A Review of the Helen Holdredge Collection of the SF Public Library

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The Helen Holdredge Collection

San Francisco Historical Collection

San Francisco Public Library

Oct 21, 2016

This collection is a compilation of several other major 19th Century SF figures that used to be in separate collections. Box 4 of this collection contains most of the notes Helen Holdredge (HH) made to write “The word that must not be said, Pleasant”, her book published in about 1952.

My overall word for the quality of HH’s notes is “Pathetic”. She is not a historian and did not use any standard history-hunting tools- like birth and death certificates, properties owned, legal documents, even when they were available in government records in SF. (There are two marriage certificates and one of baptism for the four Bell children. These are side notes of little value or relevance to the book)

She did not discuss her informants, and how they obtained the information they gave HH, who, as it turned out, usually gave them no credit for the particular stories they had told her. However, if you are familiar with the book, you will realize that almost all of the salacious material that did not come from 1880’s yellow journalism, came from one person, William Willmore jr., seconded only by the material she supposedly saw in a memoir transcribed by Charlotte Dennis Downs on behalf of Mary Ellen Pleasant (MEP) around 1875-1890.

There is no discussion of whom William Willmore jr (WWjr) was, although if you have read the book, he takes over Teresa Bell’s mansion on 1661 Octavia street, as the Head Steward- after MEP was kicked out of the residence she had lived in since her husband John James Pleasant had died in 1877 or so (I didn’t check this date before writing it) Mary Ellen had been in charge of the household operations of the Bells for over 15 years. Willmore jr was her sergeant. Now she wasn’t in charge; he was. He thoroughly proved his loyalty to Teresa Bell when he published a shockingly slanderous newspaper article about MEP around the turn of the 20th Century. Then he must have still been alive in the early 50’s when HH interviewed him. There is no indication of how old he was when he took over Pleasant’s job or when he supposedly talked to HH.

HH not being a scholar, not even having a BA level degree ( her bio states she attended U of O (or W), not that she graduated) did not mention when or where she interviewed him for her book. Or mention his bias, she just has several pages of notes in various places as her note taking was not organized.

There is a section of letters HH wrote and answers that people wrote back. I only see one consistency in any of the letters, and that is that they all called MEP, “Mammy”. No one who liked or loved her would ever do that. So it appears that even before the book came out, HH was collecting material only from people who called Mary Ellen “Mammy”, not (Mrs) Pleasant, which she preferred.

I saw the ‘born a slave” story as told by an informant whose name never appears anywhere else. And offers no proof of any kind. (The same story is told by Mildred Beasley in a book about black CA pioneers, published 1918, though I can’t ascertain the source of that story either) It was a variation on the version in the book, lacking any detail such as how Americus Price happened on MEP in GA before she was six years old, because she was six years old when she moved in with Grandma Hussey. (Americus was from Price’s Landing Missouri and probably was involved in MEP’s post-John Brown debacle) . I analyze that entire story for logic and probability in another post.

I copied her notes on WWjr and a couple of other things, but I totally and profoundly realize that the real Mary Ellen Pleasant will never be found in the Helen Holdredge Collection.

So, this signals something entirely new should happen with this blog. I will elaborate on that in my next post.

“Mammy Pleasant”: The Reinterpret Helen-Holdredge Site

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Why give this peculiar slogan to a website? What’s so bad about Helen Holdredge?

To this day, Helen Holdredge remains Mary Ellen Pleasant’s most accessible biographer, though also, its most flawed. I hope this changes, but I am tired of waiting and have lots of posts built up inside as I while away the time until someone publishes a thoroughly researched biography. She deserves such a complete treatment if for no other reason than to peel away the bias and acrimony of Helen Holdredge’s work.

Meanwhile, Holdredge’s tomes, Mammy Pleasant and Mammy Pleasant’s Partner have so many little tidbits tossed into the great salad of the books, that I find myself returning to them the most often to get names and places. One must wade through puddles of mud and streams of slander to access these tidbits. One must avoid the adjectives and the adverbs, for in them lies HH’s basic bias against MEP.

Holdredge was, in fact a very opinionated person. She was an incipient Kitty Kelly, ever eager to interview biased sources and sources with other agendas involved in their testimony about Mary. she missed many chances to independently research material on MEP’s work on the UGRR back east, before she came to San Francisco. Perhaps, if she had, she may have had to alter some of her opinions- but no matter, she did not ever elaborate on any aspect of MEP’s humanitarian work.Though she had to slur some references in sideways, they were just stepping stones to impugn another murder or scandal to MEP’s first 35 years.

Holdredge used certain sources the most, though she always clouds which source she got what story from. these sources included primarily Teresa Bell’s diaries, which HH inherited. These diaries, were a record of the inner working of a strange mind in a strange family in the Gold Rush era of San Francisco and the decades that followed up to the turn of the 20th century, when Mary Ellen died. These diaries were paranoid, twisted, on the spot made up rattlings of a person trying to wrest a fortune from its most entitled person, Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was Thomas Bell’s partner and his guide during the growth of his fortune. Teresa both created and copied the gossip and stories in her diary and tried to throw everything she could as an accusation against her rival for the cash. HH swallowed Teresa Bell’s motives as gospel and copied Teresa’s tone into her book.

Her second source was a recreation of a so-called autobiography dictated to her by an 88 year old source who became an ally of Teresa Bell’s slant on MEP. Her uncle had been one of MEP’s most trusted stewards until he turned against her, for his own profit,  in 1899. This woman, Charlotte Dennis Downs, claimed that MEP had dictated memoirs to her and she had written them down- perhaps from 1880 to 1886- if it ever happened. Because the original dictations were lost, HH and CDD recreated them for HH’s book about 50 years after the original dictation.

He other main source was the press from 1880-1904 when MEP died. She had spent the final 25 years of her life being tabloided. One article in particular was written by CDD’s uncle James E Brown and published in the SF Chronicle in 1899. Called, “Queen of the Voodoos”, it was J Brown’s inside story of MEP as an evil practitioner of voodoo and of all the excesses that position had led her to embrace. At that time, the taint of voodoo completely outweighed her long time membership in a local black church.

Helen H a San Franciscan and like many of the era from the 1930’s-50’s loved to gossip about the foibles of the city’s early founders. And no story had more sensation value than the story of the old black sorceress, Mammy Pleasant and her evil grip on the City in the early days.

The alternate story, that MEP was a heroic member of the UGRR, gave many ex slave families new starts where ever she lived, but esp in SF, that she even went to court on behalf of those who needed it, but couldn’t afford it. The first desegregation order on the trolley was on behalf of someone else, but the second time she took the trolley company to court to let blacks ride the trolley, did stick, and is still cited as legal precedent 140 years later. This heroic image did not really have legs with Holdredge and her sycophant/informants. Not when all that gossip about a 70 year old woman could be cited, instead.

There could have been hundreds of stories coming from families she had helped and from property records. As it is only a few stories are known, and that because the people who figured in them were too well known a part of MEP’s life to exclude them. As for instance the livery stable she helped a Mr Dennis and a Mr Brown found in return for carriage service at her beck and call for decades. Mr Dennis was Charlotte Dennis Downs’ father and due to a marriage with a Dennis, James E Brown the younger was Charlotte’s uncle. this same James E was the head steward at 1661 Octavia, Mep’s right hand man, but when Mary was kicked out of the home, Brown elected to stay in Teresa Bell’s employ and turn against MEP as the price. And turn against her, he did with his Queen of the Voodoos article.

If you were remove the gossip from HH’s account, only a slim volume would be left. Nevertheless, there is more context in Holdredge’s book than in the other major books about her. Many names are named in Holdredge’s work which leave more clues then the 21 century works which are friendlier to MEP.

Tending Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Grave…

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I get so frustrated, because the people  who are tending MEP’s grave (I mean this metaphorically) want to chop her up into pieces and act like that piece is the whole package. Pieces that won’t offend schoolchildren, so a Humanities Council will provide grants, I suppose.That is the “Civil Rights Piece” about her.

That is good stuff and really suitable for children, but care must be taken not to mention her later life- probably anything after 1775  when she and Bell were at their financial peak with a $30,000,000 fortune. The war was over, the UGRR was over, the civil rights cases were over, a lot of people were prospering and SF was growing exponentially with most of the newcomers not aware of MEP’s former role and status.

Another side that is treated separately, is her non-Western religion. Or specifically, what did her probable knowledge/practice of Voodoo consist of? This one is socially acceptable now, something that was not true back then. Her involvement in an African religion puts her in a long tradition of female practitioners and may be the most inspirational part of her life for many.This aspect is the one emphasized in another line of research.

Her childhood is still a mystery at this time and there is a line of research on that, too. The current sources are all unsubstantiated by any research published so far. Everyone who received a version of her birth in a dictation or an interview of her life before Nantucket recites it  in their published article as the true version, thus the conflicting stories of that period of time make her out to be person who changes her story according to her audience, confabulates, prevaricates or might just be a plain old liar. These conflicting stories make for interesting speculation of her motive to obscure the facts of her life before Nantucket at least 3 times. It points to something she wanted to keep secret, perhaps. Or maybe it was just a dissolving spine taking the way that might ease the moment more.

Or maybe she wanted to improve her authenticity as a lot of fortune tellers or psychics do, when they concoct long genealogies in their specialty, designed to impress, or to fool, or to divert.” I am the 7th son of the 7th son of the Rainbow, and thus, I have some special rainbow magic-and you don’t, so you must come to me and give me something of value in exchange for my wisdom, which will bring you great love, luck and happiness”. Or a variation on that theme.

The biggest contradiction is, was she born slave or born free? Why change the story? Why say one thing in one context and another in another? Is there an imperative reason or excuse for that? This aspect of her path through life is of interest to me. If she was born a slave, then claiming she was born free was the lie. If she was born free, then saying she was a slave was the lie. If the born a slave story is true, why didn’t she stick to it? Or was it her St Peter moment of betrayal? Or was it the Dennis/Brown version  confabulated from JJ Pleasant’s background?

Lastly, she had a tragic side that is definitely R rated. Life went on after the war. MEP no less than many others with vast resources available to her, decided to build a mansion second to none in the city. One that would proclaim her position in town. It was on top of a hill, but very near downtown where her main business was. She was primed for equality in every way, as a woman and as a business woman and been that way since she first arrived 40 odd years ago. Without a second thought, her whole life had already claimed that equality. Achieving success and equality early and often, she thought it was fair and inevitable. That wouldn’t change. She didn’t look twice at the cumulus clouds, gathering.

And, she used the courts when something wasn’t equitable and fair. In the early years after the war, she won her cases, especially the civil rights cases. She usually filed cases on behalf of others, as was the case  in her first suit against a trolley company. But that case didn’t stick so she who had never taken a trolley for her own needs, because she had carriages at her disposal, went and got on the trolley and promptly got thrown off. This time the case she brought on her own behalf, stuck, thus earning her belated title of Mother of Human Rights in CA 100 years later.

Now here is another side that has not been explored- it has been ignored. By the time she started building that mansion, something had changed for her. She seemed to lose a sense of perspective.Something emerged, a deep felt desire to live in a place as lavish as any planter ever had, or equal to the other people with self made fortunes in town? Whatever her motive was, that was what she was acting out.

The mansion had 30 rooms. This could have been the be all and end all of boarding houses in SF, where her tables were the finest, her service the most expert, her quarters the most luxurious! This big, lavish boarding house was probably some long-held fantasy coming true, just because she liked to make her visions come true and had succeeded much of the time. But the times had changed and boarding houses were hardly needed anymore, so, this became her domicile with Thomas Bell her sole boarder.

She had a chance to shop and furnish her mansion, just as many other very rich women of the time did. She did an overblown job, proving that she had truly mastered a sense of the style and decoration of the time. And holy cow, it was most unquakerlike! But it was what she must have wanted and it really mattered to her how lavish it was. Even as she had no need for any of it and trying to fill it up with people led her down a path that eventually finished her destruction and removed her fortune right out of her hands, into the hands of her most loyal follower, the fake widow, Teresa Bell (TBell)

Driven by ideas beyond my comprehension, MEP put together a fake family and brought in a beautiful woman she thought would be loyal to her forever, to play the fake mistress to the Boarder in Chief and also be the fake children’s nanny. No, the children were not fake, but they were brought in under the phony notion that Thomas Bell was their illegitimate father. They were actually children M had been asked to rehome in a forever home. So she brought the first batch of siblings home to the almost empty mansion, prepared to bring them up in luxury and with every advantage. From what is known about them later, the only thing they were missing was a true sense of belonging and never had anyone who loved them above all things and reined them in properly. They were raised in a stiff and starchy way with no deeper values than clothes, money, and carriages. Unfortunately the children must not have received any boundaries or learned self-discipline and began acting out at very young ages. The Victorian attitudes of the moment only rejected the behaviors with fear and loathing. They were unmentionable, the shame was so great.

Rearing children with no sense of attachment is almost a crime and shows MEP was starting to lose her sense. Not all her money and fame could give her a real family and the children paid for it the most. Her judgement must have been impaired to try to put that idea together.

Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about being a hero in your work and neglecting to meet your kid’s real needs. In this case, it was as though someone brought home some pet kids and figured all you had to do was feed and clothe them and they would be grateful forever. Teresa even told them so, when they started acting out. They were spoiled in the literal sense of the word and had never came close to loving Teresa, nor she them. They were devoid of gratitude, because they didn’t have what children want most, they had nothing to be grateful for they were in an emotionally devoid orphanage.

This probably would not have mattered if MEP hadn’t made some misjudgments, the first of which was that this was not the old San Francisco where pedigrees did not matter. She had the wrong pedigree. She would never be accepted as an equal in post war racist SF society and neither would her protege, so the home and everyone in it, except its principal boarder, Thomas Bell, were snubbed by the matrons recently shipped in from the East. Bell was simply too rich for rivals to want to cross him and he had cronies who were still making money with him. No one cared where he lived.

Maybe M didn’t realize that she was actually less of an equal than before the war, when SF was wild and wooly. She was 70 and  and rich. She must have thought everything was set in cement, because she was no longer astute enough to read the currents of this new time.

History may never have even known about the unhappy facade going on in this house, had it not become public in the courts of the day, as a result of another bad judgement call. M was so used to having her way, that when one of her proteges had a problem with a man who supposedly said he would marry her (when his divorce was final), to get her as a mistress. He did get her, then tired of her and threw her out. She and M were outraged and decided to take on the man who had ruined Ralston, an old time SF man M really liked. That is another story, but M and her protege did not stop to think about what they were doing, what the possible repercussions were and what if it turned out badly? M was sticking her neck way out to fund this protege’s very public, very messy, trial that dragged on for years because William Sharon could afford to fight it.

Not only could he afford to fight the case, he paid newspapers to write articles to undermine M’s credibility. The result was a public slaughter of this 70 year old gran dame in order to disrupt the court proceedings with kilos of red herrings. Perjury was rampant on the stand and vilification kept on and on and on, outside of the court room. The “peculiar circumstances” of the fake family were revealed, to the public’s disgust and the children’s detriment. Then, the press got a hold of rumors of Voodoo and that M was a Voodoo Priestess, and racist white peoples’ worst fears were titillated beyond anything they could have dreamed.They couldn’t get enough of it and that Voodoo theme was good in the presses until the day she died. Actually long after she died. Her very grave (metaphor!) was covered with a miasma of rot that the press invented on behalf of Sharon’s money and influence, that stuck around clinging to the ground for decades.

Sharon’s people paid well for gossip and collected it all and organized it into devastating briefs. He paid others to perjure themselves about the protege’s activities and claimed she had visited a series of fortune tellers who then recited absurd things about the plaintiff.

It was a maelstrom worse than anything M had ever faced and it was primarily directed to her for funding the case and appearing in the courtroom, and even testifying. It was an absolute avalanche with no other purpose than to destroy M’s reputation.

And it did.

Mary Ellen Pleasant, a true hero for the ages, was smashed flatter than Ralston, except Sharon didn’t try to go after Bell’s money as he did Ralston’s. M began losing respect and support from many who had come to her in years past. That part of her life was over. She lost her practice, so to speak. The young never paid her respect anymore and the old loyalties were dying off. She could not help anyone else after this terrible miscalculation in her own life went so wrong. So she ran the household for her family, sham as it was, but she was effectively retired and no longer had any influence.

To not calculate the odds on fighting William Sharon was Mary Ellen Pleasant’s folly. Her ruination for almost a century. When most people heard about the story later, MEP was portrayed like the version of her in the newspapers. And 50 years later when HH inherited TBells’s diaries, she stirred it all up again for several more decades.

Is there a moral in all this? Heroes are human and have foibles? Why didn’t Mary Ellen see what was coming? It didn’t take having a fortune told to predict what would happen if she brought this rather weak case to court against the most powerful, best connected man in CA, at the time. Well, I don’t think she could have predicted the full depth of her ruination. I don’t know if she realized that Jim Crow was turning the tide of opportunity first found after the war. Her solid base of support had aged and they were feeble compared to these new kings of commerce.

So, what did she do next? She spent years spending money on frivolous things, while she TBell and the kids lived in a town that shunned them. When Thomas Bell died a few years later, TBell forgot her gratitude and went after the fortune. So did one of the adopted kids. They were all back in court, quibbling. It all came to nothing for M, she was kicked out of the house the spring of 1899 with a few resources, but not much, comparatively speaking. Nothing she did helped her get more of the Pleasant/Bell fortune and she faded away, in the care of a white woman who got the little she had left, in exchange for a bed and board.

When all is said and done, if she had dropped dead on her 70th birthday, her biography would be no problem; there would not have been any scandals with her involvement. She probably would have had a huge funeral and kept the place in SF’s esteem that she had earned for so many years.

Her life would have been one long testament to abolition, the UGRR, and her help to people newly arrived from slave states. She probably helped far more people than Harriet Tubman, but because of events that happened in her 70’s, her entire life story was tainted.