Did Mary Ellen Pleasant have any background in African Religion?


There is a story in the Mary Ellen Pleasant lexicon put out there by Helen Holdredge, that Mary Ellen Pleasant had been acquainted with Voodoo(sic) since her childhood. Apparently, according to Holdredge, MEP was born a slave in GA and at a tender age, her mother was taken away for practicing African Religion. Later that day, Holdredge (HH) reports, MEP at about the age of 6-10, held a Voodoo(sic) ceremony in the field, with adult slaves watching . The overseer who had taken her mother died that night clutching his throat, according to HH.

This story is very improbable, to say the least. Children do not perform Voodoo curses and that story is really a fantasy that gives MEP evil,  magical powers at an early age. This is fiction, or myth, maybe, but it is not the truth. It reflects a profound dishonesty in HH’s approach to MEP. But HH was not finished with that recitation; she has Americus Price of Price Landing MO, no less,  show up and buy her, and take her to New Orleans to be educated at the Ursuline academy for one year, then returns and travels with her up the Mississippi river when he dies (Mammy Pleasant, pp 8-13). Somehow she gets to the home of a man with the same name as her father in the Pandex version of her birth in Cincinnati Ohio, where she is a servant to his wife until, disturbed by her evilness, he takes her to Nantucket.

According to HH, MEP isn’t able to finish her Voodoo training until many years later when she is trained by Marie LaVeaux before she goes to SF.

There is not one iota of truth to this story. While it is possible that MEP’s second husband had a distant blood relationship with Marie La Veaux’ boyfriend, there is no indication MEP ever went to New Orleans either as a child or an adult. She certainly never mentioned it in her later life, though she was known to talk about John Brown, Nantucket, and her trips to Canada.

Except for Helen Holdredge’s story, there is not one indication that MEP ever practiced Voodoo. There is no indication there was any organized Haitian religion going on in SF, only a fortune teller or two that claimed to do “Voodoo”. There was never a big drum party in the Octavia street house.

Mary Ellen Pleasant didn’t know Voodoo; she was a member of the SF AME church and that IS thoroughly documented.


12 thoughts on “Did Mary Ellen Pleasant have any background in African Religion?

    • Thank you I used to believe Helen Holdredge, but have learned to question her scholarship It is important to remember what has not been proved, however a good story it makes. I am inclined to believe her final birth story the most as it come out of her own mouth at a dated time and place So far, nothing about the born a slave story has been proved and she, herself, claims it is not true

      That makes me really want to see the material in box 4 at the SFPL with regards to the claims that Americus Price of Price’s landing ever “owned” her. I think that incident arose after the John Brown fiasco and apparently she got help from people at Price’s Landing MO. in hiding before she (and presumably JJ too, since he was along on that trip) returned to SF.

    • Hi Denise
      Helen Holdredge used the headlines from the Sharon newspaper trashing of MEP. Bibbs aped Holdredge in outline, if not attitude. she never verified any connection to Vodoun- except the discredited journal HH said Charlotte Dennis Downs took down as autobiography from Mammy’s mouth.
      Two comments.
      1. What they called Voodoo back then had nothing to do with the Haitian religion of Vodoun. Voodoo was thought by everybody, white and black, at the time to be nothing but spells for blessings, for money, health, or love, and curses against anyone a person was paranoid about. That is not Vodoun, that is street magic. Stuff in the Fortune teller’s cabinet, to sell.. Some people believed in spells and fortune tellers, as Allie Hill obviously did, but it was street-level stuff, not religion. MEP had no known connection to the religion, the born in Georgia story is a myth confabulated from her husband’s birth and background. MEP was an early member of member and long time. attendee of the AME in SF-
      2. Mary Ellen had a sarcastic sense of humor. She didn’t care if she rattled peoples cages, but whether she said that or not, it was reported she did, because that was what people expected her to say. Anybody looking at some stupid spell like that, could say the same thing. She is not taking ownership, just acknowledging some kind of crap is brewing.

      Don’t get too attached to anything you read in the newspapers or in Holdredge, hardly any of it has any historical backing; it was all made up in the gossip pages.

      • You seem to be so sure of your opinion which is based on nothing, lol. Newspaper articles are the stuff of historical accounts. There are more than one first-person account of MEP and “voodoo practices.” Just because you (and African-American historians) don’t believe the data doesn’t make it any less credible or factual.

      • That remark is meant to be a challenge, LOL. My opinions are based on logic and critical thinking. They are based on an evaluation of the validity of all the sources I have seen. It is based on understanding of human nature and that you don’t turn from who you are at the core, at the age of 66.

        Some things I am very sure of- like the born in GA story with Americus Price buying her at age 6 is not true. It could not have happened. I am sure of that. I am sure she was raised by Quakers and always wore the plain Quaker garb and poke bonnet, though she never joined the Meetings as an adult. I am sure she married James Smith and worked the UGRR on the east coast with him until his death about 8 years later. I am sure she married JJ Pleasant and went to CA with him long before 1851 or whenever “Madame Christophe” took the boat from NOLA. (I’m fairly sure that “Madame Cristophe” was aka “La Negrita” who became a lover of Tom Bell’s. (this is documented)
        I am sure that she and JJ helped incoming blacks whether free or not, to settle in, get jobs, homes and businesses. I am sure that the Woodward family and several other families of early SF hired her to manage their households, and that she had a gift for it. I am sure that these old time families and Quaker families in SF all held her in the highest regard and were shocked by the way she was treated in the press.(I am sure of THAT, because I am from one of the old time SF Quaker-roots families who thought she was absolutely trustworthy and aboveboard and were absolutely horrified at the press she got for no good reason except that William Sharon blamed her for the Allie Hill fiasco.)
        I am sure she gave Tom Bell some good tips and did banking with him. And that the courts thought she deserved something from the estate and gave her Beltane. I am sure that after JJ died, she moved in with the Bells. She did not build the house. (There is a section in this blog elsewhere where someone contributes some proof that it was not her house.) She ran it, as she had the Woodward’s home. I am sure that William Sharon trashed Pleasant in the newspapers. Newspapers are not primary evidence. In courts, they are hearsay until backed by documents. They can give good information, but they can also lie. You can’t accept what a gossip column says, without a second source that isn’t a newspaper.

        I am sure I know yellow journalism when I see it and all the newspaper accounts I saw were yellow journalism at its worst. Those sources are corrupt. I am sure of that.

        Not only that, but I have lived with HH tome intimately for 45 years, I have read every page multiple times, and indexed all the people and events and researched as many of the characters independently, as I could. I know people who knew HH. HH used this book as entre into upper class San Francisco. She was invited to teas and luncheons- as long as she gossiped about the dreadful Mammy Pleasant while at them- which she was more than willing to do. She actually did become accepted in an elite, SF circle.

        At first, I believed every word that HH wrote. then I began to see contradictions and things that seemed made up. then I took HH tome and turned it inside out. I made every evil thing MEP did in HH’s book, have a decent reason, so to speak. I became her defense lawyer. I admit I have a POV- that she was a decent human being and led an extraordinary life. she may have done more on the UGRR than Harriet Tubman in terms of numbers of ex-slaves she and her hubby helped. I am not sure of that, but it is worth researching.

        I am sure that HH (Helen Holdredge) was no trained historian. She used sources only a gossip columnist would use, not a serious historian. I am sure that Susheel Bibbs is not scholar and only did enough research to create her “Chataqua”, where she made a living getting paid to portray MEP in song and story. I am sure she was only interested in exploiting MEP to make her own living, because she will not share any of her research even though she says she has it -and is too sick to write it up. I am the one who first turned Susheel on to the idea MEP was into the Voduon religion. Only after she read my booklet published in 1987, did she add that to her work and begin collaborating with Louisah “Teish, who told her about my booklet, because I sent a copy to her in 1987. Louisah is an African Priestess who conducts workshops in African religion to the New Age Crowd. I am sure Susheel is a fake scholar who does not know how to authenticate evidence before she publishes it. She too, has only exploited MEPleasant for her own gain- she has never done anything to further the research. And, I have told that to her directly. She does not like me, any more. She does not like Lynn Hudson either. Have you read Hudson’s book? Well, Hudson actually exploited MEP for her own gain too, by writing a PhD thesis that got published, but does not have any new, definitive research in it. she was unable to verify where MRP was born.

        I am sure, I am positive, that there was something deeper going on with the Quakers. There is a book called “Quakers of Nantucket” that discusses their attitude to indentured servants and slavery. Anti-slavery politics literally began with Nantucket Quakers. Nantucket Quakers did do ADULT indentures-but only from Europe. They did not do children. Instead, they had a common practice of hiring children from Guineatown to live in their homes and learn manners and how to run a home. this apprenticeship lasts only one year. Yet Mary lived with the Husseys from 1820 until she married in 1842 or so. She was not an indentured servant; she was not the ordinary Guineatown child, either. There is where the mystery lies. WHO was she? WHY did Grandma Hussy take her in and WHY did the famous Captain John Gardner become MEP’s trustee for the money she inherited from her first husband? He was a whaler and was extremely highly thought of in Nantucket. He married Phoebe, the girl who was raised with MEP as her sister. He was the patriarch of Mary Ellen’s adopted family until he and Phoebe were lost at sea in the 1870’s-1800’s. The exact date is known, but I don’t have that fact at hand.
        I am convinced Nantucket has the answers to these questions.
        Now what are you sure of?

      • I gotta add one more thing I am sure of. As long as JJ was alive, MEP had a home and family. After he died, she had to move in with the Bells. I am not sure, but I speculate, that if JJ ha been alive he would not have participated in the Allie Hill trial. Until Allie, the Pleasants as a couple, never did anything like that. That makes me speculate that after JJ died, MEP was never herself again.Is that even speculation? Most widows are bereft and must mourn before they can go on. If they don’t have the proper protection, their estates and money become subject to predation. MEP may have even been suffering from declines in her mind as well as body. I am sure that Teresa was extremely superstitious. I am sure she was a drinker and took laudanum. I am sure her fantasies became totally outrageous after her husband died. She began a diary to justify herself as sole inheritor of Tom Bell’s estate, and recorded a lot of opium/drunk type of fantasies with Spiritualist overtones. I know she had a lawyer; in fact, more than one, and I am sure that two bereft widows began to turn on each other over money, instead of holding true to their longtime, and I mean LONG-time, relationship. I am sure it was a sorry mess.

      • Well, there you have it – you are “sure” of everything you believe in, based on “logic and critical thinking” as if you are the only one gifted with these abilities,lol. I have a feeling that Helen Holdrege and Suscheel Bibbs feel the same way about the conclusions they arrived at. Oh yes, and age, has nothing to do with whether there is basis in fact about a conclusiion or opinion. Just because you’re 66 years old doesn’t make your weird conclusions about JJ Pleasants legitimate. Do you even know when he really died? Do you have a copy of his death certificate or are you taking HH’s word or it?

        I think one can “feel” and “believe” and “be sure” of something based on experience but one should state that there are no facts to support these conclusion – it’s just a “feeling.” Especially since you don’t buy into the newspaper articles that were written about her or the interviews she gave or the private detective reports in the HH collection or the HH collections. Just your feelings based on 66 years of living (in a completely different century, mind you, but OK).

      • You are quite a scold, yet you read my words so fast you get them wrong. I said MEP did not change the core of who she was at the age of 66- nobody does. I happen to be 75. Where is your logic and critical thinking when you turn from the subject to criticize me, personally, not my scholarship? That is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem. Everything I said I was sure of, is a fact that I got out of a primary source document, or secondary source and- I said so the first time, you just did not repeat that part. I do believe I did scour the HH collection in SF. I do trust her interview in the Pandex when she was directly quoted as saying she was born free, in Philadelphia, and I have said that in this blog more than once. That is a fact. read it in the Pandex or in HH or in Hughes. Why waste your time picking on me for things? I am simply believing Mary Ellen Pleasant when she said she was born free in Philadelphia, her mother died and her father took her to Nantucket in 1820 and she doesn’t remember much before Nantucket. Those are a paraphrase of her own words. Go look it up.
        WHY do you want to mythologize her?

      • “Some things I am very sure of- like the born in GA story with Americus Price buying her at age 6 is not true. It could not have happened. I am sure of that. ”

        HOW can you be sure of this? So this means you don’t even believe MEP’s own words. Why “could [this] not have happened?” This is so funny. Lerone Bennett, an MEP defender (I don’t believe she requires defending) says if you eliminate what the newspaper articles said about her (based on them being biased – according to Bennett ) and if you eliminate all the rumours and gossip you have nothing to charge her with. Huh? Sorry, I’m going with the published accounts, along with noting viable dissenting opinions. Yes, I want to explore the rumours as they often reveal something, if only something about the times.

        Even though I find your assertions are based on whimsy, I do find some of them interesting and some of them way off the mark, as if you just made it up because it appealed to your sense of logic.

      • You do not read my words carefully. You are racing through them, looking for bones to pick, then you feed back stuff I didn’t say. or only part of what I did say.
        1. In the Pandex interview which was out of her own mouth, she said she was born free in Philadelphia on Barley st.
        2. She NEVER said she was born in Georgia, the niece of the man who turned against her and sided with Teresa Bell, after she kicked May Ellen out, is the one HH says said that, and she lost the document, so that is just her memory of it. the story she retold, was the story of JJ’s birth-at Goochland, the son of the son of the Virginia governor was JJ’s birth story. Take a history course- primary source evidence is all that counts- all the other stuff is hearsay. Mary Ellen Pleasant has plenty of primary source documents, should you want to collect them. There is a census or two from Nantucket. There is a marriage certificate at St Mary’s. there are property documents showing what her first husband owned, and what he left to her in his will. Documents Signed by the perps. there are documents she and her second husband signed in Canada for places for fugitives slaves. There are all the court documents they signed together. In fact one or the other, of MEP’s husbands, signed every single doc she ever signed. I am beginning to Yawn at your lack of research standards. You need to gather facts, before you accept the gossip.

    • Helen Holdredge said that. Susheel Bibbs thought Holdredge may have meant MEP was a member of the Vodoun religion and explored that possibility as though it were true. If she had been a preistess of Vodoun, it would have been unethical for her to be involved with magic, spells, or witchcraft. That stuff is called Voodoo and it has nothing to do with religion.

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