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.

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