Undocumented Incidents in the Life of Mary Ellen Pleasant.

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These are the issues in MEP’s history that have no documentation:

If you can find documentation for any of the following, I would be VERY surprised.

.There simply is no documentation about her birth. There are three birth stories with no documentation. Nothing is known until she shows up on Nantucket at about age 6. She once said she had no real memories before Nantucket and that could be true.

.There is no documentation that she ever went to New Orleans or met Marie LaVeau. Bibb’s story about Liga is extremely far fetched and has no evidentiary value.

.There no evidence she ever practiced any kind of “Voodoo” or was a practitioner of Vodoun, the ancient diasporal African Religion. There is evidence she was a member of the local AME church and attended regularly and was actively involved.

.There is no evidence she was a Madam or adopted children out. Or handled abortions.

.There is no evidence she owned 49 plots in a graveyard in SF and filled them all.

.There is no evidence she had parties for men out in the country and had female “entertainment”.

.There is no evidence she was ever involved in any murder plot or any other scandal she was later accused of by her enemy, William Sharon.

.There is no evidence that she was promiscuous and had affairs outside of marriage.

.There is no evidence she had any kind of formal business partnership with Thomas Bell, that netted her millions. (though she may have given him good financial tips she learned from the movers and shakers she served lunch to) He may have invested for her, but it is not yet proven and there was no proof she owned anything of Bell’s, when Bell died.

There is no evidence she built the House of Mystery. It was never in her name.

I expect and hope that future research will distinguish between fact and things unproven.

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The provable, documented, historically correct facts, about MEP are:

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.She shows up in Nantucket at the age of 6 in 1820. historically

.She lived with Grandma Hussey until she married in about 1840.

.She helped her first husband on the UGRR taking slaves to Canada.

.When he died, She and her second husband continued the work.

.She moved to SF in 1852-3 where she and her second husband continued the UGRR work until after the war.

.This work included a highly documented contact with John Brown in Canada where she seems to have given him money and bought property for slaves in Canada.

.After the war, she and her husband initiated a series of civil rights cases in SF- until his death ca. 1875-7.

.After husband’s death she helped Thomas Bell move into his new mansion.

( There is proof in City Hall who was the architect and who owned it. The citation is in one of my comments sections from a reader who is also doing research on MEP. It is in the article on the house of mystery -in the comments.)

.She got involved with The Allie Hill case and Williams Sharon did his best to discredit her as a witness.

.She became the subject of the tabloid journalism of the 1880’s, to great detriment of her reputation.

.She lived in the Bell mansion until Thomas Bell died and Teresa used the courts to kick her out.

.MEP did get the Beltane ranch, but apparently the strangers who cared for her until her death got everything that was left when she died.

 

MEP and Me

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(I began this post in 2012, but never finished it. It is meant as a history of my relationship to MEP. I don’t know why I left it a draft for so long, but I just finished it up and here it is.)

When I was 15, my family visited San Francisco during the Xmas of 1956. My mom was from there, our family had roots there, and her sister still lived in Nearby San Mateo where she was finishing her degrees in Anthropology. I was taking my first anthropology class at the time, from Joseph Epes Brown, an unusual class for high school, but I was delighted I had an aunt in the field already. I spent much of my visit roaming her bookshelves. She had a copy of the Sacred Pipe, Joe’s followup to Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. This gave me even a bigger crush on Joe, that she liked it, but I had already read it.

Then my eyes fell on a book by Helen Holdridge. It was called, Mammy Pleasant. I read the first few pages of the book-  until she arrived in San Francisco with growing horror and repeated some of the stuff it said to my mom, who then forbade me to finish it. It was my first true crime novel, so to speak and left an indelible impression on me. My mom and aunt talked a bit about it and my aunt concurred with my mother that the book was sheer yellow journalism of the worst kind. I didn’t even understand what yellow journalism was.

My mom was born about 15 years after MEP died, my aunt 18,but they had family memories of her that were warm. They thought she was impeccable and had moved in the highest circles of early SF society and had arrived about the same time our family had, in the early 1850’s.

My grandmother was 10 when MEP died and her parents had property near MEP’s in Berkeley, though maybe MEP’s was in Oakland. Anyway, my grandmother knew who MEP was because her parents talked about her fall from grace and said they didn’t believe the half of it. That is about all of the family memories, but it was enough to make me remember her in 1971-2, when my husband inherited his grandmother’s books. She had a lot of travel books, at least 7-8 about Tibet alone, which was very exciting….. then I saw a copy of Mammy Pleasant… of course I read it through immediately. I had such mixed feeling about her. She was wonderful in so many ways, a here in the Emancipation Movement, but HH was saying she was a liar, a thief, a madam, a baby eater, a serial murderer, a voodooist, an abortionist and baby stealer.  I had difficultly and kind of thought where there was smoke, there was fire and put it aside.

I had a vague recollection of the paper my roommate sophomore year in college wrote on Vodoun. I knew it was a legitimate African Diasporal Religion, not a bunch of curses, so I found it fascinating that MEP had connections to voodoo- as voudun was called in those days, even by Metraux and Herskovitz, which were the books she used.

In 1985, I enrolled my 4 year old daughter in a friend’s (Barbea Williams) dance classes. Barbea taught ballet and Katherine Dunham technique, which I like, as it is dynamically very similar to Martha Graham’s work, which was my professional dance training. The following year she got pregnant and hired a troupe from back east to come teach for her. This troupe consisted of Aziz Ahmed and his good friend whose name I forget at the moment and Denise Bey. Aziz and friend were African drummers and Denise was an African dancer, trained by Ladji Camera, and she is a world class dancer. Zoe loved these classes and I was proud when Aziz told me she had African nuances because she was learning it before she got culture bound. I kept her with Aziz for a couple of years then when he and Denise parted ways, I kept her with Denise until she was 11 and wanted to study ballet. I was discouraging about her starting so late, but in less than 6 months she was in her age group at the ballet studio, she picked up combinations just by watching them, and she was very musical, as ballet dancers called nuances.

So, for 7 years I was an African Dance Mom and my kid performed with Denise a hundred times. Before a performance Denise would choreograph the pieces they would dance and the children only needed a quick marking and they had it.  I realized this African Dance training was an excellent foundation for any other kind of dance, even one as opposite as ballet and that is why she caught up so fast in everything but a perfect turnout, which she did eventually achieve.

1986, I was bored and read Mammy Pleasant again. This time I looked at it critically and was far more horrified at what they had done to her name and reputation. I thought that if the research was done, she may have helped as many slaves as anyone else through and after the underground railroad. I was furious. I carefully read and reread the first 35 pages of the book, before she arrived in SF, then looked at every so called crime carefully and considered where the defaming had come from. I couldn’t quit thinking about it. I starting asking others if they had ever heard of her. No one in Tucson had.

I went to the University of Arizona library and looked her up. I found another Holdredge book about her partner Thomas Bell. I illegally photocopied the whole book. Then I also found some articles and mentions, but all leaned to the Holdredge POV.  HH was all I had. There was nothing else.

After maybe weeks wondering and pondering, I suddenly had an idea. I would look at every accusation and find a way to defend it. The image was that  HH’s telling of MEP’s life was a string pattern. I wanted to reach my hands in there and turn it inside out.

And so I did.

I was stymied by the Voodoo at first, but on a visit to the corner public library, I was perusing 299.7  when a page shelved some books, than gave the books a big whump to tighten them up,  a book popped out of the shelf and I got it. I looked at it. It was Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren. I read the front cover and got a chill- this was my book! I also looked at the rest of the books on that shelf and chose one by Louisah Teish, as well.

I read Divine Horseman and was carried away by the beauty it revealed. Then I read Teish, who was another Dunham-trained dancer, and had learned African Religion at the same time as dance and was some kind of initiate of a lodge in St Louis. Her book was great, because she gave everyone who read her book permission to learn African style Religion, so to speak and make it relevant to our own lives. Thus I had little fear of trouncing on the hallowed ground of sacred African rites, though I hope I had enough respect for them.

I began to ask questions of the people around me and found they all had close acquaintance with African theology, some more close than others. I tried to listen carefully and only asked questions to clarify something. That I even knew that much was often a surprise to my friends. Some times people would relax around me and say things that added to my gropes.

So in the second year of my daughter’s studies, I woke up one morning and felt I wanted to start writing my version of MEP’s life. I sat down at a primitive computer, no Windows, and no spell check, and started in. I decided to start at the defining moment of MEP’s childhood, the loss of her mother.

What happened next is I went into a dream,  a kind of fever. Without deciding to, I jumped into the first person and started typing so fast to catch the words in my mind, that hardly one word was spelled correctly. I could “see” what was happening. I could “hear” MEP’s voice, feeding me words. Now I made a joke to myself about “channeling” her, but I realized this was a phenomenon many writers experience when they are writing fiction.


I had it all inside percolating for months- I had done some book knowledge and built some experiential knowledge from people who were initiated into various sects. Now it was cooked and ready to come out in chronological order. It poured out. About 35 pages.

I tried to proof read it, and every time I thought I had it, I’d find more errors, but now I had a goal. I wanted to make 50 copies of this pamphlet and pass them out,starting Juneteenth, a local African-American celebration of when they got word, in Tucson, of the end of slavery. I did and I did. I mailed a copy to Louish Teish’s publisher and got no immediate response. I gave a copy to Taj Majal, when he came through town. I kept about 6 copies and passed most of them out later. Later, I heard that Rita Marley got a copy, maybe Taj’s?I got other feedback of where those booklets went and it was a lot of places.

Well, I felt I had done an earth shattering thing. I had written a short bio Of MEP based on my love and passion for her. I felt I totally refuted HH and made MEP a whole person again. An abolitionist, an entrepreneur and all around good person.

Maybe 5 years later, when I was working on a since abandoned PhD, I went into the U of A Library again to do some research on Esteban, another of my heroes. I had to ask a clerk where the special collections were, and for some reason,  I wrote down my name and phone number and gave it to her.  Her mouth dropped and she said, “Someone called here asking about you this morning. I took down her name and phone number” She was shocked at the coincidence as was I. Susheel Bibbs, San Francisco and a number.

I called her and she said Luisah Teish remembered I had sent a booklet about MEP to her about 5 years ago, but she didn’t have it. Susheel called the U of A on a blind search for me. All she had was my name and the fact I lived in Tucson! Wow. So I sent her a copy cringing over all the typos I had missed.

When she called me back, she told me I was the first person in 85 years to print a good word about MEP! I had broken the line of wretched writings about her and presented her in a strong and positive light. She said she was donating the booklet to the San Francisco library to the MEP collection!  The she had a couple of other questions like, HH never called MEP’s second husband anything but John James, but I had called him JJ and only her recent research had brought that to light. there was one other thing I said that Susheel said no one should know because she had uncovered it after I wrote the pamphlet. It was actually something pretty profound, though I can no longer remember what it was.

I am a scientist by training and not into magical coincidences,but there you have it; this story is rife with them.

So, all full of woo woo, I was proud of my work. I even wrote a highly summarized biography of her and sent it to Susheel for approval as I felt she had the lock on MEP at the time. It was approved, and I sat on my laurels for several years, proud of myself.

My awakening has been slow. I was reluctant to let go of the Voodoo. After all, if MEP did know Voduon as a religion, it sure made her story loud. Another Marie LaVeau. That idea was exciting to me, but it is a sidetrack, though one worth learning the source material about, independently of this story.

But it was the various birth stories than began to crack the edifice I had built. The born a slave in Ga. story came from Charlotte Dennis Downs according to HH. However, even in the HH book, it connects the born a slave story to John James, JJ, Mary’s second husband who was born on the plantation where Mary’s mother was supposedly sent from. It is obviously some kind of confabulation, if HH ever did talk to Charlotte. Hughes proved the born in Philly on Barley Street to be a confabulation because there was no Barley St in 1814 when MEP was born.

All we know is she was on Nantucket by the age of 6. The rest is imaginary or confabulated. I became convinced there was a reason for her secrecy regarding her birth. There was some reason she ended up with the Husseys and the best one I can think was that she was some kind of relative, possibly an illegitimate child related to the Husseys, but that is a speculation that could be proved or disproved by some further research.

So by now, I was a far more sober researcher than when I just hated on HH. I began to realize the entire edifice HH had created was a lie, but I kept looking for morsels of truth.

I have never gone and done any research, but if I ever get up to the SF library, I will have a field day, I am sure. Meanwhile, I just keep trying to strip the fables from MEP’s fabulous life. By putting my incoherent thoughts out there, I am starting to get some good feedback from real researchers.

 

CAT’S CRADLE

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The following statement was added to the piece on Octavia Street, but I want to copy it here.

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 (mostly imaginary) 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.) I ACTUALLY WROTE A PAMPHLET ABOUT IT IN 1987 AND PASSED 50 COPIES OUT AT THE JUNETEENTH CELEBRATION IN TUCSON. SINCE MOST OF THE STORY I WROTE IN THAT FIRST TRY 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 any of these posts 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 AND SIFTING WORK IS DONE.

ADDED TO THIS POST:

I LOVE IT WHEN SOMEONE HAS THE RESEARCH TO CONTRADICT ANY OF THE LEFTOVER HH IDEAS I HAVE LEFT. I AM NO PRO, I AM JUST DEVOTED TO THE IDEA OF RESCUING MEP FROM FICTION, SO ONLY HER REAL LIFE IS LEFT. EACH TIME I GET CORRECTED ANOTHER LIE IS EXPOSED. I HAVE NO FACE TO SAVE, BY SUPPORTING LIES.

SORRY FOR ALL THE CAPS, BUT I JUST FEEL LIKE DOING IT. I AM NOT A TRAINED JOURNALIST OR HISTORIAN, I WAS JUST SO OUTRAGED WHEN I READ HH’S DISGUSTING BOOK IN 1986 I WANTED TO TURN HER STORY INSIDE OUT AND MAKE HER A HERO. I HAVE ONLY SLOWLY BEEN ABLE TO ELIMINATE THE LIES IN MY OWN BELIEFS.

WELL, SHE WAS A HERO,  FOR HER WORK ON THE UGRR BOTH WITH HUSBAND NUMBER ONE JAMES SMITH, AND WITH HUSBAND NUMBER TWO,  JJ PLEASANT.

JJ WAS HER PARTNER  IN ALL HER SAN FRANCISCO CIVIL RIGHTS LAW SUITS, HIS NAME IS ON THEM TOO, SO WHY HE IS NOT “THE FATHER OF CIVIL RIGHTS IN CALIFORNIA” BEATS ME.

OF COURSE, THAT IS THANKS TO SUSHEEL BIBBS THAT MEP’S  HUSBAND WAS LEFT OUT OF THE STORY, BECAUSE HE WAS SIGNATORY ON ALL THE CIVIL RIGHTS LAWSUITS, SO

JOHN JAMES PLEASANT IS A HERO TOO, ONE THAT HAS REALLY BEEN KICKED TO THE CORNER

BY BIBBS AND CALIFORNIA.

ALSO, LATE SIGNER ON TO THE VOODOO STUFF, LUISAH TEISH, JOINED SUSHEEL IN EXPLAINING MARY ELLEN AS A STUDENT OF  MARIE LAVEAU’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, WITH ONLY THE MOST IMAGINARY THREAD OF RESEARCH TO CONNECT THE TWO WOMEN. I DO NOT BLAME EITHER OF THESE WOMEN FOR CLINGING TO SUCH INTERESTING IDEAS AND USING MEP TO PROMOTE THEM, BUT THEY ARE MISTAKEN. I TOO, WENT ON A 10 YEAR JOURNEY (STARTING WITH TEISH’S BOOKS IN 1987!)THROUGH AFRICAN DIASPORAL RELIGIONS WHEN I FIRST TOOK UP MEP’S CAUSE. IT WAS FANTASTIC STUFF TO LEARN AND I WAS DISAPPOINTED WHEN I HONESTLY COULD NOT FIND A SHRED OF EVIDENCE IN SF HISTORY TO SUPPORT ANY VOODOO AS RELIGION THERE AT THAT TIME, LET ALONE ANY CONNECTION TO NOLA. THERE WERE SOME BLACK FORTUNE TELLERS, BUT THAT IS NOT BASED ON THE RELIGION, IT IS STREET MAGIC, SO TO SPEAK.

I THANK THE WONDERFUL READERS WHO SEEK TO ENLIGHTEN ME!!!!!

 

 

 

change of address in contact me forms

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I lost some emails in a computer transfer because the former email had some problems.

Please email me again at my new address if you have any interest in the subject of this blog.

If you are doing any kind of research from casual to specific –  let me know how it is going.

If you have visited the MEP collection at the SF library, let me know! Again.

Will the real Mary Ellen Pleasant please stand up?

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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

“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.