A Review of the Birth Evidence for Mary Ellen Pleasant in, “Heritage of Power” by Susheel Bibbs



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.


7 thoughts on “A Review of the Birth Evidence for Mary Ellen Pleasant in, “Heritage of Power” by Susheel Bibbs

  1. Thank you for providing a wonderful detailed perspective on MEP someone previously unknown to me and keeping it so interesting that I couldn’t stop reading about her even while at the nails salon today. Your passion to uncover a balanced and detailed view of her life is impressive. Please share in the future as I’ll certainly be waiting and watching. Thank you!!!

    • Thanks! I love telling her story. And, my telling of it has changed over the years as I have stripped away more and more of the BS. The real story is good enough! The Holredge version of it is worse than a zombie Apocoplyse movie.

      I need to get to the SF Public Library, but I live in Tucson and haven’t made it yet. Others could though. There is info in the Mary Ellen Pleasant Collection, the Helen Holdredge collection. There is probably a Teresa Bell collection, too. Surely a Thomas Bell collection, though she might be hard to find in Bell’s papers, maybe not. And the Sarah Hill collection!

  2. I slightly lean towards MEP being involved in voodoo or at least making a pretend belief in the religion and its practices. I think she made a show of it to keep superstitious blacks “in line” and to entertain jaded white men seeking exotic entertainment.

    What made me feel like MEP was indeed involved in the “underground” practice of voodoo is because of a newspaper article written around the time of the Sharon trial in 1884-85 that described a concoction that was removed from a fresh grave and brought into the courtroom and used as proof by Sharon’s attorneys that Althea Hill was trying to put spells on Sharon and that MEP was the prime spellmaker. MEP was sitting in the witness chair and was asked to admit that this concoction was of her doing. MEP looked at the rotted mess, stirred it around and said “it’s coming along nicely.” Six months Sharon was dead. This was in the newspaper so clearly MEP knew something of the dark arts whether she truly believed or not.

    • I thought I replied to that. That was not Voodoo.That mess was not Voodoo. Taking a concoction from an unknown grave is not evidence of anything. Who put in the grave? what grave? How did the Court officials know it was there?

      There was no real Vodoun in SF in the 19th Century. Zip. Zero. There was a lot of street magic that called itself whatever would sell the most spells. And none of that had anything to do with Marie LaVeau. Vodoun is a religion. An African religion in which the ceremonies celebrate trance states where “the Gods come down and ride the horses”, as the people who acted out the gods were called. They would drum and dance into trances and then a god or Energy would come on them in a trance and they would act out what the God was saying. Usually afterward, the person had no recollection of what the God said when he was in the trance. That is Vodoun. It has nothing to do with magic. No Priestess of Vodoun would lower herself to street magic. On the other hand, Sarah Althea Hill believed in all of it all the fortune tellers etc, and got them involved.
      If you want to say exactly what the court records say, I will entertain the thought that she said that, but if she did, she was being sarcastic. Everyone was into the Spiritualist thing big time back then and that was the background of the belief in spells and suchlike going on at the time. You can not possibly believe a spell caused Sharon’s death. If a spell could do that, why have the trial? Allie’s spells could just take Sharon to the edge of death, until she gets the money, then give him the antidote. Much less expensive and it would work, or he would die right there. Poor Allie was nuts and Mary Ellen humored her too much. She was not the same after JJ died. She made a bad judgment to go into court on such a feeble case. It was the ruination of her reputation and good name.

      Read T Bell’s diary, it is full of Spiritualist, magical beliefs. there seemed to be a lot of it in that era. After the court’s trashed MEP Teresa used that to disenfranchise MEP of her money after Bell’s death. Had her reputation been intact, Teresa would never have dared challenge her. That is what all the later battles were about. Money.

      On the other hand, don’t. You seem to revel in the salacious version- you probably even call her “Mammy”. Mammy, the first serial killer of SF, according to HH, though the word was not invented then, but that is how you want to think of her. The evil, colored, ex-slave, Voodoo master, who ruled SF. Then WHY WHY did she not use other powers to prevent Allie from suing? To prevent her good name from being demolished? If magic didn’t work, Why didn’t she pull strings and use her political capital to get a quiet settlement? That trial was proof she had lost her judgment, in my opinion. Not proof that street magic works, though many people at the time hoped it did.

  3. I also tend to buy into the “born in GA and Americus Price bought her from a chance meeting” for a couple of reasons. One, MEP, was a Roman Catholic, her rosary beads were on display at the SF AA Museum. One presumes she became Catholic during her Ursaline Convent year. She wasn’t a Quaker. Secondly, Althea Hill knew MEP BEFORE she came to S.F. Althea Hill and her brother knew MEP from Cape Girardeau, MO, Americus Price’s hometown, where MEP hid out for almost a year during the John Brown episode.

    • Good argument. but do not presume. For it is on the record and even in Helen Holdredge, that she became a Catholic when she got married to her first husband. In St Mary’s in Boston.
      HH presumed MEP became a Catholic to place herself in Smith’s path in order to snare him. It’s right in the first 37 pages of the book.

      I am quite sure she spent time with the Price family on her way home from the John Brown fiasco. That is when and where she met Allie Hill. The story in HH is that she worked for the Prices’s under the cover of a “Mammy” until she could go back to SF. That is why Allie called her “Mammy” in court and started that whole name thing that she hated. but the press loved it. Yeah, Allie Hill was a bit of trick karma left over from Cape Girardeau that showed up in SF and pulled MEP’s strings. But that was no return to her slave roots, that was the first time she ever met the Price’s. There are quite a few records on that episode. The only time mammy pleasant was ever a “slave” was when she was in hiding after John Brown for just a few weeks.

      In box 24, I think, at the SF Public Library, there is a letter from Catharine Hunter, a descendant or in-law of the Price’s of Cape Girardeau, that tells HH about the Cape Girardeau episode when “Mammy” pretended to be slave. How much primary research have you actually done? How much checking up on the sources? You should know that if you believe HH’s book.

    • Oh, I missed this. Yes, she stayed at the Price’s after John Brown and it became a running joke that Mary Ellen Pleasant was their “slave” for a few weeks. Go read that note in the HH collection.

      Listen, do you know NOLA? I didn’t think so. the Ursuline Academy was a very exclusive academy for upper class WHITE girls. It was not a training ground for placage marriage as HH would have us believe. Also little slave girls did not hang out by the road and slave owners didn’t engage them in conversation for no reason. Also WHY would he try to take her to a place where they don’t take slaves? Was he a pedophile? If he bought her, why not take her home? What was he doing gallivanting around Georgia? And going back after a year, because the danger of slaves knowing how to read and write was criminal? He didn’t know that before he took her? That and the time supposedly spent in Ohio before the going to nantucket makes her much older and 6 when she got there and the documents do not support that. Louis Alexander williams was named as her ‘owner” in Ohio and he took her to Nantucket BUT it is the same name she gives in the Pandex interview as her


      , who took her to Nantucket after her mother died.
      I agree with your remarks, Allie DID know her from the J Brown fiasco aftermath. But that had nothing to do with when she was a child. She would have had to have been 6-7 when she went to NOLA or why bother to teach her to read? but she was only 6 when she got to Nantucket. How could she have been the William’s maid after a year in NOLA at that age?

      I must remark that you quite beat me up for more than presumptions, but you did not even check your own presumption in the first 37 pages of HH’s tome about when she became a Catholic!

      Ok what next? Sock it to me!

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