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Black Woman Turned Savvy and Secrets Into a Fortune

Times Staff Writer

For more than a century, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s reputation was as a voodoo queen, sorceress, madam and murderer. But thanks to a historian’s new book, the legendary San Franciscan is reclaiming her identity as a savvy businesswoman, gutsy heroine and early champion of civil rights.

Contradictions and legends about Pleasant abound; she is believed to have been born a slave in the South. She made a fortune and shared it, helping to free slaves and challenging racial bias in a case that reached the state Supreme Court.

Lynn M. Hudson, a history professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has stitched together a biography that sorts folklore from fact in “The Making of ‘Mammy’ Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco” (University of Illinois Press). Hudson relies somewhat on Pleasant’s 1901 autobiography, which appeared in a short-lived journal.

Every detail of Pleasant’s past is contested, Hudson warns: “African American women’s history is riddled with silence. Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life is no exception.... The secrets she knew -- about real estate, stock, miscegenation and adultery -- translated into social as well as economic power.”

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San Francisco was glittery with gold dust and seriously short of women in 1852 when Pleasant, 38, arrived on a steamer. The men meeting her ship wanted to romance, or hire, the two dozen female passengers.

Pleasant auctioned off her culinary skills to two rich San Francisco merchants for a whopping $500 a month.

Over the decades, Pleasant eavesdropped on her rich employers’ investment plans and parlayed her salary into a chain of laundries, speculated in gold and silver, bought real estate, ran luxurious boardinghouses and played matchmaker or “madam,” setting up women with prosperous white men.

Even as she was getting rich, she was promoting civil rights and the abolition of slavery. By 1858, she was wealthy enough to give $30,000 to abolitionist John Brown, helping finance his 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.

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Her good deeds were overshadowed by her secretive personality and murky past. Lurid newspaper articles and a fictionalized 1953 “biography” didn’t help her reputation.

“Pleasant does not conform neatly to common stereotypes: the heroic slave, the devoted mammy, the two-bit floozy,” Hudson wrote. “Perhaps that is why novelists more so than historians have found her twisted legacy so enticing.”

By most accounts, she was born a slave in Georgia in 1814 and was separated from her parents when she was young. Pleasant spent part of her childhood with a Quaker woman on Nantucket Island, Mass., where she learned to read and write and worked as a shop clerk.

“I have let books alone and studied men and women a good deal,” Pleasant wrote in her autobiography.

Little is known about her early life, which included two marriages and a daughter. When the Gold Rush beckoned, she traveled by ship to Panama, walked across the isthmus and took another ship to California.

By the late 1860s, Pleasant may have been the richest black woman in America. She managed her businesses in the guise of a housekeeper and reputedly ran a string of bordellos, which were legal then. But the financial secrets of the elite were her real stock in trade.

The press and populace called her “Mammy.”

“Listen: I don’t like being called mammy by everybody,” she told a San Francisco Call reporter in an undated interview. “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.”

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In 1866, she sued a horse-drawn streetcar company whose driver had refused to pick her up because she was black. She won, and was awarded $500 in punitive damages. Two years later, the state Supreme Court left her victory intact but eliminated the damages as excessive.

In 1871, one of her boarders and greatest admirers was the newly elected Gov. Newton Booth, for whom she threw a much talked-about gala and boasted: “This is Gov. Booth, who has been elected from my house.”

In the 1870s, Pleasant became a silent business partner of miner-financier Thomas Bell, a bachelor she had met on her voyage to California. They invested in gold and silver, and Bell moved into Pleasant’s newly built 30-room mansion on Octavia Street. Tongues began to wag, with the press nicknaming it “The Mystery House.”

Speculation about their relationship continued until Pleasant introduced Bell to a friend, Theresa Clingan, whom he married. The white couple lived with Pleasant for two more decades, with Pleasant posing to outsiders as a trusted maid.

Pleasant figured in the scandal sheets again in the mid-1880s when she testified for Sarah Althea Hill, a young white friend who had sued former Nevada Sen. William Sharon. Hill contended that they were married; she wanted a divorce and alimony. Sharon insisted that there was no marriage, that he simply paid Hill for sex.

Pleasant testified that she had seen a marriage contract between them.

At trial, the power that she wielded in social and political circles became plain. That brought her public enmity and envy -- as did the fact that a black woman had amassed such a fortune.

The press reviled Pleasant as a witch because of her African roots and the secrets she held. Both sides tossed around allegations about love potions, charms, voodoo and spells.

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Sharon prevailed in court.

In 1892, Pleasant’s silent partner, Bell, fell down the stairs of her mansion to his death. Gossip-mongers accused her of murder, and his mentally fragile widow soon turned on her former friend, suing over property rights. Pleasant lost the mansion and was evicted in 1899.

She never forgot her treatment at the hands of the press.

“You tell those newspaper people that they may be smart, but I’m smarter,” she told a reporter from the San Francisco Call in 1901. “They deal with words. Some folks say that words were meant to reveal thought. That ain’t so. Words were meant to conceal thought.”

She died in 1904, living in a rundown apartment. Court records revealed that she had tens of thousands of dollars in real estate and jewelry, but lawyers and creditors got most of it.


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