Pleasant, Mary Ellen 1814–1904
Mary Ellen Pleasant 1814–1904
Civil rights pioneer, entrepreneur
One of the most controversial figures in San Francisco life during the late nineteenth century, Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant had a reputation that ran the gamut from savior of the downtrodden to exploiter of the wealthy. According to Lerone Bennett, Jr., in Ebony, she was “a bold black pioneer who was one of the most enigmatic and mysterious women in American history.” Various reports in leading newspapers of her day called her everything from the “Queen of Voodoo” to a blackmailer, organizer of orgies, and one of San Francisco’s most notorious madams.
Pleasant played a key role in court cases on major civil rights issues as well as in sensational cases involving purported murder, infidelity, and forgery. However, much of her story can neither be confirmed nor disproved due to a lack of tangible evidence and her own closely guarded secrecy regarding the details of her life. What is clear is that she was a very shrewd woman who rose from modest circumstances to a position of significant impact in certain spheres of San Francisco society. Also well established is her active support of civil rights causes, both as a protector of newly freed blacks and as a promoter of greater rights for blacks in California.
In her memoirs and Pandex of the Press, Pleasant claimed that she was born in Philadelphia to a free black mother and Hawaiian father who imported silks, although some accounts say she was born a slave to a black or mulatto mother and a white plantation owner father. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle indicated that she was brought up in Virginia, while the Oakland Tribune said she was born in Georgia.
Various sources indicate that when Mary was a young girl, her father sent her to live with the Husseys, a Quaker family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, for whom she worked as a clerk at the family store. According to Ebony, Pleasant said that her father “gave them [the Husseys]…plenty of money to have me educated, but they did not use it for that purpose, and that’s how I came to have no education.” Later she moved to Boston and met a well-to-do Cuban tobacco planter named Alexander Smith. After the two married, Mary Smith became involved in the abolitionist movement, active in the area whose leaders included William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
Her husband’s death in 1848 gave Mary Smith a significant inheritance worth $45,000. An article in the Oakland Tribune stated that Smith had been instructed by her husband to
Born August 19, 1814, in Philadelphia, PA; died of old age, January 11, 1904, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Louis Alexander (a silk importer) Williams; married James Henry (a carpenter and contractor) Smith (died, 1848); married John James Pleasant (a cook and/or seaman; name may have been Pleasants, Pleasance, or Plaissance, (died, 1877); children: (first marriage) Elizabeth.
Worked as shop clerk in Nantucket, MA; became active in abolitionist movement; inherited substantial legacy following death of first husband; worked as a cook and housekeeper while speculating in stock and money markets and lending money to businessmen in San Francisco, CA, 1850–60; became owner of a string of laundries, 1850; may have provided financial assistance to John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, 1858; played key role in repealing law banning black testimony in California courts, 1863; staged a streetcar sit-in, 1866; opened first boarding house in San Francisco, c. 1867; helped end racial discrimination in California streetcars by suing street car company, 1868; worked as a rancher and farmer; helped raise funds for churches, 1870–80; housekeeper for Thomas Bell, c. 1870–80; supported Sarah Althea Hill in her suit against Senator William Sharon for breach of marriage contract, 1884; was declared bankrupt, 1899.
apply this money toward the abolitionist cause, but it appears that she may have retained a significant portion of it for her own plans. Smith remained involved in the fight against slavery for the next several years. She became remarried during this time, to a former slave named John James Pleasant—some sources say Pleasants or Plaissance—according to various sources, who had worked for Alexander Smith as an overseer.
After Pleasant headed west to California with other abolitionists during the California gold rush, her second husband no longer appeared in reports about her life. His involvement in her life until his death in 1877, remains unclear to this day. Men in general seem to have stayed largely in the background of Mary Pleasant’s life, according to Lerone Bennett, Jr., in Ebony. “Black or white, known or unknown, poor or rich, there was apparently only one role for a man in her life—and that was a supporting role, behind the scenes,” wrote Bennett.
After arriving in San Francisco, Pleasant began working as a housekeeper and cook, while at the same time investing her money in stock and money markets. She also lent money to miners and other businessmen at 10 percent interest. Pleasant claimed to have brought $15,000 in gold coins with her. She told the San Francisco Examiner that “My custom was to deposit silver and draw out gold, by which means I was able to turn my money over rapidly.”
Revealing a keen skill as an investor, Pleasant gained many insights by gleaning information revealed by rich businessmen at the dinners over which she presided. Her tact regarding the secrecy of prominent men, for whom she often procured the services of mistresses, may have helped her win their confidence and their help in her financial planning. Some sources have said that she stationed black servants in locations where they could overhear tidbits of information that helped her make investment decisions.
Pleasant became an active philanthropist who used her money to help bring blacks to San Francisco and get them started in new homes and new jobs. She came to the aid of free blacks who were enslaved illegally in California—a free state since 1850—by hiding black fugitives in her own home or in the homes of wealthy whites. Another one of her causes was the plight of young women, both black and white, who were easy prey for exploitative men in the rough climate of frontier San Francisco. She also may have found homes for unwanted babies.
Some reports indicated that Pleasant may have been involved with the Underground Railroad that transported slaves from the South to their freedom in the North and Canada. An 1899 article in the San Francisco Call said that southern planters whose slaves she had helped to escape had put “a price on her head in the South.” While maintaining to her dying day that she went back east in the late 1850s to provide financial support to abolitionist John Brown for his raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, this contribution has never been verified.
In addition to helping individual blacks overcome oppression, Pleasant promoted the cause of civil rights in California in two key court decisions. In 1863, she was involved in a case that earned blacks the right to have their testimonies heard in California courts. In 1866 she organized a sit-in in San Francisco streetcars in retaliation against blacks being denied passage, an action prompted by her not being allowed to board one of the cars. The North Beach and Mission Railroad Company was forced to pay her $500 in damages, a decision of a lower court that was then upheld by the California State Supreme Court in 1868.
By 1855, Pleasant owned a string of laundries, and she opened her first of a number of successful boarding houses in the late 1860s. Eventually she was managing director of several boarding houses and restaurants. She also became very active in soliciting funds for the Black Masonic lodge and Black Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), and AME Zion churches. “I am a Catholic, but one church was the same as another to me,” she said, according to Ebony. “It was all for the cause.”
Rumors that her boarding houses were fronts for providing well-to-do men with mistresses abounded, but the charges were never proven. Her establishments were noted for being a cut above the crass dance halls and lewd “houses of joy” that formed the mainstay of evening entertainment in the San Francisco of her time.
Controversy over Pleasant’s life was heightened more or less permanently after she became the housekeeper for Thomas Bell, a wealthy businessman of Scottish descent. Pleasant had met Bell at one of her boarding houses, and later moved with Bell and his wife, Teresa, into a 30-room mansion that Pleasant had supposedly designed. The Bell home became known in San Francisco as “The House of Mystery,” and the rumor mill ground out all manner of theories about the relationship between Pleasant and Bell. The housekeeper was cast in the role of everything from Bell’s lover to a cunning thief who extorted significant sums from the Bell fortune.
Pleasant did seem to have control over the finances of the Bells that far exceeded the typical boundaries of housekeeping. Her name turned up on the deed to the Bell homestead, and some newspaper reports indicated that Pleasant cheated money out of the family coffers with an assortment of scams. She may have used some of the money she secured from the estate to help the plights of blacks, and she told the San Francisco Examiner that she often brought food to churches and hospitals. However, other reports stubbornly maintained that all her “charity” was directed toward her own financial gain.
After Thomas Bell fell to his death from an upper-floor window, suspicions about Pleasant having murdered him arose. These suspicions died down when Bell’s will revealed no bequeathing of money or property to her. Troubles arose for Pleasant years later, though, when Bell’s widow, whose relationship with Pleasant had deteriorated, turned on her and began a legal fight over disposition of the Bell property. Teresa Bell began asserting that Pleasant had pushed her husband out of the window, and her accusations resulted in a barrage of ill feeling toward Pleasant in San Francisco. Part of the reversal in attitude toward Pleasant paralleled the development of San Francisco itself. Racist attitudes returned as the city progressed from a freewheeling frontier town to a more settled society.
In another case that made headlines in the late nineteenth century, Pleasant supported the cause of Sarah Althea Hill’s suit against Senator William Sharon of Nevada for breach of a marriage contract. Pleasant provided $5,000 for Hill’s defense against Sharon, supporting the claim that Hill had been Sharon’s mistress. Sharon denied the existence of a marriage contract, and although Hill won her suit at the state level, the decision was overturned by a federal judge who claimed that the contract was a forgery.
Although never convicted of Thomas Bell’s murder, Pleasant was forced at age 85 to move out of the Bell estate, despite her assertion that the Bell property really belonged to her. Claiming to be drained financially by her legal entanglements, Pleasant declared bankruptcy in 1899, but the Oakland Tribune estimated that she was worth from $35,000 to $150,000 at the time. Litigation involving the Bell estate continued well beyond Pleasant’s death in 1904. Despite being lambasted in the press over the Bell affair, Pleasant was deluged by get-well cards and flowers by her fellow San Franciscans when she became seriously ill near the end of her life. The San Francisco Examiner reported that “her deeds of charity are as numerous as the grey hairs on her proud old head.”
An article in Ebony said that a friend of Mary Pleasant told her granddaughter that someone speeded up the ill woman’s death by poisoning her. Apparently, an assortment of people had keys to her apartment at the time and could have entered at will. As with so many other assertions about the mysterious life of Mary Pleasant, this too remains unprovable. Bennett pointed out that “because of what she knew, and because she posed a threat as long as she lived, Mrs. Pleasant was hounded to the end by conspirators who wanted to destroy her.”
After her death, Mary Pleasant had to wait 61 years before she received the inscription she desired on her gravestone: “SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN.” In 1976, Memorial Park was established in her memory at the site of the Pleasant/Bell mansion by the African-American Historical and Cultural Society. Few women, black or white, had such a major impact on both real life and the imaginations of San Francisco during its formative years in the late nineteenth century. As was said in Ebony, “She was a shaping, moving, energizing force at the highest levels of commerce and activity.”
Beasley, Delilah, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, 1919; reprinted: R and E. Associates, 1968.
Davis, Samuel Post, Pandex of the Press, 1902.
Dobie, Charles C., San Francisco: A Pageant, Appleton-Century Co., 1939.
Holdredge, Helen, Mammy Pleasant, Putnam, 1953.
Savage, W. Sherman, and Rayford W. Logan, “Mary Pleasant,” Notable American Women: 1607–1950, Volume 3, Harvard University Press, 1971.
Ebony, June 1993, pp. 56, 58–60, 62, 64; September 1993, pp. 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62.
Essence, January 1994, p. 38.
Oakland Tribune, September 3, 1916.
San Francisco Call, May 7, 1899.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 1899; January 12, 1904.
San Francisco Examiner, October 13, 1895; January 11, 1904.
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