Demystifying the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant — a woman with a convoluted legacy primarily rooted in the three identities that have come to define her: “Mammy Pleasant,” “Voodoo Queen,” and entrepreneur.
“Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park, 1814-1904, Mother of Civil Rights in California.”
The words are embedded in a plaque residing in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, an accompaniment to the public park meant to memorialize black abolitionist and millionaire Mary Ellen Pleasant. The park, which resides on a side of Octavia St., is half a block long. The only greenery is provided by six enormous eucalyptus trees Pleasant planted before she died. The plaque, placed by the San Francisco African American Historical & Cultural Society, is nestled in the street, and there’s nothing — save for four short square pillars surrounding it — to prevent people from stepping on it. Still, the park and plaque fail to reflect Pleasant’s larger than life story. A woman with a convoluted legacy primarily rooted in the three identities that have come to define her: “Mammy Pleasant,” “Voodoo Queen,” and entrepreneur.
In W.E.B. Du Bois‘ 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk, the civil rights activist and historian compared Mary Ellen Pleasant to Harriet Tubman and referred to her as “quite a different kind of woman and yet strangely effective and influential.”
“Here was a colored woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State. She anticipated the development in oil. She was the trusted confidante of many of the California pioneers such as Ralston, Mills and Booth, and for years was a power in San Francisco affairs,” he wrote. “Throughout a life that was perhaps more than unconventional, she treasured a bitter hatred for slavery and a certain contempt for white people.”
Demystifying Pleasant’s life is to understand how she subverted ideas of class, gender, and race to become a black woman of power and influence through these identities, particularly as a mammy and entrepreneur. There was something of a symbiotic relationship simultaneously being a mammy and entrepreneur. She used the former to learn from and meet white elites in San Francisco to not only become the latter but to disguise her rise as an entrepreneur too. While trying to navigate both, Pleasant became entangled in several court cases that birthed the defamatory titles “Mammy Pleasant” and “Voodoo Queen.” Both played a part in upending her entrepreneurial empire and distorting her life, the secretive Pleasant now propelled to share her life in hopes of saving her reputation.
She released an autobiography in 1902, two years prior to her death. The autobiography claimed that she was born in Philadelphia in 1814 to a mother who was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana” and a father who was Hawaiian. One of the more notable claims made in the autobiography is that Mary Ellen Pleasant helped fund abolitionist John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, donating $30,000 — almost $900,000 in today’s dollars — to the cause. Still, news stories and obituaries like the San Francisco Examiner’s “Mammy Pleasant Will Work Weird Spells No More,” as well as the fictional “biography” Mammy Pleasant, written by Helen Holdridge in 1953, further perpetuated the idea of Pleasant as a mammy and voodoo practitioner who amassed her fortune by controlling and manipulating people.
The problem with Mammy Pleasant isn’t just its inaccuracies but its barbaric depiction of Pleasant. In the book, Holdredge recreated the death of a man who fell down the stairs in a mansion belonging to Pleasant. Instead of helping the man, Pleasant used “her long fingers to pull the protruding brains from a hole in the top of his head.”
Holdredge had shaped Pleasant’s legacy with Mammy Pleasant and Mammy Pleasant’s Partner, its 1954 successor. Books like 2000’s Pale Truth and 2001’s Sister Noon have carried on the revisionist history of Mammy Pleasant, introducing new generations to a story accepted as historically accurate when it’s not. However, some books have attempted to legitimize Pleasant’s identity as a Voodoo practitioner beyond the fear-stoking incited by Holdredge.
Heritage of Power: Mary LaVeaux to Mary Ellen Pleasant, published in 1998, and 2009’s Women and New Africana Religions (Women and Religion in the World) are examples of this, both books claiming that Pleasant studied under Marie LaVeaux, a woman who is revered as New Orleans Voodoo Queen.
In Africana Religions, LaVeaux is credited “with unifying Vodou in New Orleans and with helping it to become a powerful social force against Americans who oppressed the indigenous Creoles and the Vodou faith at the time after the Louisiana Purchase.”
LaVeaux, like Pleasant, has her own convoluted story. Voodoo in New Orleans, published in 1946, and 1956’s The Voodoo Queen — both written by Louisiana author Robert Tallant — influenced “virtually everything written in the latter half of the twentieth century” about LaVeaux despite it having “historical flaws” and being a “racist text,” according to the 2005 journal article, “The Birth of New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen: A Long-Held Mystery Resolved.”
In recent years, LaVeaux’s Voodoo history has been re-examined, with historians discovering some proof of her role as a priestess. Heritage of Power and Africana Religions presents Voodoo as a significant tool for political and social change, offering a more grounded explanation of the religion and how it possibly functioned in both LaVeaux and Pleasant’s lives.
“As a model for social change, Marie LaVeaux was a revolutionary practitioner and priestess of Voodoo who really unified the religion, but most importantly used it in order to pressure the rich and power to help her people,” Susheel Bibbs, scholar and author of Heritage of Power, said. “At the same time, she helped the people who were enslaved in the area. She utilized various models, as there was a pattern to what she did. She passed that to Mary Pleasant.”
The most thorough examination of Pleasant has been 2003’s The Making of “Mammy Pleasant.” Written by Lynn Hudson, an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the book analyzes the claims, facts, and myths surrounding Pleasant’s life and how its complexity is likely why she isn’t as revered as other black figures.
“One of the reasons that she’s not known to students of U.S. history and Americans is because a lot of the activities that she was involved in were either controversial or secret,” Hudson said to the New York Times. “Her legacy is not the pure, selfless freedom fighter or heroine as how Harriet Tubman is described. Pleasant does not fit that mold.”
Pleasant’s move to California in the late 1840s was likely because of it being a free state, as well as the gold rush that was occurring at the time too. Initially, she had served as a cook and housekeeper; by the late 1850s she had “established herself as a cook for some of the most elite families and bachelors in San Francisco,” according to Hudson’s “Mammy Pleasant.” During her time, she gained investment tips and real estate deals and used an inheritance she allegedly received after the death of her first husband to invest in boardinghouses, laundromats, gold, silver, quicksilver, and even Wells Fargo Bank. As her entrepreneurial portfolio grew, she continued to present herself as a servant, a strategy that allowed her to gain financial and social information from men who likely underestimated her knowledge. This ultimately gave rise to the mammy-entrepreneur duality she’d navigate up until her death in 1904.
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Pleasant was also becoming an activist and civil rights pioneer. She helped hide a slave named George Mitchell, whose owner tried to keep him through California’s 1852 fugitive slave law after bringing him to the state in 1849. In 1858, she hid another slave, Archy Lee, whose owner received permission by the California Supreme Court to take Lee back with him to Mississippi. In the 1860s, Pleasant filed a lawsuit against a railroad company for discrimination, accusing an employee operating one of their street cars of not letting her on because she was black.
The case, Pleasants v. NBMRR, “set precedents in civil rights law,” according to The Making of “Mammy Pleasant.“ “Pleasant’s insistence on equal treatment on public transportation in the 1860s” preceded the work Rosa Parks would do with the Montgomery bus boycott almost a century later.
Around the time of the case, Pleasant had become more open about her entrepreneurial activities. She was now listed as a boardinghouse keeper in the city directory after previously being listed as a domestic. Her most successful boardinghouse was located at 920 Washington Street. Made up a largely black staff, the house was regularly frequented by leading politicians from the state because of its proximity to City Hall, the opera, and the largest gambling house in the city.
In the 1870s, Pleasant had designed and built her own mansion, a multistory, 30-room Victorian home that encompassed two city blocks. Claimed to have been worth $100,000 — almost $2.5 million in today’s dollars — when it was built sometime in 1877, Pleasant likely was able to afford the mansion through real estate and mining stock. Her fortune only grew as she began a financial partnership with Thomas Bell, the vice president of the Bank of California. Bell lived in Pleasant’s mansion with her, leading some to speculate that the two were also in a romantic partnership. Thomas would marry Teresa Bell, Pleasant’s friend. Now, Pleasant was once again navigating the role of mammy, presumed by the public as the Bell family’s servant. In reality, she was the owner of the mansion, living alongside the Bell family. By the 1880s, newspapers were calling her “the wealthiest colored person in this city,” “reputed to be worth two or three hundred thousand dollars.”
During that decade, Pleasant found herself in two highly-publicized court cases that likely birthed the Voodoo mythos associated with her. Sharon v. Sharon (1884) and Sharon v. Hill (1885) were centered around the divorce trials of Senator William Sharon. A former Nevada U.S. senator, Sharon had been accused of desertion and adultery by Sarah Hill, an Irish American woman and reputed prostitute who claimed she was married to Sharon. According to Hill, Pleasant had encouraged her to pursue Sharon for the alimony payments he owed her. Pleasant also testified that Hill showed her the marriage certificate and even spoke to Sharon about Hill after seeing it.
During the cases, Pleasant had been accused of being a Voodoo practitioner who had manipulated Hill. Pleasant, now in her 70s, wasn’t just a madam or a mammy in the public eye, but a voodoo queen too.
“…the public scrutiny of the 1880s — the racialized and scandalous cartoons and headlines included — contributed to her financial decline and tainted her reputation with the very judges she faced in the 1890s,” according to “Mammy Pleasant.“
In the 1890s, Pleasant was back in court dealing with cases related to her estate following the death of Bell in 1892. He had fallen from a railing at the top of a staircase in her mansion. Although a coroner had confirmed Bell’s death was an accident, Pleasant was accused of murdering him by his son Fred in 1899. In Bell’s death came the reveal that Pleasant wasn’t actually the Bell family’s servant, and that much of her fortune was under Bell’s name.
“Historians believe that the pair used his name in many of the business dealings to facilitate what surely would have been more difficult for a woman, and especially for a black woman,” the New York Times wrote in an updated obituary for Pleasant.
Now, Pleasant’s life was unraveling in front of the public. Fred hadn’t only accused her of killing Bell but controlling Teresa, leading him to request that his mother be removed as the head of the household in court. Initially, Pleasant and Teresa had attempted to undermine Fred’s case together. But their relationship worsened during the case and others that followed, the two fighting over property including a ranch in Sonoma County Pleasant purchased in 1891.
Outside of legal battles, Pleasant was also facing scrutiny in the press. In 1899, the San Francisco Chronicle — the most widely read paper in the city — published a story titled “Queen of the Voodoos,” which amplified the Voodoo mythos surrounding Pleasant introduced during the Sharon cases.
Believed to be written by James E. Brown Jr., one of Pleasant’s former employees at her mansion, the article not only exposed Pleasant’s ruse as the Bell family’s servant, but accused her of using Voodoo to influence people.
“Whatever effect Mammy’s voodoo art may have had upon her victims can never be known, but it is certain that she has shown wonderful power of persuasion that compels one to credit her with some sense outside of mere ability to argue,” according to “Mammy Pleasant.“
Ultimately, Teresa won control of the estate. Pleasant relocated to other properties she owned before moving to her friends’ — Olive and Lyman Sherwood — home, where she died on January 11, 1904. “Mammy Pleasant Will Work Weird Spells No More” was the headline of her San Francisco Examiner obituary. The title encapsulated what Pleasant had been reduced to: a black woman believed to have used magic and supernatural powers to amass the influence, money, and power that she did. In reality, the answer is likely more simple — she was like her white counterparts: savvy, smart, and strategic.
Pleasant’s legacy is the embodiment of so much. Of a black woman having to be mindful of what she chose to distort, omit, or share about her life in order to survive. Of the lack of control black people then — and now — have over how their story gets told, especially in death. Pleasant is more than the folklore and mythos that has defined her for so long. She was a fearless and unconventional black figure who left behind a complex and fascinating legacy, setting a foundation for the black figures who succeeded her.
Additional reporting by Taylor Crumpton.