Will the real Mary Ellen Pleasant please stand up?


Here we are with another year under our belts. this blog, with its bait, the evocative name of Mary Ellen Pleasant, has caught a couple of good fish this year.

First though, Susheel Bibbs has spent the year sitting on her self-described “largest” pile of information on MEP, without one bit of scholarship being emitted. She brags about how much info she has access to, but what an empty brag, if she has nothing to report- for yet another year- and I think Susheel is stymied by the info she has, because in her biography of MEP she follows the exact plot line of Helen Holdredge’s disgusting and degrading book. Speculation after speculation based on Holdredge, not based on actual records she found. Probably because the records did not support any of the wilder claims she loves to make.

Second, replies to this blog reveal there are other people out there besides Susheel Bibbs interested in and researching MEP. And what they support is a much milder, much less storied trajectory to MEP’s life.

So, briefly, here are the facts the actual research seems to support. MEP came from Nantucket. Whether she did or did not move there as a child is unsupported by anything but verbal claims.

She was raised on Nantucket by the Hussey family women, Mary, Phoebe, (Mary’s daughter), and Phoebe, Phoebe’s daughter. She was close in age to Phoebe and retain familial-like ties until Phoebe’s death, decades later. Phoebe’s husband, John Gardner seems to have been the core male in MEP’s life after Smith’s death until his death, with Phoebe, on their boat. At the least, he handled Smith’s legacy money.

Mep married James Smith, a man with money and a mother. there may be documentation at St Mary’s church in Boston. They left records of activities on the Underground Railroad. Smith died and left MEP around 30-40 thousand dollars to continue the fight against slavery.

MEP married John James JJ Pleasants; perhaps by Captain Gardner on his boat. There was a daughter who was given Smith’s surname. MEP showed up in San Franscisco in about 1852. She apparently did meet Thomas Bell on that boat.

She was employed in SF as a domestic, though there is no proof she ran- or even cooked for- the Case-Heiser boarding house, she no doubt did something similar. She worked as housekeeper for the Woodward family until his death. She opened her own boarding house which she operated herself. She invested in other businesses to give arriving Black people a leg up. She fought many small court battles over various injustices, apparently as JJ’s partner, for his name also appears on the landmark petition that awarded blacks the right to ride on the trolley and eventuated in her title as “Mother of Civil Rights” in California.

She kept up her relationship with Thomas Bell who rapidly rose through the ranks of SF founders. She became his housekeeper in his mansion on Octavia. There is no evidence she designed or paid for it as Holdredge claimed. Not only had she had a long term relationship with Bell, she had been very close to Teresa ??? who became his wife. He, wife 4 children and MEP lived on Octavia st. for a decade or so before the unfortunate publicity of the Allie Hill/ William Sharon palimony trial.

Up until this trial, she seems to have had a sterling reputation amongst the white founders of SF and with the black founders of SF. There is evidence she invested in local black businesses and was especially close to the founders of the Downs and Dennis-owned livery stable. When she ran the Bell household, she gave various of their family members jobs. This came back to bite her when Charlotte Dennis Downs claimed she wrote down autobiographical stuff for MEP in the 1880’s. Not one trace of this has been found, neither in first person nor original form, nor in any supporting account by anyone else in MEP’s life. there is no proof Charlotte Dennis Downs was ever at the Bell home, especially as a child visiting her father  oops, uncle, at work, then became enough of a confidant to take down Pleasant’s memoirs. In fact most of the worst gossip aobout murders and voodoo gossip came from that memoir, but why would MEP say hideous things about herself as Down’s supposedly claimed to Holdredge?

< small editorial>Think about it. Being the descendant of MEP’s contemporaries in SF, I believe I am not too far off in saying that Charlotte may have visited the Bell mansion at Christmastime, for a few hours, when there would be a celebration downstairs among the employees, but she did not hang out there on a regular basis, getting to know MEP so well she was picked to write a biography. Of which not one trace exists today? I just don’t buy it. By the time CDD and Holdredge met, her uncle had long since turned on MEP and remained employed by Teresa Bell, even after MEP was fired and turned out of the house. Talked about poisoned fruit- and from an imaginary tree, yet! </>

So anyway, it was the Sharon-Hill trial where MEP found herself up against yellow journalism, bought testimonies, and juries. It must have been embarrassing for Bell to have a servant excoriated publicly like that, even though he probably did not believe a word of it. After this trial, MEP still worked at the Bell home, but the rest of the family had to endure some blowback from MEP’s wake, too.

This may not have mattered so much if Teresa and MEP had not had a falling out after Bell’s death, but that dispute made it to the papers, too. I think MEP may have been given the deed to Beltane as a settlement for her unpaid services or whatever the fight was over. I still need someone to go into the Bell/Pleasant public records and hear from some one who found the paperwork from the settlement or related- like who did Beltane go to next, if MEP ever owned it?.

The third element in the creation of Holdredge’s fabrications was Teresa’s diary, which Holdredge inherited. I would like to know the provenance for that, too. This diary was written beginning during the dispute with Pleasant, so whatever it says was probably self-serving. As self-serving as the various incarnations of MEP’s memoirs.

The fourth element to aid Holdredge’s case was probably the unflattering article, “The Queen of the Voodoos” written by Charlotte’s uncle around the turn of the century. This article leads Holdredge to Charlotte Dennis Downs who is in her 80’s in a rest home. No photos or anything.

It is completely unknown what Downs actually told Holdredge. All we have is Holdredge’s much later account of what she was told and/or read, and it was after Charlotte’s death, so she could say anything she wanted, to beef up her salacious best seller, yellow journalism view. The story  when it reached publication was that Charlotte had written down Pleasant’s dictated memoirs first hand, in the 1880’s. Holdredge claims Downs actually showed Holdredge the document, which Holdredge read and clarified many things about. This hard copy of the memoir subsequently disappeared, so Holdredge recreated it as she remembered it, with Charlotte’s input, of course. (How did Charlotte come to be in possesion of the memoir, even if she had been dictated to? MEP would have had a purpose for the memoir, and taken charge of it herself, had she dictated it, don’t you think?

Now, remember that even after Pleasant was given the boot out of the Bell household, Charlotte’s uncle remained employed. I do not know when the employment ended. I think he got paid to talk dirty about Pleasant in that 1901 article.The truth would have given her honor in history books, but probably would only inspire a PBS documentary looking into entrepreneurial black women in the 19th Century.

So, basically, anything to do with facts coming from Charlotte or her uncle contain very little truth. I find most of the salacious material in the book came form Down’s memoir- for which I contend that Holdredge made up many stories or picked them for the worst gossip, and attributed them to James E Brown, who was not there to verify anything. And no one even checked, back then. They just published what they hoped would be a best seller, and it was. That source is the source of the “birth in Georgia, the Voodoo priestess mother and the Voodoo spell MEP cast at the age of 9-11”, although by her own account, she was at Nantucket by the age of six.

Besides, it was MEP’s husband who had the history with Goochland- he had been born a slave there. MEP was never anywhere but Nantucket until proven otherwise. She was Yankee thru and thru until proven otherwise.

So, Nantucket, Boston and East Coast until 1852. There are records in New Bedford pre- SF and maybe Philly. San Francisco after 1852 when it appears she and JJ worked with John Brown and were in Ohio and Canada among other places, until his death. At least there are property records saying something of the kind.

Back to SF for the Civil War and beyond. Her boarding house and two lengthy tenures with the Woodwards and the Bells framing the boarding house years,  take up her life post-war. She uses the courts to fight bigotry and seems to do well, earning respect. JJ died a couple of years after Octavia street opened, leaving Pleasant a widow. It is not clear to me whether Pleasant’s daughter Lizzie ever had children, but she died young. This left MEP with her employers as the closest thing to family- which they practically were.

Her life up to age 70 was exemplary in spite of all of the horrible local stories and murders HH trid to involve MEP in through the ruse of James E Brown’s stories.

If MEP had not gone to court for Allie Hill………..in a serious misjudgement of reality…….she would have kept her sterling repution for future reerchers.

As it is, she has become mythified into some kind of Kali figure. As myth, she has become the subject of a lot of fiction building on the fictions of Helen Holdredge. It is a crying shame that all the unproven stuff isn’t stripped away- Even Hudson writes like there is some credibility in parts of Holdredge’s accounts.

Nantucket. San Francisco. UGRR until the end of the war, A lifetime of employment as a household or boarding house keeper in SF. A string of winning litigations – until the Allie Hill case where she is pubicly libeled, slandered and humiliated with plenty of blowback on the family for which she was employed and an anchor to notoriety.

A downward swing after Bell’s death, when Teresa opposed any financial claims for Pleasant. Some kind of settlement and Pleasant, now sickly,  went into retirement with someone not introduced before in any account of MEP’s life, but was likely related to one of the young Eastern girls MEP liked to befriend


4 thoughts on “Will the real Mary Ellen Pleasant please stand up?

  1. By the way, I totally agree that HH was nasty biased. Found an intriguing tidbit in an article about the re-dedications of her grave: “Dr. Bibbs, a historian, author and performer who recently retired from teaching at UC Berkeley, spoke about Pleasant’s life, and then introduced Coodley and Roxie DeLaca, a descendent of Alfred Higbie and Olive Sherwood.”

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