“The House of Mystery”; 1661 Octavia St, San Francisco

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3/20/2016: NOTE WELL: IT HAS BEEN HARD TO STRIP “HH” OUT OF EVERY BIT OF MEP’S LIFE. I ASSUMED SHE DID OWN THE HOUSE AS HH HAD CLAIMED. WRONG. IT WAS BELL’S AND SHE WAS THE HOUSEKEEPER. I WAS BROUGHT UP BY ANOTHER RESEARCHER, SO READ THE ARTICLE, THEN READ THE COMMENTS TO GET IT IN PERSPECTIVE. THANKS J’AIME.

I THINK I GOT THE PART ABOUT HER KITCHENS AND TRUE INFLUENCE PRETTY CLOSE, BUT  ALTHOUGH IT COULD HAVE BEEN A REALLY GREAT HOME FOR A BOARDING HOUSE FOR HER AGING FRIENDS, IT DID NOT HAPPEN THAT WAY. I WAS INDULGING IN SOME ANTI-HH CAT’S CRADLES OF THAT INFO.

(“CAT’S CRADLE” IS HOW I FIRST APPROACHED HH’S BOOK. SHE HAD ALL THE MEP MATERIAL IN A CERTAIN PATTERN. I STUCK MY HANDS IN THERE, GRABBED THE THREADS OF THE STORY AND TURNED IT INSIDE OUT TO REACH MY NEW CONCLUSIONS.) SINCE MOST OF THE STORY WAS A FABRICATION, IT HAS TAKEN ME A LONG TIME TO STRIP THE SLAVERY, THE VOODOO, AND ALL XX RATED MATERIAL OUT OF THE MIX.

MARY ELLEN PLEASANT WAS ALWAYS A PROPER MIDDLE CLASS CHILD, THEN WOMAN, EVEN THOUGH SHE WORKED AS A HEAD OF STAFF FOR HOUSEHOLDS OR BOARDING HOUSES, MOST OFTEN AS AN ADULT.

I AM NOT GOING TO TRY TO REWRITE THIS FOR ACCURACY, I WILL JUST WRITE A NEW VERSION, BECAUSE THIS HAS BEEN A REAL PROCESS TO GET ALL THE HH OUT OF MEP’S LIFE. IT’S LIKE BERMUDA GRASS; IT JUST KEEPS POPPING UP, AND WILL, UNTIL THE ALL THE STRIPPING WORK IS DONE.

Part One: The house itself, how Mary Ellen Pleasant came to design it, and  its original purpose.

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This mansion was designed and built by Mary Ellen Pleasant starting in 1875. It had 30 rooms. Try to guess how many of those were bedrooms? Or, what other rooms one might find in a mansion of the day to total up to 30 rooms? I don’t know, but I can guess there were a lot of bedrooms.

It would be a great project to find some other images of the place, maybe architectural plans. Or drawings for city permits, if there was such a thing back then….. No one who has written about this house yet, has done any practical research on it. There are no known floor plans, though maybe when it got turned into a boarding house  sometime after the earthquake, which did not touch it, there were some drawings in the city  records. I can’t personally look, because I am old and don’t travel much any more. I wish I had a person in SF, a fan of Mary’s, maybe, who knew enough to check the history of the house out. Maybe at a historical Society…

When Mary designed and built the house, we do know the kitchen was downstairs. It was

Originally, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s mansion took up this entire block.

open to the back, facing west, where the hill sloped down from the peak.  You can see where that is in the above photo. So servants and tradesmen would have used this open and airy bottom floor for all the operations of running a mansion of that size. It was a huge step up from the basements of other mansions. All of Mary’s kitchens were places people congregated, both employees and friends and families of employees and this kitchen had tables where people gathered, located near the windows.

I am sure she always had small jobs for people who came to her kitchen. She checked people out before she placed them in the fine homes springing up all over SF. She soon found out whether they had the proper training or not and she saw to it that they got it. It was this kind of activity that gave her the reputation of being the “Black City Hall” of SF. This Black City Hall had always operated out of Mary Ellen’s kitchens, which were warm and friendly places where all the “downstairs” gossip was the most up to date, because when anything happened anywhere, her staff and their friends and family brought it to her first, then if permitted, shared it in her kitchen. Financial tips, for instance, were not permitted to be shared, but no one cared, because the social gossip had free rein. No previous writer has put it quite this way, but is seems fairly elemental to deduce from Charlotte’s accounts of Mary’s kitchens, 50 years later.

These trees are now a city park dedicated to Mary Ellen Pleasant. The trees are the ones she planted ca 1880.

In order to catch you up on the context in which this kitchen was built, let us flash back to  earlier times in Mary’s life and look at how she most likely developed the needed skills. No one else has examined this aspect of Mary’s personality, but if you think about what she needed to do to get things done in the earliest years of SF, it often meant she had to quickly identify transferable skills or be able to retrain from scratch as necessary.

As with MEP’s work on the UGGR, no one has really studied her particular skill set to operate as Black City Hall. Right off the bat, I would guess she was extremely organized and had the equivalent eye of a dance teacher coaching perfection out of her raw material.  That no detail ever got past her eye, was mentioned by her businessmen colleagues and her staffs alike and she had to be extremely organized to get that detail oriented without losing track of the big picture. This means she must have had the ability to grasp contexts and situations quickly and begin taking charge before most other people even tried to figure anything out. She was extremely successful in her UGGR work, based on the few details we know for sure about it. These experiences no doubt helped her develop the ability to think on her feet. She must have embraced this talent and realized she had the skills and ended up honing them to perfection as part of her Black City Hall persona.

This organizing ability seems to have been chronic with Mary. When she helped with Grandma Hussey’s store as a youth on Nantucket, she no doubt learned how to keep a store orderly and its accounts orderly. She was always proud of her achievements in the store in later life, so she was probably proud of them back then, too. She did not just live in the store though. She lived in the simple but gracious home of Grandma Hussey who was a Quaker from one of the oldest and most notable Quaker families of the era, when the men made their living whaling, and women had little businesses, often selling their own private overstocks and imported things while the men were away.

I am fairly sure that Grandma Hussey was orderly and organized herself, and her home ran smoothly under her direction, with the work of her daughter and grand daughter, the two Phoebes, and Mary. I am sure it was immaculate and orderly. Mary apparently learned many skills like putting up preserves and making simple wines. She probably also learned cooking and sewing. She was able to work professionally as a high end seamstress or tailor before she married. She may have even met her first husband at the tailor shop, but that is another story.

I have wondered where Mary lived after she left Nantucket and before she married. No one else has said much,but she must have lived in some kind of boarding house for unmarried, working women who had no convenient family to live with. (Or she lived with family she did not mention elsewhere) I am sure she knew exactly what was entailed in running a boarding house before she married a wealthy man who helped the UGRR and she ran his house and went on slave stealing junkets with him as part of his cover, until his death, years later. She actually had all the skills needed to run an elegant home or boarding establishment before her first husband died.

To return to her arrival in San Francisco, the history goes that she was hired from the dock where she landed, where several gentlemen wanted to hire her to cook for them. and had a bidding war. I am sure her second husband, JJ Pleasants, a river boat chef himself, had bragged about his wife to people who ate his cooking. This makes me think he learned to cook before he arrived in SF. As he had been a foreman to her first husband previously, it seems a pretty good guess that Mary trained him to cook so he could get good employment in SF where he moved  in about 1850 to scout out possibilities for the UGRR. He may not have even been one of the first people she trained either.

So, right there on the dock, or shortly thereafter, if the legend was exaggerated,  Mary became the highest paid cook in Yerba Buena, now being called San Francisco. She was at an establishment that attracted the most up and coming men who found many ways to end up with a lot of the gold on its way out of the area, lining their pockets before it left. Of course they had the latest financial gossip, all of which Mary grasped perfectly and saw where she could take this “gold mine”of  moneymaking opportunities.

Once in SF, Mary soon had a crew that ran the boarding house to her exacting standards. This crew was made up of recently arriving former slaves, many of them fugitives from the UGRR. Mary’s kitchen became the hub of employment and placements almost from the beginning. Her very first kitchen started churning out well trained servants ready to be employed by the emerging upper crust.  As Mary was already legendary as a household manager, her employees were sought after. Of course all they ever owed to Mary was to keep her up on the doings of the household, especially when things were out of order in some way,  or about the owner’s financial secrets.

Mary, with her developed sense of opulence, was soon decorating the establishments where she was employed. She also decorated the occasional house of one of her businessmen friends. I think she loved to furnish rooms and whole houses and it was maybe her favorite sideline business, ever. That means she was always finding seamstresses and tailors to assemble her artful palettes. And training them up as well. It could be said she was quite bossy, but her productions were always first class and to exacting standards.

Mary’s style was to delegate authority to properly trained people, so she rarely had to cook, or sew, herself, except to impart advanced details. Her strength was, as always,  organization. She sat atop a hierarchical  organization that was  a bit like an army  but it covered almost every personal need a person or family might have. She was strong on corporate training, so people could rise in their professions, and did.

Although Mary worked at several establishments over the years before she opened her own boarding house, her kitchens were always the center of  enterprise for the colored population of SF. That did not change when she opened 920 Washington St, the most opulent boarding house in the city with the best food and service to be had in the world.

Although she personally preferred the public role of head of staff of a wealthy household, she helped bankroll almost anyone who checked out and had the proper skills to run a business. That means that many kinds of businesses were beholden to her capital, but their  payment terms were always generous as long as she knew what any significant customer of her investment business was doing that might be of value to know. Thus she did not run the laundries she first established, nor the stable she bankrolled later, but only made sure the owners ran it properly. Nor was she a madam, though she invested in fancy bordellos that were well run and a source of information about their clients. And also, when pretty and or well bred girls showed up, Mary was often informed before the bordellos knew they had arrived, and allowed to choose whom her proteges for future marriages to wealthy men would be. She set these young women up in homes and bankrolled their wardrobes, mostly made by her own seamstress’ businesses, made sure they had good manners and taught them to run a household from their future status as wives of mostly newly rich men. Her proteges, helped make the most uncouth newly rich men into the gentlemen they knew they must become. This aspect of her business was very satisfying for decades, but then one misguided protege, turned into part of the House of Mystery drama and the undoing of Mary’s happy old age.

Mary was already fairly old when she embarked on building the Octavia street mansion around the turn of the 1870’s into the 1880’s, about 66 I think. She had always been a person to make her dreams real, so 1661 O. St must have figured in her dreams, then plans, long before she actually started building it.  This was going to be a place designed, first of all, for herself, her convenience, and probably, meant to serve her old age too. She intended to have a well oiled establishment that would take proper care of her as well as selected others.

In other words, this was the fine boarding house Mary Ellen dreamed of the entire time she ran her other establishments. On top of a hill with great views of the exploding city growth in all four directions. In my thinking, this house was a way to physically perch herself above most of the city and a perfect metaphor of being able to see what is going on in all directions. This was the geomancy of her desire to know, organize, control and manipulate all under her supervision to their own highest growth and achievements, as she had accomplished, herself. By the time she built the place, her second husband had died. I am sure she realized she was not going to marry again and needed her own place to live in comfort as the Widow Pleasant. Why not at her own super-upscale very private, boarding house? By the time she actually started building, all her living friends were old, too. So it could have evolved into something that would not be called a boarding house, but a luxurious homelike atmosphere of the shared residency of a few of her oldest picked friends from the old days, as well – SF’s first and most upscale luxurious old age home for a picked few of the original founders of the city. It was to be a way that several old time friends would live in the best of Mary’s establishments to date, and have the surety that they could be with friends to whom they did not have to explain themselves.

When I try to count up thirty rooms, even with a kitchen and dining room and maybe a ballroom and a billiard room, a library, a formal living room and a couple of sitting rooms and an office for Mary, no matter how many purposed rooms I can name, it looks like there are up to six to ten bedrooms and suites. This was a small, exclusive luxury hotel meant for the highest ranking grand old men of the Gold Rush days. Mary Ellen simply had no use for anything different than that. That was to be the culmination of all her establishments, and the final one.

So what happened? Something went wrong, terribly wrong, and the home became the fake front for a pretend family. Nowhere near all the bedrooms were were needed or used. This was simply not Mary Ellen’s approach to anything else she had faced before, so what could have happened to create the house of mystery out of Mary’s plans for the house?

I think, speculate, that something happened to Mary that took her edge off. Perhaps a  minor stroke or several of them affected parts of her brain. I think her judgement became affected some way, because she plainly had less and less of it as time progressed and not more, as most people who had lived her life, should have retained into their 90’s, unless a health factor interfered.

Next: Part Two, the Mystery of the House of Mystery.

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7 thoughts on ““The House of Mystery”; 1661 Octavia St, San Francisco

  1. I am the person you need but am not currently in San Francisco. I have retired to Chiang Mai Thailand but return to SF, generally, for part of each year. I think looking for the plans of the house is a great idea, one that has not yet been developed, to my knowledge. Please contact me at icebrenda@yahoo.com.

  2. Interesting that you have no physical proof that she built the home. There is no way she was an architect and drew the plans herself. The Bells had the home built and they lived in the home long before Mary did, I checked the directories. I also checked the property land maps of the time period that have the BELLS name on the property, not Mary Pleasant. I have been researching this story and others surrounding it for quite sometime now….and it doesn’t add up. None of it does. I plan on finding all the archived property records, deeds and any designs to see for myself if MEP’s name was ever connected to it at all.

    • I have gone through so many changes, but essentially, this is the anti- helen holdredge site. HH is my only reference on MEP, most of the time. HH claims MEP commissioned and controlled the build. It built according to MEP’s desires and specs, not that she was the architect. HH says it wasn’t until after the house was completed, that Teresa married Bell. Before that (and after) MEP did everything in Thomas Bell’s name. It took Teresa years in the marriage, and until after Bell’s death, to get control of his assets, which MEP believed were 50% hers and did not separate anything out until it was too late. the courts did award her Beltane in exchange for her other interests, if you could check that out too?

      Any evidence you have on the names and dates that contradicts HH would not be surprising. I always look forward to any facts to substitute for the lies Helen Holdredge told from the beginning to the end of her book on MEP. I am delighted someone is looking up actual records. I live in Arizona and am in my 70’s so I have to rely on the books in print and on the internet. HH definitely implies a deeper relationship between Bell and Pleasant and says MEP hand picked Teresa for her compliance.

      A lot of people say a lot of things about her. I am still waiting for the facts. The facts about the children should be recorded somewhere, too. I think HH did the children the worst disservices of all the people she wrote about.

      Have you tried to do any research on MEP’s birth?

      • I was originally researching another story. That of Sarah Hill, which I have been working on for quite some time now. It was the fact that Mary Pleasant’s name popped up more than once that it piqued my interest. What I started unraveling afterwards was more than I could handle at the time. (A lot to absorb at once). I have looked into this whole thing about Pleasant and her business dealings, but again, where is the proof? HH says diaries state this? Where are the diaries? Why aren’t they available to the public? I really need to get her book so I can dissect it. I am all about sources, just because someone says something happened and then a million other people copy that one person’s “opinion” (even if it was recorded in a newspaper from 80-100 years ago) doesn’t mean it’s true. Take one account, that they claim Pleasant had a boarding house that William Sharon had stayed in. That makes absolutely NO SENSE being that he was a partner in building the Palace Hotel in S.F., where he lived. He wouldn’t have. Also, many state she ran the Case & Heiser, I have a actual advertisement from that establishment and she did not run it, nor was her name even mentioned as an owner or manager. Point is, people lie and most of the time no one will actually do the homework to check to see whether it’s credible or not. I have found so many discrepancies about MEP and the claims people have given her credit for, that just aren’t true. I also noticed the photographs that many people have erroneously been using and claiming to be that of MEP yet they are of Queen Emma of Hawaii. I noticed you wrote about too. It’s amazing to me that people with degree’s who write books, contribute to websites or even post these photos for historical reference didn’t even do their own research before claiming that it was MEP. Think of all the retractions in books and papers people should be forced to do to set this straight?! It’s obvious the photos are of the Queen Emma, not MEP. I have seen photos in the old newspaper archives of MEP in her old age, but none looked even close to the ones people have been using.– good talking to you, you can always email me if you like. My contact info is on my website.

      • I am just getting over a computer crisis and happy to see I haven’t lost everything.

        Sarah Althea Hill is the key to the bad publicity about MEP. Before that lawsuit, she was well known to the SF old timers and not known at all to the newcomers who first got to know her through the courtroom fight between SAH and William Sharon. She may have cooked for Case Haiser. That is HH’s claim. Then she ran households for people and then ran her own room and board place that catered to a rich crew of friends who had lunch together and ran the city. In the very early days, working men with no families habitually ate lunch esp. at some of the better boarding establishments. Those days were way over by the time of the SAH trial. They were essentially over by the 1860’s when men were bringing wives out and building them homes. Then MEP worked for one of the Woodward bros’ households, then, eventually ran the Bell place as she had the Woodward’s, both these jobs and more, came about by occasion of her close relationships to the wives and even her involvement in the marriages through the original introductions.

        I will contact you separately and track your work.

        Thank you for recording your complaints on the level of research on MEP, whivh is shameful. I am not a pro. This has been a hobby for me because I don’t have resources. I have been in touch with others who claim to research her, but nothing real has happened. At least I admit I know the work done on her is mostly fantasy! If I could get at the collections or some of the work Susheel Bibbs has done but does not seem to have the time or health to study, I bet I could make some progress. But that is such a fantasy. Nevertheless, I hope SOMEONE takes her up in order to debunk all the crap written since the 1880’s.

  3. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. Yes, I agree with what you said. Someone needs to do their own research all the way back to the original records and sources and see if all that has been presented is accurate or not. I will be going over the Theresa Bell diaries soon, as I have spoken to someone at the Library in S.F. who will be letting me go through them for my writings. I just have to find the time to get over there to do the research. I will let you know what I find. I am thinking about writing a chapter in my upcoming book about women in the late 1800s-to early 1900s and having the whole Sarah Hill, MEP, Theresa Bell story in there too. You can contact me directly via my email or via my blog, Dreaming Casually. Take care–

  4. for future readers: This post is my favorite version of MEP’s life, but J’aime brought me up short on who owned Octavia street and it was Thomas Bell so that part of my litle fantasy got deflated pretty well. Other things though, I think I am close enough for a case history, if not an actual history.

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