MEP and Me


(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.


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.