“Mammy Pleasant”: The Reinterpret Helen-Holdredge Site


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.


Where Was MEP Born? II. A look at source material


In Part 1, I referred to things I did not explain, that only someone who has read Helen Holdredge’s book would understand.

For now, when I am doing this earliest thinking on the subject I will Call Mary Ellen Pleasant M  MEP and other assorted variations and Teresa Bell, TBell. Helen Holderedge, HH.

When M got to SF in 1853 and established herself, she began helping other former slaves establish themselves. Specifically two of the people she helped were James A Brown and his partner  George? Dennis, to set up a livery stable. Brown and Dennis were understandably  loyal to M. So, it was not surprising that she hired James S Brown, the son, to work at 1661 Octavia. Apparently he worked his way up to second in command by the time TBell  kicked M out of Octavia St  in April 1899. Then, in July he publicly repudiated and insulted M in an article in the SF Chronicle published 7-9-1899, called, “Queen of the Voodoos. What better proof that he and Teresa were in cahoots could there be? He was working for her. She was the Widow Bell and did not want to pay M off; she fought to have M removed from her husband’s affairs. M did leave the home permanently and died within 5 years, in 1904.

Now, let’s jump to the 1930’s, 30 years later and Helen Holdredge  has inherited TBell’s diaries in which she recorded a lot of crazy sounding stuff. It seems the TBell diaries were begun in 1892 shortly after Thomas Bell’s death when she moved to a ranch in Sonoma called Beltane. M, Teresa, and all of Bell’s heirs began to struggle over the inheritance. I don’t think the diaries contribute any enlightenment whatsoever to the life of MEP, but instead make her out to be a greedy, mean old woman.

They must have aroused HH’s interest in the story when she inherited them for she seems to have made her life work out of treatments of various early SF-ers and wrote several books about these colorful characters. HH seems to have begun researching Madame Pleasant in 1930 give or take. I’ll guess she started with the local newspapers because much of what she reports, comes from them. One article from July 1899 was Titled, “The Queen of the Voodoos” by James S Brown and could have led her to a living relative of Brown, 88 year old, Charlotte Dennis Downs, his niece who did know M.  If this age is correct, Charlotte was born ca 1845 and therefore arrived in SF on some unspecified date after 1849. It is well established that M helped Charlotte’s father James A Brown and George?Dennis, his partner, set up the livery stable. She may have been as young as 12-13 when she met M or at least, heard of her, and by the 1880’s when she supposedly took down M’s memoirs she was around 40, if I got my math right. This writing seems to have occurred over at least 6 years 1880-1886 according to HH’s account in her book.

Why do I say ‘supposedly’? Because these memoirs disappeared from history, if indeed they ever were written. HH’s  mentions of  this memoir said that it was being written between 1880 and 1886.

In HH page 216, right after she mentions Charlotte’s dictations, she goes into a lot of detail about the juicy gossip surrounding the family at the time, Namely the troubles with Marie Bell, (one of Thomas Bell’s adopted children) then about 9 years old. Now Charlotte did not have to recall writing this in the memoir, because she knew of it first hand, or second hand at most. Charlotte had quite a few of these stories, including the India Howard gossip about her murder, and the gossip around TBell having murdered her first husband, the stories of the 49 graveyard plots and a few others. These seemed to be Charlotte Dennis Downs’ memories of MEP and they consisted mostly of various gossip ridden events which were invariably described as taking place in M’s homes or under her influence over the years. If these are not the events chronicled in Downs’ reconstruction, the book does not make that clear.

HH writes that Charlotte told her uncle James (the younger) Brown, “The writing of her autobiography is how she keeps track of so much….She is plotting and scheming and she never rests a minute of the day. She doesn’t take time out for amusements; she is so busy with her plots”(HH p 216). Now remember, Charlotte was the niece of the man who turned on M and stuck with TBell. No wonder her re-creations are so twisted. The duo of Brown and TBell vs. M is only bolstered by Charlotte Dennis Downs’ recollections, making her the a third party against M’s reputation and this is the view that HH took consistently.

So. Maybe HH got the idea that Downs’ memoirs would be more authentic if she said they were an autobiography that M dictated to her. Or maybe Charlotte did tell HH that she did some writing for MEP. MEP had J S Brown keeping ledgers as he was the steward and perhaps Charlotte was aware of these or even helped. These might have indicated some ‘plotting’ or more likely, very complicated affairs of being owed and owing money, but they were impossible to recreate, so they decided to call Downs memories of MEP’s household a recreation of M’s autobiography. At least that is what the book looks like, when you read it.

I can’t imagine M telling any of these stories to be written in an autobiography.

HH in her intellectual dishonesty never really was clear that Brown and Tbell  cooperated on the same side against M.

This recreation of a dictated autobiography 50 years later is the source for the Goochland, GA, NOLA, Ohio, to Nantucket version of her early years. I don’t know where the fabled Voodoo ceremony, orchestrated by a child, came from. It is too absurd, and even when one of MEP’s biographers refers to her birth and her mother’s death, they do not even dismiss this story. They ignore it. After all, what can you do with it? It simply is not the truth. Who ever told the story, is lying or mistaken and we know this was not from any original dictation from MEP. Why would she claim that? Unless she were totally depraved, which is what HH wanted to convey. Stuff like this is usually called “bias”.

I am willing to venture that MEP’s household staff did know she knew and studied with  Mamzelle Laveaux, perhaps that her mother or grandmother was from Haiti. There is a story of a full fledged Voodoo ceremony in the basement of 1661 Octavia. Perhaps it was dedication of the home. If it ever happened. This story had to have come from Downs, if HH didn’t make it up. The story was that the drums were so loud that the neighbors complained.  There does not appear to be any repeat of a story like this nor any documentation that anyone complained to officials. It may indicate just another anecdote towards M’s knowledge of Voodoo politics. There is nothing in historical records to indicate there were any Voodoo congregations, No dances as in Congo square going on in SF. In this context, Voodoo was probably mostly prayers and small rituals. I am not sure, but there is probably a PhD thesis in it if anyone can cover expressions of African religion in SF. At the least, it was nothing like it was publicly practiced in Haiti and NOLA.

I think some people probably knew M had a background connection to Voodoo, and that lent her a bit of mystery, but she did not use old fashioned Voodoo rituals as a practice.  If there were African drummers in SF, they were very quiet. Except that one night. Or the story was made up. Authentic Voodoo practices needed drums or something to pound out the rhythms of each energy form so possession could take place. If anyone was doing this, there aren’t even rumors of it today, but maybe something could be found.

I think MEP mostly practiced Voodoo politics as she learned them from Laveaux. She was a central figure in SF, a Black City Hall, so she did all the same things Laveaux did in helping people with their problems. Legal problems, Money problems. Pregnancy problems. Civil rights problems. She arranged a few marriages. Catering problems. You name it, she could do it and there is plenty of evidence in the HH book that she did all those and more, even if there was a negative spin put on it by Brown’s, Downs’ TBell’s, and HH’s retellings.

So this is my summary: HH took dictation from Downs regarding the stories she could tell about MEP. HH wrote them down and that is the only evidence that Downs ever wrote down M’s memoirs 50 years previously. Even though it was now far removed from any words M ever said,  it was presented as being almost primary source material. If these were only Downs’ memories, they just sounded mean, but if they were M’s autobiography, then her own words about her evil deeds condemn her.

HH had one purpose in mind; to make MEP a villain, the Charlie Manson of her day. In this she used  TBell’s and Brown’s collusion as though they were presenting an unbiased view, yet it was so evil.

A brief biography of Mary Ellen Pleasant




SPIRIT RIDER, SLAVE STEALER: The Story of Mary Ellen Pleasant

MEP at about the time of the scandals

Mary Ellen Pleasant may have been born On August 19th between 1814 and 1817. She was part black. She had quite light skin and was beautiful. She died in obscurity in 1904 leaving an incredible legacy of good deeds and high achievements, which have been eclipsed by yellow journalistic epithets for a hundred years. Since 1987, she has begun to make a comeback. She is now officially titled “the Mother of Human Rights in California” due to an 1867 court decision in San Francisco in which she won the right for African Americans to ride the trolley. This decision became a landmark still referred to today. Thus, Mary Ellen Pleasant is still fighting for human rights almost 100 years after her death.

Nothing has been documented about her first decade, but it is probable she lost her mother at a tender age. She enters into history  in Nantucket, first as an indentured servant to Quakers, the Hussey family as a worker in their retail store, then becoming almost a family member. During this period she entered abolitionist circles where she met all the luminaries. In her 20’s, she married James Smith a fellow abolitionist, wealthy contractor and farmer who was also light skinned. Until his death several years later, they brought slaves out of the south as far north as Canada and set them up in homes and businesses. They often passed as white during this work as they were elegant and well spoken, both having been raised in comfortable circumstances. His will asked Mary Ellen to continue the work and she did, during which time she married J.J. Pleasant, Smith’s  foreman. When they got too well known to continue their work in the north, they left, going first to New Orleans where she worked closely with J.J.’s relative, Marie Laveau, both on exporting slaves and on learning Marie Laveau’s political approach to Vodoun, though it was called Voodoo back then.
She left New Orleans to follow J.J. to San Francisco in 1852-3, with authorities hot on her tail for her work in transporting slaves. Still in her 30’s, she continued to pass for white in white circles, though not in black circles. Although still wealthy from her marriage to Smith, she became the best-known chef/housekeeper in SF, highly sought after and highly paid by the earliest movers and shakers of the city. She also promptly opened up a terminal of the Underground Railroad in SF and diligently found jobs, homes, and helped finance businesses for scores, then hundreds of refugees. Although no count has been made of the actual numbers of slaves she helped escape the south, then helped find new lives, it is possible that she may have helped more slaves than Harriet Tubman.
Her business skills, no less than her beauty, charm and brains allowed her to make use of financial tidbits heard around her famous tables during her next 3 decades. She found business partner, Thomas Bell, while still in her 30’s, and began to make both their fortunes. With Pleasant guiding him, Thomas Bell rose from a clerk at the Bank of CA to being one of the financial kings of the west, who rode wave after wave of success. Also, due to Pleasant’s advice to Bell, he was one of the few to pull out of the market before the crash of 1875, thus saving their mutual 30 million dollar fortune. (Her husband, J.J., meanwhile become an alcoholic and eventually died of diabetes in the 1870’s.)
To backtrack a little, just before the Civil War, she also invested in John Brown, became his close friend, and spent a year and a half away from SF as she traveled around to plantations spreading the word of rebellion. She is said to have donned male attire, often taking the guise of a traveling jockey, sometimes, black, sometimes white. When John Brown attacked the Armory, she returned to SF, disappointed that the slave rebellion did not come off.
After the war, Pleasant publicly changed her racial status from white to black in the SF directory, setting off the first faint rumble of scandals to come in white circles. I do believe that most of her white friends already knew. It was the snobbier newcomers who did not know her except through her widespread fame, who were scandalized. Pleasant had always stayed within her self-defined boundaries of being innkeeper, mistress of the table, catering, and household management, even when she became immensely wealthy. This self and societal boundary limited her when it came to the truest partner and love of her life, Thomas Bell, and was part of the reason for the scandals to come.
At this time, Pleasant also began to fight for human rights in the courts, and won  victories, at least one of which became a landmark, still cited today and the basis of her California-endowed title of “Mother of Human Rights in California.”
Here Begin the Scandals
Pleasant had often arranged introductions between suitable young women and the powerful men who sat at her table. Dozens of these introductions blossomed into marriage, so Pleasant was deeply connected to some of the most oldest and most powerful families in SF, was famous, and lauded for her good works. However in the 1880’s, one of the liaisons to develop out of such an introduction between William Sharon, a powerful newspaper publisher who was going through a divorce, and Sarah Hill, an heiress, went bad. Sarah had begun the liaison after Pleasant negotiated a contract saying Sharon would marry her when his divorce was final. He did not, and  Pleasant and Hill sued. Pleasant paid for the suit and testified in court to the contract.
Sharon, in turn used his newspaper connections to smear Pleasant. He accused her of murder, Voodoo baby eating, being a madam and more. The suit dragged on for years; Sharon died before it was over, Sarah was institutionalized soon after, and Pleasant remained the butt of ugly rumors and smears for 100 years.
Her affair with Thomas Bell almost came under public scrutiny during the Sharon/Hill trial, but it was possibly too hot to understand. That is, Bell’s and Pleasant’s friends kept mum. Instead, the scandals turned their home, a fine mansion on Octavia St., designed and built by Pleasant into the “House of Mystery”, as it became known when the facts of Bell’s “marriage” became tabloided after some of the facts came out in the Sharon/Hill trial.
Unfortunately I do not have anything but a tabloided version of Pleasant’s life to judge any of the following by, but this is the story: Bell had fallen into a sham marriage with Theresa Hoey, whom Pleasant had financially supported for years while she was groomed for the job of pretending to be Bell’s “mistress”. Teresa  also earn her keep by raising Bell’s several “adopted children”, whom Bell apparently thought were his own illegitimate children and his obligation to raise. Pleasant appeared to be the “housekeeper”. Meanwhile, he and Pleasant were the real “couple”. Pleasant also apparently thought Teresa would hold to the sham, because Pleasant had apparently helped protect Teresa from a murder charge, even convincing 3 powerful SF businessmen (who apparently witnessed the murder) to keep silent until death. Some of this may really be true.
Teresa was no wimp, nor did she lack cunning. At one point, Teresa apparently got Bell drunk and brought in a priest and married him, maybe by claiming the kids were hers and they were “living in sin”. She was then banished from the House of Mystery for something like a year. When she returned, it was to the grim position of raising the children with no relationship to Bell, let alone that of a wife. She did not have friends, because SF society rejected her as unfit for wives to associate with, though husbands attended all-male gatherings at Bell’s house, where Pleasant presided with her usual charm, wit and wisdom and Teresa hung out in her quarters. Bell’s friends detested Teresa because they knew what was really going on.
After Bell and the 3 witnesses had all died, Teresa began to fight Pleasant in court for Bell’s and Pleasant’s combined assets. Pleasant, now in her late 70’s, most of her supporters dead, was kicked out of her own house of mystery, then retired to a boarding home, gave away her remaining assets and treasures, then died in obscurity at the beginning of her 80’s.
The children of the Bell household all turned out to be tortured souls, until they dropped off history’s pages.