Strangely enough, though HH doesn’t mention it, James E Brown wrote or was behind, an article on MEP Called, “Queen of the Voodoos”, published in the SF Chronicle on 7/9/1899. James E Brown, son of one of MEP’s most loyal friends, who worked for MEP for decades, chose at some point to back Teresa Bell in MEP’s challenge to Thomas Bell’s estate. He and Charlotte were part of very intertwined families who owed their original starts in SF to MEP’s support.The parental generation was always loyal to MEP, but after many years of service, James E Brown understandably elected to maintain his position as head of the household staff rather than leave 1881 Octavia when MEP was turned out on the streets by Teresa Bell on April 19, 1899.

Now, look at the dates. MEP turned out on April 19, 1899 and the “Queen of the Voodoos” article was published, July 9, 1899. No wonder a series of people said that Teresa Bell working with James E Brown managed to ruin MEP financially while crucifying her reputation.  Dennis E Brown’s article or interview, was a sign that he thought helping Teresa would ensure his position. And it was one exciting article. It expanded on the things said in earlier court testimony and gave the lowdown on Mammy Pleasant’s voodoo ways, from the inside.

to be continued.