I stared at the plaque and the four blue gum trees, all that is left of the House of Mystery at 1661 Octavia Street. I heard an icy cold whisper. "Resurrect Me" she said. San Francisco, a proud glittering city built on shifting sands and steep rocky hills has nearly forgotten its infamous inhabitant, Mary Ellen Pleasant whose life has consumed my hobby hours for over ten years. In stolen moments, I dig through the mislabeled miscellany of a life scattered. At the height of her success in San Francisco in the 1870’s, Mary Ellen Pleasant was worth over $30 million in 1875 dollars. On August 19th, 1814 she was born in Philadelphia or Augusta, perhaps the daughter of Louis Alexander Williams, a native Kanaka and Mary Ellen, a full blooded Louisiana negress. Perhaps her father was a Virginia Governor's son, John Hampden Pleasants, there was a price on her head, so she told many tales. In 1835, she married a Cuban tobacco grower, Mr. James W. Smith, in Boston. He died in 1844 at their plantation in Charles Town, Virginia. A few years later, she married JJ Plaissance, the grandson of Henri Christophe, black emperor of Haiti, and they had a girl, Lizzie. They spent time in New Orleans with Marie Laveau, but were forced to flee upon threat of discovery of their Underground Railroad activities. She came to California on a ship that also carried a young Scotsman, Thomas Bell. Mary Ellen made a good living as a cook in the Gold Rush years – and ran several boarding houses, laundries, and continued to assist runaway slaves. In 1857, when Mary Ellen met back up with Thomas Bell, she owned three laundries, a saloon, and investments in the Athenaeum, Dennis and Brown Livery Stables and various other black-run businesses. She subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, so was contacted by Wendell Phillips to contribute funds to John Brown, the new leader in the fight against slavery. A handwritten note was found on John Brown after he was arrested for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. It said: “The axe is laid at the root of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money and help. - MEP” Fortunately for Mary Ellen, the initials were interpreted as “WEP", and prosecutors never suspected a woman of contributing $30,000 to the cause. There is an example of Mary Ellen’s handwriting at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, her signature does look a bit like a “W”. After her business partner, Thomas Bell died in a fall, his widow, Theresa Clingan Bell, who had always resented Mary Ellen, set about destroying her reputation and taking title to her assets. She was forced to leave the mansion she had built at 1661 Octavia Street, and died in the small apartment of Olive Sherwood in 1904, nearly penniless. Her last request was that her tombstone should read “She was a friend of John Brown’s”, and there in Tulocay Cemetery in Napa where she was buried, that is indeed what is printed.
1884 Daily Alta Article praising Mary Ellen Pleasant, and transcription
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1890's Mary Ellen Pleasant Address Book selected pages courtesy of SF Public Library, Helen Holdridge Collection
1896 Two original letters from Mary Ellen Pleasant from her biography file at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley and transcription. I believe the first one was dictated - the handwriting from the second letter more closely resembles examples in the Helen Holdridge files at San Francisco Public Library - History Room.
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