Tending Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Grave…


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.


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.