Mary Ellen Pleasant
How One Woman’s Audacity Defied a Nation
On October 17th 1859, Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the engine house at Harper’s Ferry. Within three minutes his marines killed most of the men that took part in the Harper’s Ferry raid and captured its leader, John Brown. Brown remained defiant. He had refused to surrender when given the chance and now, faced with a decisive defeat, he showed no amount of contrition. His efforts to single-handedly abolish the institution of slavery by purging it away with blood might not have succeeded, but his passion for the cause was as hot as ever.
In his report, Lee wrote that Brown was without a doubt a “madman.” Yet, for a madman, Brown had been able to raise a tremendous amount of funds to finance his war against America’s greatest evil, even when figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass remained uncommitted to his plans. As Brown was being restrained so that he could be taken to jail, a marine uncovered a note that provided insight into the financial machinery that moved Brown to attack. The note read, “When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” The person who wrote this letter had provided $30,000, most of the funds that John Brown needed to finance his raid - nearly $900,000 today. At the time, Brown’s captors believed that the note was written by a wealthy Northerner. It would take nearly half a century for the nation to learn that the letter and money actually came from an African American woman.
Imagine that you are a woman of great cleverness and ambition. You see the world with clarity and you understand that your unique intellect could guarantee you a life of prominence and wealth. However, you are unable to pursue your talents because you were born a slave in pre-Civil war-era Georgia. This was the conundrum of Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Pleasant’s life is shrouded in mystery. In fact, Mary Ellen Pleasant herself did little to untangle the web of stories woven about her, often picking up and dropping narratives about her life as they suited her. Even though she often insisted that she was born in Philadelphia, Pleasant was probably born into slavery on a Georgia plantation sometime around 1814. Some accounts say that her mother was a voodoo priestess from the Caribbean and her father was the son of Virginia governor, James Pleasant; however, Mary Ellen often said that her mother was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana.” What was certain was that Mary Ellen was noticeably light-skinned, so much so that she could pass for white. As she grew, it also became clear that she possessed a startling intellect. Even though slaves weren’t given educations and in some places it was illegal to teach them to read, Mary Ellen shined with natural ability. While her intellect might have inspired some of those around her, it was surely frightening for her captors who viewed her strengths as a threat. They knew that any slave that exhibited such capabilities could quickly become a dangerous nuisance.
It’s unclear exactly how she did it, but Mary Ellen escaped the Georgia plantation. Later in life she used her light skin to her advantage and avoided being caught by slavers by passing as white. It’s possible that she used this tactic to escape to New Orleans. Some accounts say that a sympathetic planter brought her out of slavery and sent her to New Orleans. Pleasant’s memoirs provide varying accounts of this escape, but her final memoir does indicate that there was a “rescuer” who sent her to the Ursuline Convent and then to work in Cincinnati at the home of his friend, Louis Alexander Williams. At only eleven years old, Mary Ellen had done what was nearly impossible at the time. She had escaped the South and was within reach of freedom. Then the possibility of liberation was snatched away.
Williams was deeply in debt. He was also a jealous man who grew resentful of the fondness his wife, Ellen, showed towards Mary Ellen. Williams sold the girl to a family in Nantucket as an indentured servant. Mary Ellen was “bounded out” for a long nine-year stint in the house of “Grandma Hussey” an aged Quaker merchant.
What seemed at the time to be a devastating blow, ultimately might have been a saving grace for Mary Ellen. As intelligent as she was, Mary Ellen couldn’t read or write, and even though Cincinnati was a prominent destination for freed or escaped slaves, the law stipulated that no person of color could remain permanently within the state unless they could prove that they had been freed by their master. For a pre-teen girl, life alone in the city would’ve been hard to say the least.
Whether by accident or in an uncharacteristic act of mercy, Louis Alexander Williams placed Mary Ellen into the home of a gentle soul who believed in the principles of abolition. In Massachusetts servants could be any race, but Grandma Hussey urged Mary Ellen to keep her identity a secret. Mary Ellen saw the wisdom in this advice and took it to heart. Hussey then set about teaching Mary Ellen to read and write and how to manage her general store. By the time Mary Ellen’s service had ended she was an accomplished and brilliant twenty-year old who had thoroughly absorbed the principles of equality that the Husseys had taught her. Not only had the Husseys given her necessary skills, they had encouraged her natural talents with love and affection, emboldening her to explore the world without fear. Now she was ready to unshackle herself completely.
In the 1840s, Mary Ellen took the name of Louis Alexander’s wife and became Mary Ellen Williams. She then moved to Boston and became a tailor’s assistant, working as a church soloist at the same time. Soon, she met a wealthy mulatto man named James W. Smith. Smith owned a plantation in Virginia staffed by freed slaves and he operated a “track” of the Underground Railroad that took slaves to Nova Scotia and Mexico. However, when it came to Mary Ellen, Smith was extremely strict. Mary Ellen always maintained that she loved her husband dearly, but when he died suddenly around 1848, rumors abounded that Mary Ellen had something to do with it. Mary Ellen stood strong against the accusations and began managing the rescue work herself. Not only was she finally independent, she was now a wealthy woman.
Mary Ellen discovered her own unique way of rescuing slaves that capitalized on her skin color. She simply disguised herself as a jockey. This allowed her to walk onto plantations without detection and lead slaves to safety. Soon she became an infamous slave-rescuer and was hunted relentlessly. She continued this work for about three years before the area became too dangerous for her to continue her operation. In 1851, she fled to New Orleans where she hid in the home of her soon-to-be second husband, John James Pleasance, or “J.J.”
New Orleans was safe, but not for long and they both knew it. J.J., then working as a ship’s cook, sailed to California to find safer ground while Mary Ellen remained in hiding in New Orleans. Soon enough the boredom of a life without heroic antics drove Mary Ellen to seek fulfillment in other places. Soon she began studying under the Voodoo Queen Mam’zelle Marie LaVeaux. LaVeaux practiced a method of African spiritualism that combined Voodoo with community activism. LaVeaux used a variety of methods to aid the disenfranchised of the city, but most often used mentorship to guide her neighbors in need towards better futures. She also used her knowledge of the wealthy, white clients that came to her to help the poor. LaVeaux quickly recognized Mary Ellen’s potential and took her under her wing, knowing that Mary Ellen could use her teachings for good. Soon, J.J. sent for Mary Ellen, and with the help of her new mentor Mam’zelle LaVeaux, Mary Ellen was on her way to San Francisco.
In 1848, Gold Rush fever swept across the nation. Everyone, even people of color, moved West to seek their fortunes. Most ended up with less than what they had when they arrived. California was booming with new wealth, industry, and a flood of new people, and as usually happens in the wake of an influx of new bodies, lawlessness and depravity followed closely behind. San Francisco in particular was a hotbed of crime with an average of five murders every six days and six men to every woman, not the kind of place suitable for a person with delicate sentimentalities. Only the bravest and boldest would survive there, but ultimately it was was the clever and the lucky that would succeed.
When she arrived in San Francisco, Mary Ellen took up work as a cook. It was hard work, but she used her position to her advantage. Soon enough, she had a restaurant of her own. To the people she served she was Mary Ellen Smith, a white woman from New England. She was respectable, but she was still just a cook. The wealthy, influential men that frequented the restaurant where she worked had no qualms about discussing the business of the day within earshot. But Mary Ellen had another identity as well, that given to her by Mam’zelle LaVeaux, of a cunning activist and community leader. Mary Ellen was using the things she learned to aid her “colored” brethren. Thanks to her work, she became known as “The Black City Hall.”
The Gold Rush didn’t just attract Americans from far and wide. After the discovery, European immigrants flooded the city, taking most of the menial labor that had been reserved for blacks. Mary Ellen fought back by helping her people find employment, gain access to lawyers, and take action against the system that stood in the way of their betterment. She also used the secrets that she overheard to grow her own fortune. Soon she had a massive portfolio that contained a staggeringly wide variety of business ventures including farms, restaurants, hotels, brothels and even banks. She was amassing a fortune and living well, but she also used the money to continue the work that she started back in Virginia.
In 1858, Mary Ellen decided to reprise her role in the Underground Railroad, this time as an accomplice to John Brown. She and J.J. had purchased a house in San Francisco to house the slaves freed by the Harper’s Ferry raid. Mary Ellen then traveled back to Virginia to alert the slaves in the area of the impending rebellion, once again dressed as a jockey. However, Brown’s raid failed and Mary Ellen only barely escaped with her life. Brown was then hanged and Mary Ellen retreated back to San Francisco. She continued her activism, but never revealed her race publicly until after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the California Right-of-Testimony law of 1863, which allowed people of color to give testimony in court against a white person.
Some might say that it was cowardice that prevented Mary Ellen from proclaiming her race. Others might recognize the prudence of her actions. However, once she was awarded the right to give testimony as a black woman, Mary Ellen was quick to test the new law. Nearly a century before Rosa Parks, Mary Ellen went to the California Supreme Court with a case to allow blacks to ride trolleys in San Francisco without fear of discrimination of any sort. She emerged victorious.
San Francisco eventually took notice of the black woman who had accumulated a fortune of about $30 million, and she became a famous figure there. Much to Mary Ellen’s chagrin, the papers, and as a result most of the white population of California, addressed her only as “Mammy Pleasant,” a name that she regarded as degrading. However, fame was followed by infamy as people began to question Mary Ellen’s methods. After bankrolling the defense of her friend, Sarah Althea Hill, who was engaged in a nasty divorce battle with the powerful Senator William Sharon, things began to fall apart for Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen’s long-time business partner and possibly lover, Thomas Bell, died suddenly. Unfortunately, she had used Bell’s name to facilitate business dealings that would’ve been difficult for a woman to accomplish at the time. Upon his death, Bell’s widow sued for ownership of all those holdings that were in his name. She easily won. Mary Ellen’s fortune, including her mansion, suddenly evaporated before her eyes. The rest of her life was a series of ups and downs that, more often than not, resulted in more stories of scandal that included her name splashed across the front page of the newspaper. In 1904, Mary Ellen died, apparently penniless, however, her final wish demonstrated her undying passion and defiance. On her gravestone she instructed that the following inscription be added: She was a friend of John Brown.
Names like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are well-known to most Americans, but Mary Ellen Pleasant rarely emerges from the murky depths of history. Her story isn’t tidy like others. Her life was a labyrinth of experiences, some noble and others nefarious, and by constantly revising her own memoirs Mary Ellen contributed to her eventual disappearance from the pages of history. Nobody can claim that Mary Ellen Pleasant was entirely heroic or thoroughly corrupt, and in a world that shies away from grey areas her story is difficult to recount succinctly. Yet, she did more than nearly any other person to improve the lives of African Americans in San Francisco and she will always be remembered for that. Few can deny that she was dynamic, intriguing, and brilliant.
How could such an audacious personality ever disappear completely? Perhaps it can’t. According to some residents of San Francisco, Mary Ellen’s spirit might still reside in the city, granting favors to those that please her and dropping objects on the heads of those that don’t.