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Pleasant, Mary Ellen (1812? - 1904), legendary woman of influence and political power in Gold Rush and Gilded Age San Francisco, was born, according to some sources, a slave in Georgia; other sources claim that her mother was a Louisiana slave and her father Asian or Native American. Many sources agree that she lived in Boston, as a free woman, the wife of James W. Smith, a Cuban abolitionist. When he died in 1844 he left her his estate, valued at approximately $45,000.
Mary Ellen next married a man whose last name was Pleasant or Pleasants and made her way to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1849. Her husband’s whereabouts after this time have never been made clear. She started life in San Francisco as a cook for wealthy clients, then opened her own boardinghouse. Her guests were said to be men of influence, and it was rumored that her places were also houses of prostitution.
Many sources state that Pleasant was a very active abolitionist, helping escaped slaves find jobs around the city. When she heard of John Brown’s desire to incite slave rebellions, she supposedly met with him in Canada in 1858, handing him $30,000 of her own money to further his cause. When Brown’s attempt to seize the arsenal at Harpers Ferry failed, authorities began searching for her, though she was able to disguise herself and find her way back to San Francisco under the name of Mrs. Ellen Smith. When Brown was captured, he supposedly had a note in his pocket that said, “The ax is laid at the root of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” It was signed with the initials W. E. P., though some conjecture that Pleasant signed the note and deliberately made her “M” look like a “W.”
Back in San Francisco, Pleasant fought racism by suing a streetcar company for not allowing her to ride. She sued twice, once in 1866 and again in 1868. She finally received damages in the latter suit, but she had to have a white man witness the streetcar conductor refusing her a seat in order to win her case. During the 1860s she supposedly found wives for wealthy men as well as homes for their illegitimate children. She placed former slaves as servants in homes all over the city, creating a communication network for the receipt of gossip and information, in the much the same way that her contemporary, the voodoo priestess MARIE LAVEAUX, built a power base in New Orleans.
Pleasant is best known for being the housekeeper of banker Thomas Bell, who married Teresa Percy, one of Pleasant’s protégés. By this time Pleasant was known to white San Franciscans as “Mammy,” and was said to have some sort of power over the Bells. It was even rumored that voodoo rituals were held in the Bell home on Octavia Street, and the mansion soon became known as the “House of Mystery.” Pleasant was considered a woman of mystery herself, and was described in newspaper articles and in the memoirs of native San Franciscans as “strange” “mesmeric” and “picturesque”.
In 1883 and 1884 Pleasant’s name was again in local newspapers because of her involvement in the court case of Sarah Althea Hill v. William Sharon. Sharon, a millionaire, former Nevada senator, and owner of the opulent Palace Hotel, was being sued by Hill for support under the terms of a secret marriage contract. The contract later proved to be a forgery and supposedly had been arranged by Pleasant. Pleasant’s access to and seeming power over the rich men of San Francisco made this a believable story to most of the city’s citizens. During the trial, Hill claimed to be “controlled” by Pleasant, and Pleasant’s appearance in court always caused a stir, as recorded on 6 May 1884 in the San Francisco Call: “Mammy Pleasant, as the plaintiff calls her colored companion, shows herself in court only as a bird of passage, so to say. She bustles in, converses pleasantly with the young men attached to the defendant’s counsel…and like a wind from the south astray in northern climes departs and leaves but chill behind.”
One of the few established facts in the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant is that Thomas Bell died in 1892, after a fall from the second story landing of the House of Mystery. Many thought Pleasant had murdered him; if so, and if the murder was for gain, it was fruitless, for when his wife inherited Bell’s money, she eventually forced Pleasant out of the house and into a small flat in the city’s African-American district. Living in poverty, Pleasant was taken in by the Sherwood family, to whom she had rendered assistance at one time. When Pleasant died in San Francisco, she was placed in the Sherwood family plot in the Tucolay Cemetery in Napa, California. At her request, her gravestone contained the words: “She Was a Friend of John Brown.” After her death the San Francisco Call (12 Jan. 1904) reported a mysterious matter that pertained to her association with John Brown: “Among her effects are letters and documents bearing upon the historical event in which she played an important part. The Brown family raided her flat when Mrs. Sherwood took her home. After her death, the Sherwoods found Mrs. Pleasant’s trunks in her Webster Street flat to be all but empty.”
Pleasant seems to have wielded power over influential people, yet because she was African American and female, her activities did not reflect her racial and social status, which possibly led to the rumors that she engaged in voodoo and even murder. She moved freely through the highest levels of society, yet she dressed always like a servant. She left nothing in writing, and surviving diaries and newspaper articles paint her as a mysterious and sinister figure. At the same time, some recalled Pleasant as “generous,” claiming that she used her own money to aid African-American railroad strikers and assisted with other black causes. A few San Franciscans who were children during Pleasant’s lifetime remembered her as a churchgoing “lovely old lady” and said that they never believed the voodoo stories.
Historians have rediscovered Mary Ellen Pleasant, and perhaps new materials will come to light to reveal more about this woman whose presence haunts the annals of nineteenth-century San Francisco.
Few primary materials on Mary Ellen Pleasant have survived or been discovered. A photograph, generally agreed to be that of Pleasant, is in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Pleasant’s biographer, Helen Holdredge, has placed notes and transcripts of interviews in the San Francisco Public Library.
Holdredge, Helen. Mammy Pleasant (1953).
Hudson, Lynn. The Making of “Mammy Pleasant: a Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth Century San Francisco (2003).
Wheeler, B. Gordon. Black California: The History of African-Americans in the Golden State (1993).