An illustration of what Mary Ellen Pleasant may have looked like, rendered in a ghostly pale transparency. Showing through the semi-transparent illustration is a photo of the Healing Arts Building, a Chinese medicine clinic, that now stands on the grounds of the former Bell Mansion.

“People who say bad things about her in the park have had objects dropped on their head, or fallen suddenly as if pushed. The sudden appearance of a crow seems to herald Mary’s presence, and she has even taken her human form and walked among the trees and bushes. If you make a respectful request of the voodoo priestess on that corner, and find favor with Mary, it is said that your request will come true.”  
Don’t Call Her Mammy – The New Fillmore

Mary Ellen Pleasant was ultimately undone by litigation and a hostile press. She lost her home in a suit with Bell’s heirs, and she retreated to Sonoma County, where she lived out her days on a ranch. When she died in 1904, the Chronicle ran the headline “Mammy Pleasant Will Work Weird Spells No More.”   This epitaph memorialized her as a mammy, a sorcerer, a meddler in white affairs. Which is bullshit! This is the woman who rode with Jim Brown! Who desegregated transit! This was Black City Hall!

So, obviously she haunts this city. Wouldn’t you? 

I have mixed feelings about ghosts. I don’t really believe half the shit I read about them, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about folklore and why certain people stick around in oral history and legend. After all, where is a ghost more alive and present than a ghost story? I also have some ideas about the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, in case you couldn’t tell from this 5,000 word manifesto I just wrote. I think she was a powerful woman who scared a lot of people – not because of sorcery, but because of success. And I think that while popular ghost lore has her haunting in her form as a witch and a murderer, we actually keep her specter around to remind us of how people who rise too high will be torn down by a society that resents them. 

Pleasant is a heavy hitter on the San Francisco ghost circuit. Ghost books, tours, and sites fucking love that house. The old stories about her, however, are a vulgar mashup of tabloid stories and racist tropes. In the classic lore, she’s a scheming witch who murdered her lover for his fortune and picked apart his brains after his death. The books still call her “Mammy” and say she lurks among the eucalyptus trees, waiting to work her spells on unsuspecting passersby. She haunts because of black magic, because she was a murderer, because some creepy voodoo shit keeps her tied to the site and looking for new victims. 

That’s just a recitation of the racist garbage run by the Victorian press, buuuuuuuttt it’s probably why the story has stuck around and gained so much traction. Mary Ellen Pleasant was a trailblazer, and she intimidated a lot of people before any of this voodoo queen bullshit started. She was a Black woman millionaire who ran with the most powerful white men in town. YOU KNOW PEOPLE DID NOT LIKE THAT SHIT! You know it scared them! Part of the reason why the accusations of pimping, witchcraft, and thievery came about (and stuck) were because society could not comprehend the success of this woman. She must have made her money selling babies or murdering men or using BLACK MAGIC (PUN INTENDED). These stories were reported in the press and gained a veneer of truth, and they’ve stuck around since. We’re still afraid of these things, a lot has changed since the Gold Rush but also A LOT HAS STAYED THE SAME. 

Photo of a street corner - there is a hanging sign that states "Healing Arts, 1801 Bush St." There's a hanging lantern opposite the sign. In the background there are mature eucalyptus trees. The photo has a very moody filter.

Corner of Bush and Octavia, site of the former Bell Mansion, facing East towards the original eucalyptus trees that still grow there.

So look, I still love ghost stories and I still love the idea of Pleasant hanging out in her park. The trees she planted are now a protected landmark, and they’re all that’s left of her home. There’s a beautiful plaque on the street that describes her as the “Mother of Civil Rights” in California – which is exactly how she should be remembered. Some stories say that you can make a wish, and ask a favor of this ghost – if she likes you, she’ll grant it. If you’re rude or disruptive on the site, she’ll throw a eucalyptus nut at you or push you. That tracks with how Pleasant lived her life, doesn’t it? I see her as a helpful ghost, waiting and watching. She’s keeping an eye out. I like to imagine her waltzing through the site of her magnificent mansion, in her elegant clothing, cooking up some schemes to make money and free people in the struggle. This is a ghost we want around.

Next: Part 7 – Epilogue