Where Was MEP Born? II. A look at source material

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In Part 1, I referred to things I did not explain, that only someone who has read Helen Holdredge’s book would understand.

For now, when I am doing this earliest thinking on the subject I will Call Mary Ellen Pleasant M  MEP and other assorted variations and Teresa Bell, TBell. Helen Holderedge, HH.

When M got to SF in 1853 and established herself, she began helping other former slaves establish themselves. Specifically two of the people she helped were James A Brown and his partner  George? Dennis, to set up a livery stable. Brown and Dennis were understandably  loyal to M. So, it was not surprising that she hired James S Brown, the son, to work at 1661 Octavia. Apparently he worked his way up to second in command by the time TBell  kicked M out of Octavia St  in April 1899. Then, in July he publicly repudiated and insulted M in an article in the SF Chronicle published 7-9-1899, called, “Queen of the Voodoos. What better proof that he and Teresa were in cahoots could there be? He was working for her. She was the Widow Bell and did not want to pay M off; she fought to have M removed from her husband’s affairs. M did leave the home permanently and died within 5 years, in 1904.

Now, let’s jump to the 1930’s, 30 years later and Helen Holdredge  has inherited TBell’s diaries in which she recorded a lot of crazy sounding stuff. It seems the TBell diaries were begun in 1892 shortly after Thomas Bell’s death when she moved to a ranch in Sonoma called Beltane. M, Teresa, and all of Bell’s heirs began to struggle over the inheritance. I don’t think the diaries contribute any enlightenment whatsoever to the life of MEP, but instead make her out to be a greedy, mean old woman.

They must have aroused HH’s interest in the story when she inherited them for she seems to have made her life work out of treatments of various early SF-ers and wrote several books about these colorful characters. HH seems to have begun researching Madame Pleasant in 1930 give or take. I’ll guess she started with the local newspapers because much of what she reports, comes from them. One article from July 1899 was Titled, “The Queen of the Voodoos” by James S Brown and could have led her to a living relative of Brown, 88 year old, Charlotte Dennis Downs, his niece who did know M.  If this age is correct, Charlotte was born ca 1845 and therefore arrived in SF on some unspecified date after 1849. It is well established that M helped Charlotte’s father James A Brown and George?Dennis, his partner, set up the livery stable. She may have been as young as 12-13 when she met M or at least, heard of her, and by the 1880’s when she supposedly took down M’s memoirs she was around 40, if I got my math right. This writing seems to have occurred over at least 6 years 1880-1886 according to HH’s account in her book.

Why do I say ‘supposedly’? Because these memoirs disappeared from history, if indeed they ever were written. HH’s  mentions of  this memoir said that it was being written between 1880 and 1886.

In HH page 216, right after she mentions Charlotte’s dictations, she goes into a lot of detail about the juicy gossip surrounding the family at the time, Namely the troubles with Marie Bell, (one of Thomas Bell’s adopted children) then about 9 years old. Now Charlotte did not have to recall writing this in the memoir, because she knew of it first hand, or second hand at most. Charlotte had quite a few of these stories, including the India Howard gossip about her murder, and the gossip around TBell having murdered her first husband, the stories of the 49 graveyard plots and a few others. These seemed to be Charlotte Dennis Downs’ memories of MEP and they consisted mostly of various gossip ridden events which were invariably described as taking place in M’s homes or under her influence over the years. If these are not the events chronicled in Downs’ reconstruction, the book does not make that clear.

HH writes that Charlotte told her uncle James (the younger) Brown, “The writing of her autobiography is how she keeps track of so much….She is plotting and scheming and she never rests a minute of the day. She doesn’t take time out for amusements; she is so busy with her plots”(HH p 216). Now remember, Charlotte was the niece of the man who turned on M and stuck with TBell. No wonder her re-creations are so twisted. The duo of Brown and TBell vs. M is only bolstered by Charlotte Dennis Downs’ recollections, making her the a third party against M’s reputation and this is the view that HH took consistently.

So. Maybe HH got the idea that Downs’ memoirs would be more authentic if she said they were an autobiography that M dictated to her. Or maybe Charlotte did tell HH that she did some writing for MEP. MEP had J S Brown keeping ledgers as he was the steward and perhaps Charlotte was aware of these or even helped. These might have indicated some ‘plotting’ or more likely, very complicated affairs of being owed and owing money, but they were impossible to recreate, so they decided to call Downs memories of MEP’s household a recreation of M’s autobiography. At least that is what the book looks like, when you read it.

I can’t imagine M telling any of these stories to be written in an autobiography.

HH in her intellectual dishonesty never really was clear that Brown and Tbell  cooperated on the same side against M.

This recreation of a dictated autobiography 50 years later is the source for the Goochland, GA, NOLA, Ohio, to Nantucket version of her early years. I don’t know where the fabled Voodoo ceremony, orchestrated by a child, came from. It is too absurd, and even when one of MEP’s biographers refers to her birth and her mother’s death, they do not even dismiss this story. They ignore it. After all, what can you do with it? It simply is not the truth. Who ever told the story, is lying or mistaken and we know this was not from any original dictation from MEP. Why would she claim that? Unless she were totally depraved, which is what HH wanted to convey. Stuff like this is usually called “bias”.

I am willing to venture that MEP’s household staff did know she knew and studied with  Mamzelle Laveaux, perhaps that her mother or grandmother was from Haiti. There is a story of a full fledged Voodoo ceremony in the basement of 1661 Octavia. Perhaps it was dedication of the home. If it ever happened. This story had to have come from Downs, if HH didn’t make it up. The story was that the drums were so loud that the neighbors complained.  There does not appear to be any repeat of a story like this nor any documentation that anyone complained to officials. It may indicate just another anecdote towards M’s knowledge of Voodoo politics. There is nothing in historical records to indicate there were any Voodoo congregations, No dances as in Congo square going on in SF. In this context, Voodoo was probably mostly prayers and small rituals. I am not sure, but there is probably a PhD thesis in it if anyone can cover expressions of African religion in SF. At the least, it was nothing like it was publicly practiced in Haiti and NOLA.

I think some people probably knew M had a background connection to Voodoo, and that lent her a bit of mystery, but she did not use old fashioned Voodoo rituals as a practice.  If there were African drummers in SF, they were very quiet. Except that one night. Or the story was made up. Authentic Voodoo practices needed drums or something to pound out the rhythms of each energy form so possession could take place. If anyone was doing this, there aren’t even rumors of it today, but maybe something could be found.

I think MEP mostly practiced Voodoo politics as she learned them from Laveaux. She was a central figure in SF, a Black City Hall, so she did all the same things Laveaux did in helping people with their problems. Legal problems, Money problems. Pregnancy problems. Civil rights problems. She arranged a few marriages. Catering problems. You name it, she could do it and there is plenty of evidence in the HH book that she did all those and more, even if there was a negative spin put on it by Brown’s, Downs’ TBell’s, and HH’s retellings.

So this is my summary: HH took dictation from Downs regarding the stories she could tell about MEP. HH wrote them down and that is the only evidence that Downs ever wrote down M’s memoirs 50 years previously. Even though it was now far removed from any words M ever said,  it was presented as being almost primary source material. If these were only Downs’ memories, they just sounded mean, but if they were M’s autobiography, then her own words about her evil deeds condemn her.

HH had one purpose in mind; to make MEP a villain, the Charlie Manson of her day. In this she used  TBell’s and Brown’s collusion as though they were presenting an unbiased view, yet it was so evil.

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