When I was finishing up this series, I took a trip out to Sonoma and Napa to visit the places Mary Ellen Pleasant lived at the end of her life, and where she was buried. The best part about researching local people is being able to put myself in their actual footsteps, and this trip did not disappoint. Her spirit is very much alive out there – you can feel it.
Mary Ellen Pleasant left San Francisco in the wake of her trials and settled in Sonoma at a farm called Beltane Ranch. Even though she lost her home in litigation to Theresa Bell, the women owned the ranch together, and lived and worked there for many years. I’ve come to look at them like Sister Wives. You guys watch TLC, right? You’ve heard of plural marriage? This feels like some Kody Brown shit to me.
Many people, myself included, believe that Pleasant and Thomas Bell were lovers. They shared property, business interests, and lived together in the big mansion on Bush Street. There are different accounts on how Theresa Bell came into the picture – for example, Bibbs posits that Pleasant “placed” her with Thomas, choosing a woman she could control. Pleasant herself was married to another man this whole time, and even if she and Bell wanted to be together, anti-miscegenation laws would have prevented that. Theresa went after Pleasant when Thomas died, suing and winning the mansion, and participating in a smear campaign that attacked Pleasant and a voodoo practicing witch.
Even after all of this, Mary and Theresa stayed together for some time. They owned and operated Beltane Ranch together, and the Bell kids lived out there with them. It doesn’t feel like a purely financial relationship, either. It seems like their lives were tangled up together – sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. Hudson describes it like this:
“The two probably functioned in different ways at different times for each other; it was a mutually constituted relationship that both women appeared to manipulate to their own ends. Whether framed as a mother-daughter relationship or as an intimate friendship, the relationship was central to their lives in every conceivable way: emotionally, financially, socially.”
Aka – Kody Brown shit.
Beltane Ranch is now a gorgeous winery and bed and breakfast. I went out there to drink wine, fawn over the livestock, wander the vineyards, and eat homemade pancakes in bed for research purposes. They have a great collection of MEP memorabilia, including news clippings and some old books that are out of circulation. I talked to some of the staff about the place and its history, and they told me that they think it was a brothel. It’s built like a hotel, 10 rooms with 10 separate entrances, and there was a train depot right down the drive. Seems like men would come up from San Francisco on the train for some action.
This isn’t the only theory that MEP ran brothels – a lot of people think she was a madam. The evidence is not necessarily there, but it’s not out of the question. There was a lot of money to be made from sex work in those days, and Pleasant wasn’t one to turn down an opportunity. Bibbs takes a very matter of fact position on this, equating it to New Orleans traditions (including placage – a practice that is being debated today). Hudson says boardinghouse operators procured sex workers for the clients in the course of doing business – it was part of the domestic package – but there’s no evidence that brothels were her main business. I can see sex work being a practical way to finance that large ranch, and have a nice country living in the meantime.
The staff told me some other interesting stuff, too – that Theresa Bell was famous for riding around the property on a horse shooting pistols, and that the place is probably haunted. They described feeling a presence, especially in the room that has her old armoire. The building feels old and full of history, but it doesn’t feel heavy or sad.
I also went to check out Mary’s grave. She is buried at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa. It’s a beautiful graveyard with large, classic wrought iron gates and big old trees. Napa was hot as hell when I went there, but the cemetery is shaded and lovely. It’s an active burial ground, a lesson I learned the hard way when I went driving around looking for MEP’s grave and interrupted an actual funeral. The little roads are super narrow, the cemetery was deserted except for this funeral, and as I drove up everyone THOUGHT I WAS THERE FOR THE SERVICE and there were cars parked ahead and I couldn’t get through so I had to get out of my car in shorts and flip flops and awkwardly explain that I was there for uh, research, and not their loved one’s service and uhhhhhh, sorry, um, how can I get through while the priest glowered at me from under his mask and the funeral director, a true professional, orchestrated the car roulette so that I could get through. Embarrassing but ultimately not surprising given how I stumble through life.
I stopped in the office to ask about the gravesite and met a super friendly employee who actually went and got the historic log books out for me to look at. Which! Was amazing! I saw the original entry for Pleasant’s interment, including her age, marital status, race, and cause of death. The information is written out in longhand, and it felt absolutely magical to see it there on the page. I connected so much with her story, seeing that primary source was thrilling.
Her grave site is a place of pilgrimage even today – it’s covered in flowers, candles, and voudou devotional items: liquor, mirrors, veves drawn in chalk. When I saw it, my attitude toward the “Voodoo Queen” storyline shifted. I’d approached it skeptically, taking more of a Hudson view than a Bibbs. But when I saw this gravesite kitted out like an altar, I felt the power of it. Whoever she was in real life, people still draw on her power as a mambo today. I had the very distinct feeling that I didn’t want to reduce or diminish that, because whether it was technically true is kind of beside the point. It was a source of power for her, and it continues to inspire people today, so why belabor it?
Pleasant’s story is fascinating, her life was full of adventure, hardship, luck, and magic. She’s a perfect encapsulation of the grit and grift that made San Francisco what is today. I’m glad that her memory is alive through the ghost stories, and that we can learn about our history through the life of this amazing woman.
There are a ton more that are linked in the posts!
“Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Quest for Equality for All,” Paul Gutierrez, The Argonaut Vol 31 No. 2 Winter 2021
Susheel Bibb’s Mary Ellen Pleasant site