Why give this peculiar slogan to a website? What’s so bad about Helen Holdredge?
To this day, Helen Holdredge remains Mary Ellen Pleasant’s most accessible biographer, though also, its most flawed. I hope this changes, but I am tired of waiting and have lots of posts built up inside as I while away the time until someone publishes a thoroughly researched biography. She deserves such a complete treatment if for no other reason than to peel away the bias and acrimony of Helen Holdredge’s work.
Meanwhile, Holdredge’s tomes, Mammy Pleasant and Mammy Pleasant’s Partner have so many little tidbits tossed into the great salad of the books, that I find myself returning to them the most often to get names and places. One must wade through puddles of mud and streams of slander to access these tidbits. One must avoid the adjectives and the adverbs, for in them lies HH’s basic bias against MEP.
Holdredge was, in fact a very opinionated person. She was an incipient Kitty Kelly, ever eager to interview biased sources and sources with other agendas involved in their testimony about Mary. she missed many chances to independently research material on MEP’s work on the UGRR back east, before she came to San Francisco. Perhaps, if she had, she may have had to alter some of her opinions- but no matter, she did not ever elaborate on any aspect of MEP’s humanitarian work.Though she had to slur some references in sideways, they were just stepping stones to impugn another murder or scandal to MEP’s first 35 years.
Holdredge used certain sources the most, though she always clouds which source she got what story from. these sources included primarily Teresa Bell’s diaries, which HH inherited. These diaries, were a record of the inner working of a strange mind in a strange family in the Gold Rush era of San Francisco and the decades that followed up to the turn of the 20th century, when Mary Ellen died. These diaries were paranoid, twisted, on the spot made up rattlings of a person trying to wrest a fortune from its most entitled person, Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was Thomas Bell’s partner and his guide during the growth of his fortune. Teresa both created and copied the gossip and stories in her diary and tried to throw everything she could as an accusation against her rival for the cash. HH swallowed Teresa Bell’s motives as gospel and copied Teresa’s tone into her book.
Her second source was a recreation of a so-called autobiography dictated to her by an 88 year old source who became an ally of Teresa Bell’s slant on MEP. Her uncle had been one of MEP’s most trusted stewards until he turned against her, for his own profit, in 1899. This woman, Charlotte Dennis Downs, claimed that MEP had dictated memoirs to her and she had written them down- perhaps from 1880 to 1886- if it ever happened. Because the original dictations were lost, HH and CDD recreated them for HH’s book about 50 years after the original dictation.
He other main source was the press from 1880-1904 when MEP died. She had spent the final 25 years of her life being tabloided. One article in particular was written by CDD’s uncle James E Brown and published in the SF Chronicle in 1899. Called, “Queen of the Voodoos”, it was J Brown’s inside story of MEP as an evil practitioner of voodoo and of all the excesses that position had led her to embrace. At that time, the taint of voodoo completely outweighed her long time membership in a local black church.
Helen H a San Franciscan and like many of the era from the 1930’s-50’s loved to gossip about the foibles of the city’s early founders. And no story had more sensation value than the story of the old black sorceress, Mammy Pleasant and her evil grip on the City in the early days.
The alternate story, that MEP was a heroic member of the UGRR, gave many ex slave families new starts where ever she lived, but esp in SF, that she even went to court on behalf of those who needed it, but couldn’t afford it. The first desegregation order on the trolley was on behalf of someone else, but the second time she took the trolley company to court to let blacks ride the trolley, did stick, and is still cited as legal precedent 140 years later. This heroic image did not really have legs with Holdredge and her sycophant/informants. Not when all that gossip about a 70 year old woman could be cited, instead.
There could have been hundreds of stories coming from families she had helped and from property records. As it is only a few stories are known, and that because the people who figured in them were too well known a part of MEP’s life to exclude them. As for instance the livery stable she helped a Mr Dennis and a Mr Brown found in return for carriage service at her beck and call for decades. Mr Dennis was Charlotte Dennis Downs’ father and due to a marriage with a Dennis, James E Brown the younger was Charlotte’s uncle. this same James E was the head steward at 1661 Octavia, Mep’s right hand man, but when Mary was kicked out of the home, Brown elected to stay in Teresa Bell’s employ and turn against MEP as the price. And turn against her, he did with his Queen of the Voodoos article.
If you were remove the gossip from HH’s account, only a slim volume would be left. Nevertheless, there is more context in Holdredge’s book than in the other major books about her. Many names are named in Holdredge’s work which leave more clues then the 21 century works which are friendlier to MEP.