A Girl Full of Smartness

As an entrepreneur, civil-rights activist, and benefactor, Mary Ellen Pleasant made a name and a fortune for herself in Gold Rush–era San Francisco, shattering racial taboos.

Mary Ellen Pleasant.

Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

They did things differently in the Old West. On the morning of August 14, 1889, Stephen J. Field, a justice of the Supreme Court, was eating breakfast at a café in Lathrop, California, when David S. Terry, a former bench colleague, stopped by Field’s table and slapped him twice across the face.

This was not unprecedented behavior. Despite having risen to the rank of chief justice of the Supreme Court of California, Terry was described by one contemporary as an “evil genius” with an “irrepressible temper,” who once stabbed a man for being an abolitionist and killed a Congressman wedded to the Free Soil movement. His gripe with Stephen Field, however, had nothing to do with slavery. In 1883, Terry’s wife had filed a lawsuit (Sharon vs. Sharon) against the multimillionaire U.S. Senator William Sharon, claiming she had been married to him in secret some years ago and that, having been callously discarded by the womanizing senator, she was owed a divorce settlement. After five years the case ended up at a federal circuit court, where Field found in favor of William Sharon; there would be no divorce settlement. Terry was livid and promised to exact revenge. 

It was only the latest twist in what had been a bizarre case. On the first day of the trial, William Sharon’s attorney asserted that his client was the victim of a plot involving an elderly black woman who had used voodoo to steal Sharon’s hard-earned fortune. That woman was known to the San Francisco public as “Mammy Pleasant,” around whom sinister rumors had swirled for years. Some accused her of being a murderess, a madam, and a practitioner of black magic who befriended white families only to curse them and bleed them dry; a nightmarish image of “the mammy gone wrong,” to quote one historian. But just as many—especially among the black community—knew her as Mary Ellen Pleasant: an ingenious entrepreneur, pioneering civil-rights activist, and beloved benefactor who broke racial taboos and played a singular role in the early years of San Francisco.

William Sharon.

Even within her lifetime, there were several competing stories about Pleasant’s origins. One version has her born into slavery in Georgia; another says she was the daughter of a wealthy Virginian planter who had a fling with a voodoo priestess from the Caribbean. In her published reminiscences she claimed to have been born in Philadelphia in 1812, to a Hawaiian father and “a full-blooded Louisiana negress.” Racial mixing and ethnic ambiguity, themes that would repeat over and again throughout Pleasant’s life, appear to have been part of her identity from the start.

As a child she was, apparently, sent to live with a Quaker family in Nantucket where she worked as a domestic servant and then in a shop, where 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.”

She married in Boston, in her twenties—most biographers identify her husband as James Henry Smith (Pleasant was the surname of her second husband), a merchant and abolitionist with whom she was likely involved in the Underground Railroad. He died sometime in the 1840s in unknown circumstances, leaving his young wife an inheritance of tens of thousands of dollars, just as stories of California’s seams of gold swept over the plains to the East Coast. The Gold Rush caused a stir across the planet; an Eldorado found on a new American shore confirmed to millions that the young republic really was a land of opportunity blessed by God. For African Americans, the promise seemed especially tantalizing. By 1850, New England abounded with tales of black miners striking rich. “This is the best place for black folks on the globe,” was how one black prospector summed it up in a letter to his wife in Missouri. “All a man has to do is to work, and he will make money.”

Pleasant saw an opportunity. Nine in every ten settlers in California were male, which put a premium on conventionally “female” skills of cooking and running a household. A woman named Mary Ball had made a mint from running a boarding house in San Francisco, and Pleasant headed there to do the same. She soon found work as a cook, earning ten times the wage she would have received back home. She also had her inheritance, with which she invested widely in California’s surging economy, putting her money in everything from Wells Fargo to laundries. She made great use of her contacts with white abolitionists from the East, and teamed up with a white banker named Thomas Bell on numerous financial ventures, a highly unusual partnership for the time, but one that lasted until his death decades later.

Pleasant’s investments grew at a terrific rate, as did her presence in San Franciscan society. Soon after her arrival, she invested in facilities and resources for black people who were trying to put down roots—including safe houses for those escaping the clutches of slaveholders in the South, and slavecatchers in the North. To Pleasant and many other dreamers who arrived daily, the new state must’ve seemed like the nation reborn.

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California had given the prospect of opportunity to black Americans long before it was in the hands of the United States. In 1823, it became the northernmost portion of the newly declared Mexican Republic, whose constitution outlawed slavery. Over the next twenty-five years, countless black people, mainly crew members aboard ships from New England, came from the U.S. to start new lives, hoping to shake off the pall of race that spread across American society. William Leidesdorff, a young man of mixed Danish, African, Cuban, and Jewish ancestry, arrived from New Orleans in the 1840s and earned himself a vast fortune and a vice consulship from President Polk.

But these examples were outliers: the Golden State was young enough to accommodate a degree of racial mixing unfamiliar to most other parts of the country, but it was never color blind. When California became officially American, it did so as part of the Compromise of 1850, recognizing its status as a free state and a beacon to black Americans. Yet, the riches on offer also attracted a lot of white Southerners, who arrived with ideas—and sometimes human property—straight from Dixie. Many of those men occupied the highest offices; the state’s first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, was a native of Tennessee. He spent much of his short, disastrous tenure attempting to make California a white-only enclave by proposing a complete ban on black settlers.

David S. Terry.

Burnett was loathed by abolitionists, but enthusiastically supported by David S. Terry, the infamously injudicious judge, a Texan by birth. In 1857, Terry presided over the case of Archy Lee, a teenage slave who absconded to Sacramento on the journey back to his master’s home plantation in Mississippi. In a farcical ruling that showed exactly where his sympathies lay, Terry said that although the state constitution considered Lee a free man, he would overlook that technicality as Lee’s owner was young, ignorant of the law, and “being in poor health, in need of the services of a slave.”

As a prominent figure in California’s black community, Pleasant had been involved in the Lee case, contributing to his legal fees and temporarily housing him. It was just one of dozens of campaigns for social justice she funded. The most startling came in 1859, when she donated a large sum—thirty thousand dollars, she claimed—to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Though there’s no concrete evidence for this, most historians accept that Pleasant probably did play a substantial role in facilitating Brown’s extraordinary incursion. She certainly ran in the same circles as he did in Chatham, Ontario, and she was undoubtedly wealthy enough to have contributed a great deal of money.

Once the Civil War was over, Pleasant’s financial and social fortunes soared. She opened upmarket boarding houses and grew her contacts within the highest echelons of San Franciscan society, befriending congressmen, industrialists, and financiers. It was said that Pleasant had more dirt on California’s top brass than anyone else in the state. She knew about their infidelities and illegitimate children, their financial misdeeds, and their political skulduggeries. It’s hard to imagine the elites of New York or Boston allowing a black woman to have privileged access to such intimate secrets. In a fledgling city three thousand miles from New England, full of new money and transplanted people, such social inversions were rare but possible.

Pleasant’s social adventuring came to public notice in 1866, when she pursued a case against a streetcar company who refused to admit her. After a two-year battle, she won, in part thanks to the testimony of the white woman in whose home she’d once worked as a domestic servant. Though the woman referred to Pleasant as “Mamma” during her testimony, she spoke of her as a friend, explaining that they had met on the day in question for a social engagement. It was public confirmation of another small transgression, crossing boundaries of race and class. But California did have some recent precedent for this type of friendship. In the years of the Gold Rush, the state’s enormous gender imbalance meant that women were much more likely to form friendships with women they would never have dreamed of befriending under usual circumstances back home.

According to the biographer Lynn M. Hudson, this was the moment that Mary Ellen Pleasant became “Mammy Pleasant” in the minds of San Franciscans. Hudson believes the term stuck because it allowed white people to make sense of this campaigning, shrewd, solvent black woman who befriended white folk as a means of taking on the establishment. But it also announced her as a different type of “Mammy,” not the benign stereotype of the docile, ever-loving, ever-loyal Southern black woman. Pleasant was a Mammy of the Reconstruction, an unsettling sign—to some whites, at least—that the worm was turning.

Sara Althea Hill.

That image was solidified in the infamous Sharon v. Sharon case in which David Terry’s wife—Sarah Althea Hill was her maiden name—alleged that Senator William Sharon had secretly married and discarded her. Sharon testified that what appeared to be a marriage contract was actually a contract confirming that Sarah Althea Hill would sleep with him on a regular basis in exchange for monthly payments of five hundred dollars. Sharon’s attorney made much of Hill’s friendship with Mary Ellen Pleasant, whom he caricatured as a sinister crone who had lured an impressionable young woman into a dastardly plot. “[Hill] disclosed her secrets to a colored woman,” said Sharon’s attorney, as though this was itself damning evidence. Witnesses alleged that Pleasant had cast spells over Sharon and poisoned his food. At one point, she was even accused of baby farming. Hill’s lawyers countered that confiding one’s secrets in a mammy was simply what well-brought-up white ladies do. Pleasant gave evidence herself, and appears to have been articulate, measured, and consistent, not remotely like either the crazed witch or the kindly mammy described by the attorneys or the court reporters.

The case scandalized America; for a brief time “Mammy Pleasant,” a yellow-journalism caricature of Mary Ellen Pleasant, was infamous from coast to coast. Ultimately, Pleasant’s role in the Sharon v. Sharon case was overshadowed by a sixty-six-year-old veteran of the judiciary who really should have known better. When Justice Stephen J. Field ruled against Hill and in favor of Sharon, David Terry caused such a commotion in the courtroom that he was sentenced to six months behind bars, from where he issued threats to Field through the press. On the morning in August 1889 when Terry accosted Field in the café, he presumably had no idea that the judge had recruited an armed bodyguard to deal with precisely this eventuality. Before he knew it, Terry was sprawled on the floor, killed by a bullet fired in Field’s defense.

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No sooner had the baroque soap opera of Sharon v. Sharon reached its denouement than Mary Ellen Pleasant began her fall. Several years earlier she had built a thirty-room mansion, a home for herself, her business partner, Thomas Bell, and his young family. Many assumed that the house belonged to the Bells and that Pleasant took care of the chores and the children. But her business dealings were no secret—nor, after the Sharon trial, were her connections to respectable white society. Whispers spread about what was really going on in “The House of Mystery,” and whether the old lady had some hold over the Bells, as she was alleged to have had over the Sharons.

When Thomas Bell died in 1892, his widow announced that the rumors were true. Teresa Bell accused Pleasant of manipulating her husband and stealing tens of thousands of dollars. The ensuing court case exposed Pleasant’s financial affairs as byzantine and opaque, making it impossible to discern where the Bells’ affairs ended and hers began. Despite having evidence that she had designed and paid for the construction of her mansion, the court ordered her to leave, transferring ownership to Teresa. There were accusations that Pleasant had manipulated the family for her own ends, that she had abused the children, siphoned money to undeserving black women, and even that she had murdered Thomas Bell by pushing him down the stairs. Quite where the truth in all this lies is anyone’s guess, though we can be sure that Teresa Bell was sincere in her belief that Pleasant had done her great wrong. “A demon from first to last” is how she described her in her diary.

Pleasant in her later years.

Once Teresa Bell sued, Pleasant’s finances began to unravel. She spent her final years living with friends, dying in 1904 not impoverished but very much diminished. Her obituary in the San Francisco Examiner read, “Mammy Pleasant Will Work Weird Spells No More.” It was an undignified—and unimaginative—way to announce the passing of a woman whose life had expressed so many of the dazzling, contrary excesses of nineteenth-century America. On the one hand, she spent ninety years trapped in the vices of race and gender; on the other, she used her talents and her will to earn a fortune and shape the society in which she lived. She successfully pursued her constitutional rights through the courts, while in the kangaroo court of public opinion she was sentenced to the ducking stool. An unsentimental capitalist, she belonged to the era of the Gilded Age robber barons. Yet her ardor for civil rights made her a precursor to more famous generations of campaigners who gave global notoriety to locations such as Montgomery and Baton Rouge.

In 1965, Pleasant’s final wish was belatedly granted: the inscription SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN was added to her gravestone. It might be the pithiest, most eloquent summation of an extraordinary life: transgressive and audacious, fired by personal ambition and social justice, and radical to the final breath.

Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.

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