An illustration of what Mary Ellen Pleasant may have looked like, a black woman wearing a sort of stern expression in a dark blue ruffled gown, hands folded in her lap. In the background behind the illustration is a photo of buildings on Market Street in San Francisco in the later 1800s.

“From Mam’zelle LaVeaux Mary learned to mentor her people and to use the secrets of the rich to gain aid for the poor – a ‘model’ that would serve her well in San Francisco.”  
Sushell Bibbs, Heritage of Power

Mary Ellen Pleasant had a pretty good reputation in town until the press turned on her in the 1880s. When it did, it brought the full force of Reconstruction era racism to bear upon her. It was fucking savage, and it ruined Pleasant. This is when the entrepreneur and activist was slandered as a witch and a pimp. Her beautiful mansion became the Hoodoo House, her network of elite contacts a shady spy network, her hard earned success a product of blackmail and treachery, her status degraded to “Mammy.” This is where the Ghost Story Version of Pleasant takes root.

The takedown began when Mary Ellen Pleasant intervened in a famous trial, taking the side of her friend Sarah Althea Hill, and testifying on her behalf. Hill had an affair with Nevada Senator William Sharon, who lived in San Francisco and owned the Palace Hotel. She sued Sharon for adultery, claiming he’d married her in secret. When he died, she went on to sue for inheritance rights, represented by David Terry, that slimy bastard! If you don’t know about him, I suggest this video which I very much enjoyed making because I love nothing more than a pure villain to excoriate on camera. The press called this case THE ROSE OF SHARON and a lot of ink has been spilled over it – I can’t possibly cover it all here, so this is what you need to know:  Pleasant supported Hill, helped fund her litigation, and testified on her behalf. AND THE PRESS WENT CRAZY OVER IT.

It’s hard to say whether it was an intentional smear campaign by the defense or just a racist, reactionary press and public going wild. The defendant and his family had a lot to lose; Sharon was a millionaire and everyone wanted a piece of that inheritance. Hill was a media darling turned disaster. She seemed genuinely unstable and weird and she famously married her lawyer and pulled a gun on a federal judge (seriously, watch that fucking video). Then again, who among us wouldn’t be driven to extremes after being kicked to the curb by a crusty old sugar daddy, losing income and a place to live? Women didn’t have a ton of options in those days.

The defense and the press attacked Pleasant’s character, calling her relationship with Sarah Hill “unnatural,” and suggesting alternately that she was a pimp, a lowly mammy, or a witch. The fact is, we don’t really know Pleasant’s interest in funding Hill’s case, or testifying for her. It could have been that they were genuinely friends, and Pleasant was a powerful ally. But Pleasant was also a businesswoman, and she knew an opportunity when she saw it. There was a big pot of money to be made off of Sharon’s infidelity and later death. Maybe she just wanted a cut.

By this time, Pleasant was running with the big boys in town:  she was in the same social and business circles as men like Sharon. She cultivated relationships, loyalty, and probably some secrets among these men. The defense painted her as a meddler in the affairs of white men, and suggested that she funded the suit in order to take Sharon down and get a piece of the settlement. That last part might be true, we know Pleasant took gambles in court and in business, she may have seen a payout in the future.

The defense accused Pleasant of being a madam, or a pimp, who had set Sharon up with Hill. As this story was milled through the Victorian press, Pleasant’s boarding houses became houses of ill repute. Her relationship with Hill was characterized as “unnatural,” – after all, how could a Black woman hold so much influence over a white one? There are different theories on whether Pleasant was involved in prostitution. On the one hand, boardinghouses were sometimes conflated with brothels, but on the other, managers were also tasked with locating sex workers for the men along with other everyday “necessities.” Remember – during the Gold Rush, women were at a premium in San Francisco. Prostitution was a booming business and madames were some of the wealthiest women in town. Pleasant’s fortune contributed to this rumor, as well – where else could this Black woman have attained such wealth?

If Pleasant wasn’t a pimp, then the defense and the press speculated she was just an opportunistic servant looking to get rich off of her patron. This is where “Mammy Pleasant” began. If you don’t know, “mammy” is a derogatory term for a Black woman who works as a domestic servant, especially in the capacity of caring for children. It’s true that Pleasant often presented herself as a domestic worker, especially when she wanted to downplay her fortune or reputation. At the Sharon trial, lawyers painted her as a conniving servant taking advantage of Sarah Hill: controlling her, colluding with her to get money. This is another way in which they presented the relationship as “unnatural” — Hill was subjugated by Pleasant, doing the bidding of the mammy and not the other way around. It was gross, it was racist, and it stuck. For many years afterward, even into the current era, Mary Ellen was known colloquially as “Mammy Pleasant.”

It was also during the Rose of Sharon trial that the label Voodoo Queen made its appearance. The very first day of the trial featured an allegation that Hill brought dirty socks and underwear to Pleasant for her to make “charms” out of. First of all EW NO THAT’S NOT HOW ANY OF THAT WORKS, second – this shows exactly how sordid and prurient the attacks on Hill and Pleasant were. It set the tone for the rest of the coverage of Pleasant as a crude sorcerer. Much like the arguments that she was a pimp or a scheming servant, the defense implied that this was evidence of an “unnatural” relationship between the women. Hill must have enlisted voodoo to aid her cause. The defense called to the stand various Black women, who they questioned about charms, spells, and potions. Some said under oath that it was Pleasant who concocted them. Tellingly, however, they said it with respect, fear, and awe.

Spiritualism was popular during the Victorian era, a lot of women turned to magic for assistance. It was not unheard of for them to visit fortune tellers, perform seances, and seek love charms – which is essentially what we’re talking about here. The difference is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was Black – so her “magic” had to be Hoodoo or Voodoo – a wicked, dark practice, a racialized superstition that was harmful to Christians in a way that mainstream spiritualism was not. For her part, Pleasant scoffed at the reports, bringing a voodoo doll to court and carrying a crystal ball around in public just to take the piss out of the press.

Was she a voodoo practitioner? Like so much of this story,  who the hell knows! There are different schools of thought. She may have encouraged this perception to instill some useful fear in the public. After all, a Black female millionaire in Reconstruction era America could use all the protection she could get. It may also have been run of the mill Spiritualism that she was using, which got labeled as “voodoo” because of her race. Still another theory is that she DID practice voodoo, learned from her own Haitian mother and from the real Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau.

Susheel Bibbs, a Mary Ellen Pleasant scholar, describes her as a Laveau acolyte. Bibbs’ theory is that Pleasant learned more than just a religious practice from Laveaux – she learned a model for making money, building power, and helping her people. The Laveaux model operated by (1) leveraging the secrets of the powerful to help the powerless, either through spies or matchmaking alliances, (2) making friends and allies in high places, and (3) raising the morale of the people. I’d add that both Laveaux and Pleasant knew the importance of public image – crafting the right one, controlling it, and using racist stereotypes and attitudes about Black people in their favor – whether to curry favor or fear.

The beautiful thing about this theory is that it doesn’t need to be true to be relevant – there are similarities in the way these Black women amassed money, connections, and power to assist their people. Laveaux’s role as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans is very similar to Pleasant’s role as Black Wall Street. Laveaux worked a day job as a hairdresser to the rich and famous in New Orleans – they trusted her with their secrets. She also employed a network of informants and secrets to her advantage. In her role as a mambo to the Black folks in New Orleans, she helped them in the struggle with financial assistance, connections, and spiritual guidance. According to Bibbs, that is the real role of the mambo, and she taught Mary Ellen Pleasant to replicate this model in San Francisco. 

I think there’s power in the figure of an actual Voudou practitioner, too. As Bibbs explains, this is an ancestral religion that connected African Americans to the heritage that was stolen from them. As a modern white lady, I might look at “Voodoo Queen” and think – shit, they’re disparaging her for racist reasons, but someone with Black heritage might see strength and power in that role. Voudou, as practiced in Western Africa and the Americas, is a legitimate spiritual path that has been hijacked in American popular culture as a stand in for exotic witchcraft. If Pleasant was a mambo, that’s a big fucking deal we should respect it. 

I may equivocate about ghosts, but I love real magic in any form: including writing and storytelling. When I went out to visit Pleasant’s grave in Napa it was beautifully decorated with artifacts of New Orleans voodoo. There were candles at the four corners, beads, masks, and a chalk drawn veve. It reminded me of Marie Laveaux’s tomb! I had the distinct thought that while I want to recognize the racism of the press coverage, I don’t actually want to take any of the magic or power away from this amazing woman’s story.

Photo of a grey stone grave marker with candles and flowers on top. The four corners of the marker have red candles. There are white markings drawn on the grave marker in white chalk or paint that look like a veve for Baron Samedi. The grave marker reads: “Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mother of Civil Rights in California, 1817-1904, She was a friend of John Brown, San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society.” There is a small sign on fixed to the grave corner that says: “Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was born a slave, blame known as the ‘Mother of Civil Rights in California.’ She was involved in the activities of the Underground Railroad in her early adulthood, and was a successful business woman in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. She was always an advocate for members of the Black community."

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s grave in Napa, CA