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 1817. Her mother was a slave and voodoo priestess who had been sent from VA to GA while pregnant from the plantation owner’s younger son. This plantation owner is later described as a younger son of a VA governor. The mother is carted off for practicing African Religion but not before she made a spell and the overseer dropped dead from lack of a Heimlich maneuver within minutes of her spell being cast. MEP does an impromptu voodoo ceremony soon after with other slaves watching, if not participating.
Then, she was bought by a free white man passing by her on horseback when she struck up a conversation. He was supposedly a slaveholder from Missouri, just passing by in GA. In this version, 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. The reason given as slaves were not supposed to learn to read and write. Her benefactor died midstream, so to speak, and 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 A 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 when she was about age 10.
In another version, she was born in Philadelphia on Barley street in 1814 to Louis Alexander Williams and an unnamed wife. LAW 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 third version may give a Virgina birthplace, but I do not know which reference that version came from.
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. Nor that Americus Price, a Missouri slaveholder could ever be proven to have traveled around in Georgia, buying little girls about 10 years old that he passed by on the street, sent to a convent, took her out of the convent, then died before she got to Cincinnati. There are no records in GA either, but the birth area is obscure in that version.
There is some interesting overlap in the Governor’s son’s plantation, Contention, in Goochland county and her second husband’s connections. John James “JJ” Pleasants came from the same plantation that MEP’s mother was sold away from. This sounds like a confabulation about where Mep was born; at the least, it was a strange coincidence
In fact, the first time her existence can be confirmed in either version is when she arrived in Nantucket. She did say she somewhere that she remembered nothing before Nantucket, anyway- 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 LAW 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? I hope to get to that, later.
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. In fact, the born in philadelphia story names a street that was not in exeistence when she was born. 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.
Everything everyone else has written is speculation 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, as an adult before the Civil War in her Underground Railroad journeys. Knowledge of VA and West VA comes from her marriage to Smith, then to JJ Pleasants, Smith’s Plantation manager, who were both from that area and were active in the UGRR. Her vagueness about GA could be because she did not know it as well- if she ever told that version. She and her both her husbands traveled through Ohio, and many other states and into Canada, so if she muddled up some story that drew upon her adult knowledge of those areas, it seems to fit better than either version.
In any case, everything she needed to learn for her later life can be traced to Nantucket as easily as GA, 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 could learned in relationships and attitudes with New Guinea, or the segregated area of Nantucket where all non-white populations lived and or/socialized, together. I think it is just as possible that MEP’s mother was from New Guinea as from GA. 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. A birth in New Guinea could be of any kind of ethnic mix, including varying amounts of white.
As long as no definite research is published, giving a strong argument for a GA birthplace, no one story is more confirmable than another. And it appears that no published work has looked for her mother in New Guinea. If anyone kept track of births to G-town residents, it seems that no one has looked for an girl born in August? of 1914 + or -, in G-town. If I consider both her biographies as confabulations that still retain a grain of truth, what can I wrest from each version? A mother who practiced African religion, a white father, a mother who died young, a father who didn’t like her?
To briefly turn to 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 the 1930’s or so and 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 1950, 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 the 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.
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, I would guess that James E Brown understandably elected to maintain his position as head of the household staff rather than leave 1661 Octavia when MEP was turned out on the streets by Teresa Bell on April 19, 1899.
Now, look at the dates. MEP was turned out of the Bell mansion on April 19, 1899 and the “Queen of the Voodoos” article in the SF Chronicle 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. James 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.
I simply must entertain the thought that Charlotte Down’s dictations were self-serving and part of the backup evidence for Teresa Bell’s diaries. In concert with the newspaper articles, which this nasty trifecta contributed to, Teresa, Charlotte and George were in cahoots against Mary Ellen and may have distorted details of the born in GA, educated in NOLA and transferred as bond servant to Louis A. Williams, then sent to Nantucket version. Really, how many little girls were imported to Nantucket and ended up with Quaker families as bond servants? I wouldn’t mind hearing about one or two other cases, where the child didn’t have a previous connection to Nantucket. I also doubt the bond servant claim except as a cover for an improper relationship.
Even though I was originally totally fond of that slave/voodoo version because it gave MEP a deep background as a slave and Voodoo princess, I just can’t find any proof of this version anywhere, not even in the well researched works of Bibbs and Hughes. Both accept that version though it is completely lacking in any written form or citations or backup research or census records or any other historical evidence, including the supposed version MEP dictated to Downs from 1880-1886, until Helen Holdredge and Charlotte Downs recreated it together in the 1930’s. Talk about hearsay and that was 50 years later and Downs was very old.
The Philadelphia version has the same problems. There was no Barley street in Philly when she was born, though it was there when she was an adult and traveling for the UGRR. Louis Alexander Williams is her father in this version, yet no census records are any where near close to any one of that name, on that street, or any other street in Philadelphia.
So what is left?
She entered history in Nantucket and the first records of her are there.
Why would she conceal her place of birth and her parents names?
I can think of lots of reasons why. Reasons that explain her comfort with, and knowledge of, wealth and power. Former bond servants don’t normally enter the salons of the wealthy and hob nob with the intelligentsia of the anti-slavery movement. Generally, low class people remained low class, whether ever a bond servant or not.
Under certain circumstances, with enough discretion, an illegitimate child of a prominent family, raised by another family member or or non-related person of the same station, in the same small circles of Nantucket Quaker whaling families, could cross that line. The Husseys were known do-gooders. One Hussey daughter started a school for the children of the local Guineatown residents and is fairly easy to find in a Google search.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was nothing, if not discreet.
I would not be surprised if her roots were an amalgam of Nantucket princeling and a Guineatown mixed blood. Pretty much the same scenario as her slave mother and plantation owning father as far as dynamics go. Her mother most likely died before Mary Ellen was old enough to really remember her, and then Granma Hussey raised her. Her father was probably off on a whaling boat and perhaps was even lost at sea or something like that. Now what soft-hearted, do-gooder Quaker from the Hussey family could refuse the beautiful, intelligent child Mary Ellen must have been?
As long as I am going out on this limb, I may as well take this speculation as far as I can. I have a very good friend of Wampanoag ancestry. This was the tribe that met the Pilgrims and also held Nantucket until the arrival of the immigrants.
Mary Ellen Pleasant looks like a Wampanoag as much as anything else. There were still Wampanoags living on Nantucket until after the Civil War. They lived in New Guinea along with the assorted cultural and tribal mixtures from all over the world. I would refer you to Moby Dick to get a sense of the world mix of people living in New Guinea. Of course, living in Guineatown was the bottom of the barrel, too. These were the poor illiterate bottom classes, no matter which ethnicity or corner of the world they hailed from. They were animists, pagans, superstitious and accepted an amalgam of beliefs, and Voodoo was certainly present, or at least, some form of African religion. I offer Tituba of Salem, as just such an example, though she was not on Nantucket, she was near by. She seemed to get the witch hunt started by titillating the preacher’s charges with stories, probably from her birthplace in the West Indies.
I would rule this theory out before wasting any more time looking for any tangible results of Mary Ellen’s discretion.