"A Friend of John Brown's"
“You tell those newspaper people that they may be smart, but I'm smarter. They deal with words. Some folks say that words were made to reveal thoughts. That ain't so. Words were made to conceal thoughts.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born on August 19, 1812, or maybe 1814, in Virginia. In one version of her memoirs she claimed she was born as the enslaved daughter of a long line of Voodoo priestesses from Santa Domingo and the youngest son of a Governor of Virginia, John Hampden Pleasants. The word voodoo, meaning “spirit,” refers to the Haitian religion descended from Yoruba, Fon, Bambara, Congolese, and other cultures of Africa and the diaspora, not to the derogatory connotations given it today.
There are several versions of her parentage, and her beginnings are dubious. Even in a well-researched book on her life, there is little to support any version of her birth. Census records did not help and the account that she was born in Philadelphia, the street (Barley) listed, was not in existence at that time. She may have been a former slave from Georgia, the daughter of a Louisiana slave and an Asian or Native American mother. Many details of Mary Ellen’s legendary life are open to question, but what is certain — and recorded in a plaque at the corner of Octavia and Bush Streets — is that she was a tireless worker for civil rights and a brilliant entrepreneur. I favor the version that she recorded in her memoir dedicated to her god-daughter, Charlotte Downs, first mentioned above. Several researchers have interpreted down’s work as self-serving and perhaps lacking it truthful facts.
It is difficult to really chart the course of Mary Ellen’s life, given that her three autobiographies contradict themselves, and slander followed her for years. In one version of her memoirs, Mary Ellen stated she thought words could better be used to conceal, than reveal. How telling. On the subject of her birth and the rest of her life, this bears true. One thing we know is that she was very light-skinned and occasionally passed for white, although she never attempted to hide her true race from fellow Blacks.
Since no one gave her a name at birth, Mary Ellen had to create names for herself. This may explain some of the confusion surrounding her early life. After witnessing the death of her mother at the hand of a plantation overseer, Mary Ellen had to make her way on her own. Author Sam Davis, one of Mary Ellen’s biographers, infers that a kind plantation owner bought her out of slavery. His name, or if this is even true, is uncertain. Mary Ellen was a survivor who altered and embellished her accounts. However, in her final memoir, she claimed this rescuer sent her first to New Orleans to work at an Ursuline Convent with the nuns as a linen worker. It is unclear if her work was sewing or laundering.
From there, someone sent her to Cincinnati to work for a man named Louis Alexander Williams. Williams promised to free her after she served the family without pay for an unspecified amount of time. What she did not know was that Williams was very much in debt and jealous of his wife’s affection for the young girl. So rather than free her, she worked for him for nine years, with no pay and no freedom. She was then “bounded out” to Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked as a clerk in the Hussey family store, as a bonded servant. The Husseys were Quakers and abolitionists, and Mary Ellen worked out the terms of her bondage and actually became a Hussey family member and lifelong friend of Phoebe Hussey (Gardner).
Mary Ellen was a bright young girl and absorbed things easily. She quickly learned, at Grandmother Mary Hussey’s knee, the elements of running a prosperous business and entrepreneurship. While on the island she lived with and witnessed firsthand, fantastic role models in Nantucket’s black community. Mary Ellen was not only intelligent, a quick learner, but she was witty, loving and playful. She grew to truly and deeply love her guardians, the Husseys on Nantucket. Family archives containing letters from the Hussey’s show that the family loved Mary Ellen in return.
It was here that she discovered a talent for persuasion, borne of her quick wit and charisma. “I was a girl full of smartness,” she said, who “let books alone and studied men and women a good deal … I have always noticed that when I have something to say, people listen. They never go to sleep on me.” The Hussey family was very involved in the abolitionist movement. Mary Hussey’s granddaughter, Phoebe Gardner, initiated Mary Ellen into the circle of the island’s Anti Slavery Society.
It was in Nantucket that she met Anna Gardner, who was a teacher and an ardent abolitionist. When she was twenty-two, Anna taught in the African School on the island. She had fifty pupils in a one room and taught all levels up to the ninth grace. Anna was herself a student of the well-known island educator, Cyrus Pierce. She learned from him, and adopted his beliefs, that memorization and strict discipline were not the keys to learning. She was not only a brilliant teacher, but an ardent abolitionist. Mary Ellen was greatly inspired by Gardner.
Nantucket was a hotbed for anti slavery activity during this time. In later years Frederick Douglass, despite being very nervous, game his first formal speech on Nantucket and his words so impassioned William Lloyd Garrison that he rose and addressed the audience: “Have we been listening to a thin, a piece of property, or a man?” he shouted to the audience, The 500 people in the hall all shouted back, “A man! A Man!”
During the 1840s the Husseys recognizing Mary Ellen’s talents. They recommended her and assisted her in gaining employment as a tailor’s assistant in Boston, as well as a paid church soloist. She was by now twenty something. While in Boston, she met James Smith, who was a wealthy mulatto contractor, merchant, and abolitionist, from Cuba. They fell in love and were married. She became involved in the Boston abolitionist movement, where she worked with leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Maria Weston Chapman. Mary Ellen Smith and her husband James worked together as conductors on the Underground Railroad, that trackless serious of homes and volunteers who assisted slaves escape to freedom by various routes to Canada, Nova Scotia, and Mexico.
James Smith’s routes took slaves from Nova Scotia to Virginia. It so happened that he owned a plantation near Harpers Ferry, left to him by his white father. He staffed it with freed slaves, many of whose freedom he had helped secure. He was brave, daring, and very dedicated to the cause. However, James was very restrictive and protective of Mary Ellen and not always kind to her. She loved him and therefore often acquiesced to his wishes. He died suddenly in 1848, after four years of marriage, and some believed it was by Mary’s hand. Nothing ever came of the accusation, but James left Mary Ellen a significant inheritance of about $45,000. She continued her work as a conductor for the railroad and fought against slavery for the next few years.
It wasn’t long before Mary Ellen began a partnership, and eventually a marriage, although no record has been found, with John James Pleasant, Pleasance or Plaissance. He was a former slave and had forked for James Smith as an overseer. They were probably married by J.J.’s friend Captain Gardner, who was Phoebe’s husband, aboard his boat sometime in 1848.
While working on the underground railroad, Mary Ellen Mary Ellen disguised herself as a jockey, other times as a shabby old man on a delivery wagon. She received training as a cook and took a job on a local plantation right under the noses of the local slaves owners. Their network and routes ran between New Bedford, Massachusetts and Ohio. She became a much hunted slave rescuer, bringing hundreds of slaves into freedom.
In 1851, slavers were in hot pursuit and on her trail. Mary Ellen fled, hiding out in Nantucket and New Orleans before finally reaching California. While in New Orleans, they apparently stayed with Marie Catherine Laveau, who was a Louisiana Creole practitioner of Voodoo, renowned in New Orleans. Marie Laveau had devised an ingenious system of gaining inside knowledge and secrets about the powerful New Orleans elite. She used that knowledge as blackmail to gain wealth, power, and influence. Over a short period, Marie Laveau rose to the height of New Orleans’s power structure and used her status and influence to aid colored and enslaved people. Mary Ellen took great care to learn Marie Laveau’s methods, knowing that they might one day be useful to her, and it certainly was!
Things eventually heated up once again in New Orleans, causing Mary Ellen and J.J. to continue their flight to California, taking the four-month sea journey around Cape Horn. This was in 1852 and was their final escape from the south. Mary Ellen did not have Freedom Papers, which were necessary for safe travel, so she used her fair complexion to her advantage, traveling and living for a while as a white woman.
Mary Ellen arrived in San Francisco on April 7th, 1852. It was said she was a capitalist from day one, and according to an article in the San Francisco Call on the very day she landed, many wealthy bachelors traveled to the waterfront to meet her boat intending to engage her as a cook. It seems her reputation for being a fine cook had proceeded her! They actually bid for her services. When the bidding reached a satisfactorily exorbitant amount, Mary Ellen added some conditions, such as no dishwashing. When the highest bidder accepted her conditions, she suddenly changed her mind. Mary Ellen heard of a woman named Mary Ball who had made a mint from running a boarding house in San Francisco, and right then and there she decided she would do the same. Mary Ellen didn’t really want to work for someone else. She would open her own restaurant!
Because of her amazing culinary skills, her restaurant attracted many rich, influential and powerful men such as Darius Mills, William Ralston and William Sharon. Both she and the women that worked for her listened carefully for the financial information the businessmen shared. Here, she utilized the skills she had learned from Laveau in New Orleans effectively. She gleaned much good information and many strategies for her financial investments, but she also learned some of the deepest, darkest secrets of the very wealthy and elite of San Francisco. The local paper wrote: “Folks took care not to snub her. You never knew when she would find out something about you.” Under the guise of ‘voodoo magic’, she became feared by many and could soon leverage this fear gaining freedom, rights, and privileges for many of San Francisco’s colored residents. Mary Ellen Pleasants had become an extremely powerful woman.
Initially, Mary Ellen posed as white and used her first husband’s name, of Smith. This helped her get established as a businesswoman in San Francisco, also becoming a lending institution for miners and other businessmen earning 10% interest on her loans. She became a very skilled investor. Mary Ellen guarded the secrets of these prominent men, for whom she often procured the services of mistresses, with great diligence. Her establishments gained a reputation for being first class, but no one could ever prove the rumors that they were "houses of joy," which were common in San Francisco at that time. However, rumors and the gossip miss were prolific. Therefore, she gained their trust, and they helped her with her financial planning.
Mary Ellen opened a series of business herself that catered to the Gold Rush boom. At first there was a string of laundries, then boarding houses. As her bank account grew, she diversified to investing in property, matchmaking and mining enterprises. She was doing well. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of her second husband J.J., in accounts of her life in California. We know he died in 1877, but everything else about him is unclear during this time. She and James had one daughter, but accounts tell us that family relations were not healthy and she had very little contact with her daughter.
Mary Ellen became a noted philanthropist, using her money to bring escaped slaves to San Francisco and aided them in getting homes and jobs. She aided the freed blacks who had been legally enslaved in California by hiding them in her home and in the homes of wealthy whites with abolitionist tendencies. She often came to the aid of young women, both black and white, who had become easy prey to men who wanted to exploit them in this rough and tough frontier climate. Pleasant was in good company with Black San Franciscans like Bridget Mason and Charlotte Brown, all of whom fought for racial equality in California’s public policies and legal system. Pleasant, Mason, Brown, and other Black women defied the stereotypes of women of color. In 1860, not only were 11 percent of African Americans in California women, but 74 percent were literate.
Mary Ellen was involved in a court case that earned blacks the right to have their testimonies heard in the courts in California. She defied the mores of her time as she led fight after fight for equal rights. In 1866, she and Emma J. Turner were forced to disembark from a streetcar because of their race. She actively promoted the cause of civil rights and organized a sit-in of streetcars in San Francisco to protest the denial of rights to black individuals. Later she sued a streetcar company for continuing their discriminatory practices. As a result, the lower Court ordered The North Beach and Mission Railroad Company to pay Pleasant $500 in damages, and this decision held up under appeal to the California State Supreme Court in 1868. This was a major win for African Americans. Public conveyances in San Francisco were now desegregated. Mary Ellen actually filed two lawsuits around this time and issue. The first lawsuit was against the Omnibus Railroad Company, but she withdrew it after the company promised to allow African-Americans to board their streetcars.
Mary Ellen became the housekeeper for Thomas Bell, who was a wealthy banker and businessman of Scottish descent. Some accounts have her meeting Bell on the journey west, others state she met him at her boarding house. It may actually have been both. Apparently, he spent some time in one of her boarding houses. The rumor that she was his lover may have been true. Later she moved with Bell and his wife Theresa (one of her proteges) into their 30 room mansions, with stables, on 1661 Octavia Street, that she supposedly designed and furnished. Mary Ellen’s name appeared on the deed for the Bell homestead. The media had a field day accusing her of everything from being Bell’s lover (which may have been true) to a calculating thief who extorted large sums from the Bell fortunes.
Mary Ellen met most of the founding fathers of the city as she catered extravagant meals and she benefited from the financial gossip that she heard while serving. Mary Ellen became the closest and secret advisor to Thomas Bell, who she already knew, when he became the director of the very powerful Bank of California. They made serious money because of her tips and guidance. Thomas made money on his own in mining endeavors. In 1875, estimates showed that the pair had amassed a 30 million dollar fortune. They were a dynamic and profitable duo! Mary Ellen was now buying and selling dozens of properties and specialized in developing proteges, beautiful young women, whom she would then endeavor to marry off to the newly rich miners and bankers who frequented her boarding houses.
By this time Mary Ellen Pleasant was known to white San Franciscans as “Mammy,” a moniker that she detested as an insulting nickname. She returned any envelope that was addressed in that way, unopened. “I got a letter from a minister in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote him back on his own paper that my name was Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant. I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him.” Interviewed in 1901, she said: “Listen, I don’t like to be called Manny by everybody. Put that down. I’m not mammy to everybody in California.” This nickname remains to this day. It was also said that she had some sort of power over the Bells. Rumors also circulated that the Bell home on Octavia Street hosted voodoo rituals, leading to the mansion being dubbed the "House of Mystery."
People considered Mary Ellen herself a woman of mystery and described her as "strange," "mesmeric," and "picturesque" in newspaper articles and memoirs. Many people were threatened by a strong woman, let along a strong woman of color. No doubt about it though, she was a character of note.
When Thomas Bell fell to his death from one of the upper floor windows, or other accounts say down a flight of stairs, there was wild speculation that Pleasant had murdered him. The reading of the will clarified that Bell had left no money or property to her, rendering these suspicions unfounded. A coroner’s jury found and ruled that the death was accidental. When Bell’s wife,Teresa, received her money from his estate, she forced Pleasant out of the big house. “A demon from first to last” is how she described her in her diary. Despite having evidence that Mary Ellen had designed and paid for the construction of her mansion, the court ordered her to leave, transferring ownership to Teresa. She found lodging in a small flat on Webster Street, in the African American section of the city. This made front page news in the San Francisco Call in 1899, which outlined the long and loud argument with the widow and reviewed her work with the underground railway, which was a fact. Planters whose slaves she had helped find freedom in the North demanded recompense. Mary Ellen was now living in abject poverty, was taken in by Olive Sherwood and her family, who she had previously helped.
Mary Ellen continued to sponsor runaway slaves, and hundreds arrived in San Francisco thanks to her assistance.Mary Ellen Pleasant, known as “the Mother of Civil Rights in California.” She first gained notoriety when she harbored Archy Lee, a runaway slave in San Francisco.
There is so much mystery, innuendo and implication, and conflict around her life, it is difficult to reconstruct it. She was fascinating and appeared to have two, very different sides; the crafty, clever and perhaps a little ruthless business woman but also the kind and caring philanthropist.
If recognized in history at all, Mary Ellen Pleasant is known for her alleged assistance to John Brown and his raid at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. She alleges that she sent thirty thousand dollars to him and, in addition, had been supporting him for two years. While there is no concrete evidence of this, most historians accept that she probably played a large role in facilitating Brown’s incursion. She ran in some of the same circles as he did in Ontario and was certainly wealthy enough at this time to have contributed a large amount. She had been an agent for freedom in the Roanoke River area and in much of North Carolina. Brown had been planning a slave insurrection that he would lead. On October 16, 1859, he and twenty-one men failed the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. His theory was that slaves would rise against their masters and join in the fight. Brown was successful in gaining control of the arsenal, but the slave rebellion did not happen. Brown's rebellion came to a quick end when Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and one hundred Marines surrounded him. They captured him, quickly put him on trial, and convicted him of treason. John Brown was executed (hanged) on December 2, 1859. A note found in his pocket after the failed raid that pledged money. It was signed W.E.P. Many historians believe that Pleasant intentionally mis-wrote her first initial. The epitaph on her tombstone speaks to support this claim. In 1965, they finally granted her wish and added "SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN" belatedly to her tombstone. it may be the pithiest and most eloquent tribute to her.