The mystery of Mary Ellen Pleasant.
All right--we have been warned. And the task before us is the task of trying to define the roles in the theater of the financier-abolitionist-feminist who dazzled San Francisco in the 1890s and who was accused, as we saw in the last installment, of committing every crime in the book.
"I am a whole theater in myself."
That means, if it means anything, that Mary Ellen Pleasant was engaged, consciously engaged, in the extraordinary enterprise of acting all the roles in a play she wrote, produced, and directed.
A formidable, no, a terrifying woman, Mary Ellen Pleasant, and the best way to begin this second installment is to show the terror she produced in others, not by voodoo, as the mythologists say, but by sheer power of being. Here is a little scene from one of her dramas.
The great and harassed lady is going to be interviewed, or, rather, she is not going to be interviewed.
"If a foreign prince comes to San Francisco [Miriam Michelson of the San Francisco Call wrote] your managing editor, through an influential friend, may arrange a short meeting for you . . . But tell me, ye gods of the pull, what is the magic string that will open Mammy Pleasant's door and Mammy Pleasant's lips!
"I went up the steps at 1661 Octavia Street and rang the bell and waited and . . . presently a pretty-faced lad of about 14 appeared at the door. He was gentle, even smiling, but he was delightfully firm . . . .
"I tried again a few days later.
"This time an elderly woman admitted me.
"I was so surprised at really being on the inside of that charmed door that I could only look about me in silent amaze.
"A very, very wide, generous, deep hall, with broad staircase starting halfway back, and--suddenly, from above, a deep, imperious voice:
"|Who's the lady? Who's the lady,'" it demanded.
"|I'm bringing up her card and the letters,' said the gentle, timid voice of the woman who had admitted me.
"|I can't see anybody. What's your name?'
"Up toward the undistinguished darkness I confessed my name and quality, or lack of it.
"|You were here the other day.'
"|Yes,' I admitted, like a culprit.
"|Well, I can't see you. I'm too busy. I don't want to sec anybody. if I want you, I'll send for you.'
"I laughed aloud at this. it was so unexpected; said so simply, though.
"The harsh voice softened almost imperceptibly. It bade me good-by, and repeated not so crossly.
"|If I want you, I'll send for you.'"
FROM this great height, from this fascinating image of the unknown and imperious Black woman at the top of the stairs, we descend naturally to the ground of segregation-slavery that produced her. And here we immediately run into trouble, for we don't know where this remarkable woman came from.
There are two major theories about her origin, and from time to time, depending on her aims and disposition, Mary Pleasant supported or seemed to support both. The first theory is that she was born in slavery, either in Louisiana or Virginia or Georgia. There is no hard evidence to support this theory, but there is no lack of secondary material that describes in minute detail how she grew up on a great plantation and was rescued by an improbable White planter who bought her because of her white skin--she was almost certainly brown and perhaps black--and sent her to a New Orleans convent and then on to the North. This is all very interesting, and it makes pleasant reading on rainy days, but there is no corroborative evidence.
This theory also runs full into the face of Mary Ellen Pleasant, who should have known where she was born. On at least three occasions she said that she was born not in slavery but in freedom. In 1890 she told a census-taker that she was born in Pennsylvania. In 1901 she said in her "Memoirs" that "some people have reported that I was born in slavery, but as a matter of fact I was born in Philadelphia, at number 9 Barley Street." The date, she said, was August 19, 1814.
Who were her parents?
Again, we don't know, or to be more precise, we know too much. Her father, we are told in great and contradictory detail, was either a famous White slave-owner, a Cherokee Indian, or a Kanaka.
Whoever her parents were, they soon disappeared from her life. According to her account, she was sent at an early age--she says six--to Nantucket, Mass., to live with a Quaker named Mary Hussey, who operated a huckster shop on Union Street. She said later that "when my father sent me to live with the Husseys, he also gave them . . . 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."
After 14 or 15 years of growth and self-discovery and education, Mary Ellen Pleasant moved on, going, according to an 1895 interview, to Philadelphia where she married a Black man, James Henry Smith, "a foreman carpenter and contractor, who had a good business and possessed considerable means."
Although there are differences of opinion about the identity of "the first husband," it is agreed by everyone that he died after four or five years, leaving Pleasant a substantial legacy. For three or four years thereafter, the young widow apparently played the role of a well-to-do angel of the abolitionist movement. Then in 1848 or thereabouts, she married a former slave named John James Pleasant or Pleasants or Pleasance. John James Pleasant, who was a cook or a seaman or both, is much more sharply defined than her first husband, but, significantly, he, too, occupied a shadowy and indistinct role in the Pleasant play until his death in 1877. 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. At some point during the first or second marriage, or in the intervening period, Pleasant gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Elizabeth or Lizzie Smith.
During this period, several Black and White members of the Philadelphia-Boston-New Bedford, Mass., abolitionist colony migrated to California. Mr. and Mrs. Pleasant soon followed, going separately or together to San Francisco sometime between 1848 and 1852. For several years after her arrival in San Francisoo, Pleasant worked as a housekeeper for a succession of merchant princes. While working as a housekeeper, she speculated in the stock and money markets. According to the "Life Story of Mammy Pleasance," she arrived in San Francisco with "$15,000 in gold coin, portion of her first husband's estate. . . ."
"I divided this money," she said, "among Fred Langford, William West of the firm of West & Harper . . . and Thomas Randolph [a Black Baptist minister] . . . I had known these gentlemen at home. They put out the money for me at 10 percent interest. I did an exchange business with Panama, sending down 1,000 in gold at different times and having it exchanged into silver. Gold was then at a high premium. I also had many bank books. My custom was to deposit silver and draw out gold, by which means I was always able to turn my money over rapidly. . . ."
Pleasant was sensationally successful in these ventures, partly because she had a genius for financial speculation, partly because she had developed almost infallible sources of information. While supervising the help at dinners and business conferences of financiers and mining magnates, she paid especial attention to the table talk. Later, according to some sources, she placed Black servants in sensitive listening posts in the homes and offices of business leaders. By 1855, she owned a string of laundries.
If the brilliant young businesswoman--she was 36 in 1850--had given her full attention to money-making, she could have accumulated one of the West's great fortunes. But money, even her severest critics concede, was only a means to an end for her. What gave her pleasure was not making money but giving money away. In fact, as H. Jerome Fosselli said, "The mere pleasure of befriending others" was "almost a mania" with her.
Pleasant's mania for philanthropy manifested itself in a bewildering variety of activities that made her a one-woman social agency. She supplied money to transport scores of Blacks--males and females, fugitive slaves and freedmen--to San Francisco. And when they arrived, she fed them, clothed them, and found them jobs or helped them to start small businesses.
At the same time, she was engaged on another front, defending and advancing the cause of unprotected females--Black and White. This was a hard and unforgiving age for unprotected females, and San Francisco was the hardest and most unforgiving haven of all. The woman who fell unsuspectingly into the clutches of operators of whorehouses and dives, the girl who miscalculated and got pregnant, the pretty and weak-willed widow left with no means of support: for all these, for the tempted, the weak-willed, the unlucky, Mary Ellen Pleasant was a haven and a lighthouse. On some occasions, the record shows, she stormed into dives and physically rescued attractive young arrivals. On other occasions, she found homes for unwanted babies.
What a woman, what a shrewd, calculating, dominating old drill sergeant-psychiatrist she must have been! And what a bundle of energy! For this was only one of several dramas in her bustling theater. While she was supporting Black immigrants and defending Black and White women, she was hiding fugitive slaves in her homes and in the homes of the wealthy Whites she served as a housekeeper and using her money to provide legal services and other
requirements in the California underground. Delilah Beasley, the pioneer Black historian of California, said she provided the leadership in California's most celebrated fugitive slave case, the Archy Lee case of 1858. Sue Bailey Thurman, another historian, said it was Pleasant money and Pleasant leadership that led to the repeal of the law banning Black testimony in California. For all these reasons, Thurman called the Black pioneer "the Mother of Civil Rights in California."
In 1858, to the astonishment of her friends and business associates, she leased out her laundries and went east to meet John Brown. According to her own account, she met Brown in Chatham, Canada, and gave him a substantial sum of money for his guerrilla strike in the South. There is no documentary evidence to support her story, but she maintained until her dying day that it was true and that it was the most important and significant act of her life.
In her Autobiographical Fragment, she said she remained in Canada until the John Brown raid miscarried and then returned to San Francisco. In 1865, she sponsored, according to an item in the Elevator, "a fashionable wedding" for her daughter at the AME Zion Church. In 1866 she staged a sit-in on a San Francisco streetcar. A front-page report in the Alta California, October 18, 1866, noted that "Mrs. Mary E. Pleasants, a woman of color, having complained of the driver of car No. 6 of the Omnibus Railroad Company's line, for putting her off the car, appeared yesterday in the Police Court and withdrew the charge, stating as a reason for doing so that she had been informed by the agents of the Company that negroes [sicl would hereafter be allowed to ride on the car, let the effect on the Company's business be what it might."
With the opening of her first boarding house in 1867 or 1868, Mary Pleasant entered a decisively new phase of her life. Pyramiding her profits, she soon became came managing director of several boarding houses and restaurants. But the center pin of her business empire was the plush facility at 920 Washington Street, which soon became the place to board and the place to dine in San Francisco. In 1871, one of the 920 boarders and one of Mrs. Pleasant's greatest admirers--Newton Booth--was elected governor of California. In honor of the occasion, a gala was held at 920 and the industrial and political directorate turned out. As the carriages rolled up, and as a band serenaded in the street, the de facto hostess, Mary Pleasant, introduced the new governor to some of her friends, saying, "This is Governor Booth who has been elected from my house."
By this time, the early '70s, San Franciso's relatively small Black population (some 1300 persons in 1870) was engaged in an extraordinary effort of institution building. And here, as in the White community, the woman of the hour was the woman the Rev. W H. Hillery called "that everearnest lady and Christian, Mrs. Mary Pleasants." Repeatedly, in these years, she was the major force in fund-raising efforts for the Black Masonic lodge, and the Black Baptist, AME, and AME Zion churches. "I am a Catholic," she said later, "but one church was the same as another to me. It was all for the cause."
IT was during this period or perhaps earlier--no one knows for sure--that Pleasant met Thomas Bell. Bell was, according to the press, "a canny Scot," and a solid but unimaginative stockbroker. He had apparently reached the height of his career when he met Mary Pleasant, that brilliant and knowing manipulator of Western mining stock. Shortly after Bell met Pleasant he turned into a financial tiger and began amassing a $30,000,000 fortune as the Quicksilver King of the West. Although the evidence is not as firm as one could wish, it appears that the reason for Bell's transformation was Mary Pleasant. More than that, some of Bell's seed money, most observers agree, came from Pleasant.
This naturally raises the question of what was the real relationship between the two. Only two people knew, and both died without speaking. Most observers, Black and White, say Bell and Pleasant were business partners and that the dominant partner was Mary Pleasant. In public incidentally, Pleasant, that consummate actress, called Thomas Bell "Mr. Bell." In private, she called him "Tom."
Were they lovers? It's possible, but far from certain. Significantly, almost all eyewitness reports of the interaction of the two are reports not of the interactions between lovers but of interactions between two old and inseparable business cronies. In the absence of hard evidence, the best that can be said now is that they were business partners who were, as the San Francisco News-Letter put it, "rare, warm personal friends."
What then was the meaning of Teresa Hoey or Teresa Percy, the woman who later became Mrs. Bell? Here again we must confess that we don't know. Some students say Bell, "an easy-going, pleasure-loving man," took her out of a bordello and made her his mistress "because she was so beautiful and sad." Others say Mary Ellen Pleasant took her out of "a fast house" and tried to make a lady out of her. But these are only theories, and we would be well advised to stick to the only fact we have, the fact that these three--Mary Pleasant, Teresa Hoey/Percy and Thomas Bell--met and became three sides of a very complicated triangle.
The first act in their little drama was the construction of a $100,000 mansion at the corner of Bush and Octavia streets. The house, a two-story, gray-frame structure with bay windows and a mansard roof, was built by Mary Pleasant and furnished by Mary Pleasant. It was, in fact, Mary Ellen Pleasant's house. And it was in this house that Thomas Bell and Teresa Bell began their married life. We don't know what the Bells did in private, but virtually all witnesses say they seldom, if ever, spoke in public. If Mrs. Bell wanted some money, she asked Mrs. Pleasant, who, if she thought the request reasonable, asked Thomas Bell.
For all practical purposes then, Mary Ellen Pleasant was the master, if not the mistress, of the Pleasant/Bell mansion. The children and the servants obeyed her. She hired and fired.
Several chroniclers and busybodies have left revealing portraits of her in these her days of power. They all agree that she was tall, thin, straight, imperious, with a graceful, gliding walk--author Amelia Neville said, "she walked like a duchess"--and had piercing eyes "that looked straight through you." Despite assertions that she passed for White during her first years in San Francisco, several contemporary observers said she was brown or black.
In these days Mary Pleasant went several times a week to the shops and markets and spent, some say, thousands of dollars a month for provisions and finery. She usually traveled in a carriage driven at high speed by her personal coachman, James Allen, and attended by a liveried footman. This must have been a sight to see, and Mary Ellen Pleasant, that gifted scenarist and mocker of images, must have enjoyed it immensely. She deserved the enjoyment, for there is not a more compelling image in the whole of American history than this image of the tall, spare, erect Black "servant" in a black dress and a large white apron being driven through the streets of San Francisco in her own specially constructed carriage, attended by a driver and footman, both in livery.
BY this time, the major peaks in the terrain of her character were visible. It is easy enough to cite the standard list--pride, bravery, generosity, loyalty, staying power. But there was also something that has not been named or defined, even in this age of triumphant feminism. We could call that something feminism, but the word is too weak, too imprecise, to capture what seems to have been a volcanic rage against sexual oppression. None of the pursuers of her spirit has even hinted at or discussed this element in her character, and Jesse Warr, the brilliant young Black historian, is eminently correct when he says that it is unfortuante that so many of her literary interpreters have been people who could neither understand nor fathom a woman, and a Black woman at that, who got what she wanted, not by using her sex, but by using her will power.
Along with despising male hypocrites, Mary Pleasant abhorred racial chauvinists. And although she sometimes dimmed her light the better to blind her adversaries, she seems to have been a disguised guerrilla waging a sometimes visible, a sometimes invisible war for equality behind the lines of the enemy A White reporter, writing in 1895, detected no overt hostility in Pleasant but was vaguely disturbed by the fact that she seemed "to take something of a pride in the fact that she was born of an alien race."
SUCH; then, was the woman who attracted national attention as one of the central figures in the sensational Sharon case. We have neither the time nor the inclination to rehearse the X-rated details of that famous case which revolved around Sarah Althea Hill's claim that she and former U.S. Sen. William Sharon, the multimillionaire owner of the Palace Hotel, had signed a secret marriage contract. Sharon denied this, saying, among other things, that he had merely paid Hill $500 a month to sleep with him. The trial, in which these charges and countercharges were aired, attracted national attention and rocked San Francisco society. What makes this a matter of moment to us is that one of the chief witnesses against Sharon and, according to some, the chief financial backer of Sarah Hill was none other than Mary Ellen Pleasant, who testified that she had seen the marriage contract and had discussed it with Sharon. In the end, after a trial that consumed most of 1884, a San Francisco judge ruled in favor of Miss Hill. But this verdict was later overturned by a federal court.
The rights and wrongs of the case need not detain us here, and the reason we cited these details is that some people say that the Sharon case marked the end of Pleasant's influence.
Other evidence, however, shows that Pleasant rose to new heights of social assertion and power after the Sharon case.
Ten years later, when Pleasant fell ill and was believed on the verge of death, San Francisco society showered her with get-well cards and flowers. Commenting on this activity, a writer in the San Francisco Examiner said "her deeds of charity are as numerous as the grey hairs on her proud old head," adding: "That is why carriages now drive daily toward the Bell residence, and women of the highest social standing . . . send cards, fruits and flowers to cheer her up!"
What did Mary Pleasant in finally was not the Sharon case but racism and a powerful conspiracy conceived in the depths of a rancorously bitter legal fight over the disposition of the property of Thomas Bell who died, as we saw in the first installment, in 1892. Mary Pleasant had risen to power in a largely disorganized society which tolerated and even supported the activities of a single Black woman who had known many of the social leaders when they were down and out and who had helped some of them climb the ladder of power.
The anonymous reporter quoted above said in the same edition of the San Francisco Examiner that "she has been as a Warwick behind the thrones of the socially great. She has opened the closed doors of the select to those whom she considered worthy applicants; she has closed the portals to others who had offended her."
Even as this reporter wrote, the situation was changing. The old San Francisco was giving way to a new and settled metropolis with social and geographical pretensions. And with a settled society and social pretensions came new and more virulent forms of racism which had no room at the top for even one Black woman. By this time, too, many of Mary Pleasant's old friends had died or moved away, and the odds had shifted ominously against her. One wonders if Mary Pleasant realized this as she scurried about in the early '90s, spinning new webs and accumulating new tracts of property. In 1890 and 1891, she bought and created the 1,000 acre Beltane ranch in Sonoma County.
This situation changed dramatically with the death of Thomas Bell. So long as he lived, Pleasant did whatever she wanted to with his money, which was apparently, in part, her money. But after his death and the certification of his will, which left his property to his widow and children, her sphere of activity was drastically limited. (She said later that she had specifically asked Bell not to include her in his will.) Although she still held large tracts of land, it soon became apparent that she was dangerously overextended and in great need of liquid capital. Finally, after a complicated series of legal moves, she was declared insolvent and assignees were named to administer her property.
To make things even more vexing, Teresa Bell, a mentally disturbed woman given to wild emotional swings, emerged from one of her psychiatric crises with a violent hatred of Mary Ellen Pleasant. The catalytic agent in this transformation was, not surprisingly, sex. In the summer and fall of 1897, while Mary Ellen Pleasant maneuvered in San Francisco to save her financial empire, a handsome young adventurer named Bayard Saville and Teresa Bell dallied in the rooms and fields of Mary Ellen Pleasant's ranch. Teresa Bell, very unwisely, recorded the details in her diary, using X's to indicate the seismographic dimensions of the sexual encounters. "These XXX," she wrote on October 9, 1897, "are to remember something which I never wish to forget."
During this period, Saville, anticipating the millions that would soon be his, unwisely signed Teresa Bell's name to a check and was whisked off, with the aid of Mary Pleasant and the Bell estate lawyers, to San Quentin. Not unnaturally, Saville developed a strong dislike for Mary Pleasant, and in letters smuggled out of San Quentin he told his lover that she was doomed if she didn't get rid of her. Teresa Bell fed these warnings into the hallucinations that tortured her mind. Then, suddenly, in 1899, she acted, ordering Mary Pleasant out of her own house--a house that was tied up just then in the tangled legal affairs of the Bell estate and was therefore presumed to be at the disposal of the widow. Always a realist, always willing to accept the good and the bad in people, Pleasant, who was then 85, complied, sweeping out of the house she built on Wednesday, April 19, 1899, in a theatrically dramatic exit that was worthy of a better play.
After moving around for a while, she settled in a cramped six-room apartment on Webster Street and launched a counterattack, charging that she was a victim of a legal conspiracy and that most of the Bell property, including the fortune in diamonds claimed by Teresa Bell, belonged in reality to her.
There was something memorable, something magnificently compelling, in the old woman's last days. She had lost--by the reckoning of most men--almost everything. And yet, incredibly, she was Mary Ellen Pleasant, magisterial, imperious, haughty even, to the end. There were few amenities in her new environment, but such was her presence that no one was surprised to find her attended by a maid who was, as she said, tolerably efficient but required "a powerful lot of talking to."
Of all the improbable aspects of this improbable woman's life, the oddest is that most of the Bell children abandoned their mother and huddled around Mary Pleasant in the cold and clutter of Webster Street.
Whatever it was that the old woman had, she had it to the end.
When at long last the children went away, reluctantly obeying her request for a little peace and quiet in her last days, Mary Ellen Pleasant had a visitor who gave her an opportunity to round off her life with a proper period. The visitor, according to the legend, noted her surroundings and offered her a small fortune to reveal the secrets of San Francisco society. She regarded the man with distaste and said: "I have never needed money bad enough to betray anyone."
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. We do not know--we may never know--if Mary Pleasant took proper precautions. But we do know that several persons had keys to the flat which was ransacked in her last days by persons who took papers, jewelry and other valuables. Her old friend, Sam Davis, warned her that "you are now besieged on all sides by your enemies and it seems to me if you were to give that diary to the world some of these people would change their tone. If you wait until you die it will be whisked away in one box while you go out in another and that will be the end of it."
It was in this setting of deceit and danger that the old woman breathed her last. On Thursday, November 19, 1903, a White friend named Olive Sherwood, passed the Webster Street house and heard sounds of illness. Finding Pleasant delirious and alone, she moved her to her house on Filbert Street. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was 90, died there less than two months later at 10:55 a.m. on Monday, January 11, 1904, as Sherwood honored one of her last requests by singing "Rock of Ages."
There was another request. She had asked, before her death, that certain words be cut into her gravestone. It took 61 years, but in February 1965, the African-American Historical and Cultural Society of San Francisco erected a stone marker over her grave in the Sherwood family plot in Napa, Calif. Cut into the stone were the words Pleasant wanted to carry with her into eternity.
SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN.
Was this finally the meaning of her life?
It is certainly one of the meanings of her life. As for the rest, it's too soon really to say. After years of neglect and defamation, the great Black pioneer has finally attracted the attention of a number of serious writers, including Roberta Ostroff, who is preparing a major biography. This essay then, as we said in the beginning, is an essay toward an understanding of the questions, and it is based on the premise that Mary Ellen Pleasant deserves defense, not because she was a great financier, not because she was a great pioneer, but because she was a rare presence who lived a life that belongs, whatever the final answers, to the realm of the unconquered spirit.
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|Title Annotation:||A Historical Detective Story, part 2; 19th-century African-American business woman|
|Author:||Bennett, Lerone, Jr.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1993|
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