If my references to events in Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life confuse you, read the brief bio I have of her in another post. https://maryellenpleasant.wordpress.com/2006/08/19/144/
Note: I use the term Voodoo for practices now known as Vodun or Vodoun as that is the word used in all this material. If you are interested in a holistic approach to the subject, this book would be a fine way to begin.
One of the few books on MEP that I think is worth anything is “Heritage of Power” by Susheel Bibbs (SB). If you are looking up Mary Ellen Pleasant, buy it. I have the first edition and a kindle edition of her 2011 updates. Bibbs is using Charlotte Dennis Downs’ (CDD) re-creation of a memoir she said Mary Ellen Pleasant (MEP) dictated to her in the 1880’s. Why a recreation? Downs said she lost the actual memoirs, so Helen Holdredge (HH) had Downs remember as much as she could as she took it all down.
I have several problems with this re-created memoir. First, Downs was 88 years old when Holdredge came along to jog her memory of 50 year old events. (I am only in my 70’s and can barely recall a single biography of the Haight Ashbury complete with all the names, even my husband’s, although I was there and I have an extremely good memory for stories.)
Second, HH had a strong bias against MEP, as seen on every page of her creepy book, “Mammy Pleasant”.
Third, Downs also has a clear bias. I say this for two reasons. Because in 1899, her uncle who was MEP’s steward and loyal employee -practically since he arrived in SF 40 or so years before- turned against MEP and chose Teresa Bell’s side when TBell kicked Mary Ellen out of 1661 Octavia in April, 1899. He subsequently authored or dictated a really nasty takedown of MEP that was featured in the SF Chronicle in July 1899 in which he revealed that she was “Queen of the Voodoos” and engaged in many evil deeds as such. Downs’ recollections, in fact, support her uncle’s view of MEP- at least as notated by Helen Holdredge.
I am very suspicious of the accuracy of anything HH says unless it is confirmed by other sources and I do think that she had ample opportunity to make sure Downs’ reports were spun to her own satisfaction. The book was not published until 1952 and Downs was long gone. So if Holdredge slanted her notes, Downs would not have even known, but she may have even approved, anyway. I just think it was a very unreliable duo that re-created Mary’s autobiography; neither liked MEP at all and I think HH was completely lacking in integrity in the ways she twisted almost every story she repeated about MEP.
So, low and behold, Bibbs uses the story of MEP’s birth on a GA plantation, straight out of Downs’ version. This story has a lot of problems, on its own. It claims she was the daughter of John Hampden Pleasants, owner of Contention plantation in Goochland county, and a son of a VA governor. Although she was apparently conceived at Contention, her mother was sold off to a plantation in GA where MEP was born, though no one can recall which plantation, nor its owner’s name, nor what MEP’s mother name was. Still this story sounds like many others of the time and it makes sense, up to a point.
Where this version of the story gets weird is after her mother is sent away and or killed for practicing African religion. This story goes on to say the very night her mother disappeared or was killed, the overseer died, clutching his throat as a result of the dead mother’s voodoo spell (cast after the death?). Then there was something about the slaves of the plantation watching 8 year old Mary perform a voodoo ceremony. This part of the story is absurd, to say the least, but it gets worse.
Shortly after the loss of her mother, Mary is loitering by a road when Americus Price, a Missouri planter rode by on horseback and struck up a conversation with Mary, (or she with him) shortly after which he bought her and transported her to New Orleans (NOLA) presumably on his horse? Upon arriving in NOLA, he had Mary entered in the Ursuline Convent to earn to read write and do sums.
OK stop right here and let’s see how Bibbs describes this sequence of events. Well, she accepts the first part completely up to MEP’s unnamed mother’s death. It is a reasonable story for the time. However, Bibbs totally ignores the supposed Voodoo involved in the mothers death or the ceremony in the field.
It is probably best to ignore it because it makes no sense. In fact it casts shadows on the veracity of the entire story. No child performed Voodoo ceremonies with other slaves watching. If this anecdote is not in the Downs dictations, then HH may have called on the article by Charlotte’s uncle which painted her as a Voodoo queen. She may have added it to paint Mary as a “Bad Seed”. (Remember, another scandalous read of the 1950’s was the “Bad Seed”, the story of a child serial murderer.)
Also the story of a Missouri planter, who is named, the only name in this account besides the father’s, so far, is pretty thin. Even Bibbs says in print, that it might not be true, but she does mention it, at least -unlike the Voodoo stories. Why would a slave holder from Missouri complete the very strange sequence of events that is next described? First, one of them initiates a conversation with the other. I think this is as improbable as the Voodoo story. Then after a short but very satisfying conversation, he marches up to the unnamed plantation house and buys her. Then he takes her to NOLA, not back to his plantation. He enrolled her in a very prestigious convent school for a year that was not known to take slaves in.
Then, he goes home to MO. Or doesn’t go home. Either way, it is silly. Then he comes back and removes her from the convent so he won’t get in trouble for educating a slave. This is really absurd. He owned her. He could have freed her when he enrolled her. She was light and could possibly have been groomed for quadroon balls and/or a placage marriage. But, he comes back and gets her and the tortuous journey continues. She rides with Price part way up the Mississippi river, then she keeps going up the river and lands in Cincinnati Ohio where she becomes a bond servant.
OK, Was she freed, or not? If she was, the whole ‘fleeing the fugitive slave law’ thing later in her life is stupid. By then she had accumulated plenty of evidence that she was free and had been for a long, long time.
At this point I have long passed the place where I think one shred of this story is true. Why should any of it be true? How can someone accept the born on a GA plantation version as true when there are no names named- even though she named her supposed father’s plantation from before she was born! She skips naming the one where she was born or her mother’s name. Or the actual town near the plantation. The next name is Americus Price. That one must have been pulled out of whole cloth. If it can’t be substantiated, it must be rejected while more proof is looked for. My guess is the re-creator of the autobiography, Downs, remembered there was an involvement with Contention, but it was MEP’s, husband who came from there, making this story a type of confabulation by people who could not recall the actual facts, like where she actually was born and what her mother’s name was.
The next name is supposedly the man she was “bounded out” to, Louis Alexander Williams or maybe Lewis Williams. No one has yet found any census record or property record in Cincinnati with a name like that, let alone any record of his household.
The story continues that LAW did not like her and she was defiant to him, so he bounded her out to Granma Hussey in Nantucket. There is no clue how this guy would either receive MEP or take her to Nantucket to bondage. This whole story is full of holes.
Bibbs doubted the planter passing by story, then she skips every other detail of the journey until MEP arrives in Nantucket.
Bibbs points out that no matter what version of her life story she told, she gets to Nantucket by age 6-10, or so. From Nantucket on, a lot of what MEP did is verifiable and the names of the Hussey family who became her “family” are verifiable. She remained dearest friends with her “adopted sister” Phoebe Hussey (Gardner) until Phoebe’s death 50 years later.
The real problem with “Heritage of Power” for me is that Bibbs believes MEP was born in GA to a Voodoo priestess and somehow got to Nantucket by age 10. I think she likes and uses this version of MEP’s birth because it supposes a Voodoo Priestess mother and Bibbs has a bias for MEP being a lifelong member of a Voodoo family.
In the Kindle edition of Heritage of Power, there is a very large detour while Bibbs takes you on a whirlwind tour of African religion. It is extremely well done, so much information packed into every sentence, that it is as good as a Cliff Notes take on African Religion. The slave in Georgia version is very compatible with a Voodoo background. Unlike the other versions of her life, this plunges her in a full experiential lifestyle influenced by Voodoo, not to mention the “up from slavery” scenario.
Nevertheless the lack of substantiation of the ‘born in GA’ claim beyond the highly suspect Holdredge transcribed Downs interview disturbed me enough to contact Bibbs. I let her know that I was entertaining a “Born in Nantucket” version of MEP’s birth because not a shred of the “born in GA” story was verified. Bibbs insisted she had good reason to pick that version and that some new evidence might be forthcoming. She told me there was an even newer edition of HOP for sale, update August 10, 2012, barely a month ago. I was able to determine that no, it did not have any indication of documentation for the “born in GA” version.
When I questioned Bibbs about that, she got quite formal and closed, but said she had determined through her massive research (and it really has been massive) that the “Born in GA” story was the most accurate. She said she had oodles and oodles of documentation from every stage of MEP’s life and perhaps she would reveal it in a future book. But she did not admit she has a shred of evidence for the “Born in GA” hypothesis that she may be withholding until her next book. If she had it, then surely mentioning the born in Ga version should have been reference, because, so far it is completely undocumented and may be a fantasy- whether MEP’s, Downs’, Brown’s or Holdredge’s. This is an egregious error in what is supposed to be a factual story.
She apparently wants her readers to believe that story, on no more evidence than Charlotte Downs’ re-created say so. (wouldn’t you call that hearsay at the least?) Primary evidence is the stuff Pleasant wrote herself. What others wrote down at her dictation is secondary evidence. And a recreation of a secondary reference 50 years later? What is that called? Hearsay, maybe, if you are being nice-or in a courtroom. Otherwise, it is nothing more than gossip.
Whatever, MEP’s birth remains an entirely unreferenced claim that Bibbs used, anyway. Why? Is it the claim upon which Bibbs wants to build MEP’s entire Voodoo foundation? I told her if she had a reference, it was important to use it, as all those statements have no references, whatsoever. No thesis committee would pass on that story; if there wasn’t backup evidence, however feeble, she’d have to leave it out.
But, if she left that out; she would have had to start with Nantucket.
I was quite surprised she had updated a new version of HoP in August of 2012 barely a month before this post, and had not added any confirming evidence she may have uncovered. I upset her a bit by accusing her of being constipated with her references- LOL. That is, holding back information when it would add credibility to her work.
It may even be intellectually dishonest to hold to a story she can’t and won’t document- if she has any such documentation, but holds it back for another book.
She very kindly continued the conversation although she was extremely upset. She named many sources she had contacted in Nantucket and environs and said there was no chance that MEP was born on Nantucket- and furthermore, it would have been impossible for MEP to get any grounding in African religion on Nantucket.
I told her not to look for Mary Ellen, but for her mother. If they even have records of births and deaths of residents of New Guinea- they might not.
Frankly, I do not think Bibbs ever considered that possibility, let alone ruled it out. I tried to weasel some references to types of documents that she might provide in proving or disproving some MEP’s actual birthplace and met a stone wall.
So, until she reveals her sources for some kind of birth in Georgia and way to show up in Nantucket, I will continue to entertain the idea that MEP is no less provable for being born on Nantucket -or to a relative off Nantucket- than in GA.
I look forward to eating my words, if Bibbs, or anyone else, produces some believable documentation.
So, I think until Bibbs has the research to make the claim, she may be wrong to look only in GA. I must repeat that the supposed documentor, MEP, could recite her father’s name and plantation, though she left it in utero, and could not name her birthplace and mother though she lived there until she was eight or so- or perhaps Downs was not all that good at recalling accurately………
But, I do not have anything invested in MEP being a hereditary Voodoo princess. I think she could have learned a great deal from her mother, no matter where she was born or where her mother was located.
Bibbs may be the world’s foremost MEP scholar, but she is not referencing her work in the birth section, properly- especially if she has supporting evidence other than Charlotte Downs via Helen Holdredge.
This holds only to using the birth story. As time goes by, her references are adequate except she does not mention Downs’ probable bias and Holdredge’s extreme bias and what that spin could have done with Downs’ recollections.
Since Bibbs references Downs’ version and not Emma Kaiser’s for instance, I infer no other dictated memoirs have that version. I know the ones from the turn of the century do not have that version of her birth, though it is apparent that MEP is still confabulating about the story. because the newest versions have been proven to be incorrect.
Since I am trained at a Master’s level in doing case histories and psychological autopsies, I will spend some time trying to sort through Mary’s confabulations for clues to her birth circumstances.
According to my training in anthropology, I will endeavor to flesh out the cultural context of New Guinea, both with and vs the dominant Quaker culture of Nantucket, from 1810-1840 and try to find a place for Mary Ellen Pleasant to be born and/or grow up in as likely as the born in GA scenario.
I would not have to pursue this, if Bibbs had given any sources more reliable than something filtered from Downs to Holdredge, then refused to put the proper evidence of a birth in GA into her latest revision of this good book.
But frankly, as long as there is no definite confirmation for any birth story, my version is the most simple and most logical. It does not take the house of cards Downs presented to make sense. And I will endeavor to present a logical alternative to the ‘born in GA’ birth in future posts.
I plan to tease out a hypothetical scenario by little clues and a viewpoint that tests the ‘born in GA’ hypothesis by describing the life and values of two groups on Nantucket, the Quakers and the residents of New Guinea, that could have given rise to the MEP we all want to know- as well as the emotional consequences of the unfortunate happenings that obscure her true legacy to history.
I am not a primary researcher. I am an interpreter and analyst of the sources available to me, including, but not limited to, Holdredge, Bibbs, Hughes, and various periodical articles. I have done a lot of case histories and psychiatric evaluations on evidence less rich than this story. I have a bias to make Mary Ellen a person of her times who did what she had to do to achieve the ends she most cared about.
I respect that she began to fail approximately around her 70th year and did things that brought no credit to her previous achievements. Things that actually obscured her finest achievements. She who had always made the best choice in the situation, who had worked so unselfishly, who continually gave new starts to people she didn’t require payback to the last farthing of her investment, let alone interest on same. She was a true trickle down benefactor, who lost perspective, who may have acted out of previous habit more than serious analysis of the present, when she got old.
I forgive her foibles of her old age, even as I celebrate her life.