pioneer Mary Ellen Pleasant, aka Mammy Pleasant, has two reputations
in the annals of San Francisco history. One would have her famous, the
other infamous. The famous: As commemorated by this plaque in her honor
at 1661 Octavia Street at Bush, a sprawling estate she once owned, Pleasant
was a busy figure in the Underground Railroad and helped many slaves make
their way to freedom in the north. The Abolitionist used an inheritance
from her husband, a carpenter, to fund the cause of Black freedom and to
amass a $30 million fortune in stocks and real estate. In 1868, a full
83 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of
the bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, Pleasant successfully
sued the City after she was kicked off a streetcar for being black.
Perhaps because she lived her entire life in a racist country, Mammy Pleasant also has a second reputation, that as the "Queen of the Voodoo." The daughter of a slave, Pleasant's father was the white son of a Virginia governor. When she came to San Francisco in 1852, the City was replete with saloons, gambling dens, and whore houses. The infamous version of Pleasant's life has her riding to wealth on profits from brothels and blackmail schemes that consumed her wealthy clients. The 30-room house at the Octavia property became known as the House of Mystery after stories spread of secret orgies and hidden passageways. On October 15, 1892, Thomas Bell, a business partner of Pleasant who lived in the house with his wife and Pleasant under an ambiguous arrangement, died after falling from a second story landing. While the death was ruled an accident, Bell's widow Teresa later had a bitter falling out with Pleasant and reportedly spread rumors of Pleasant's involvement in her husband's death after Pleasant evicted Mrs. Bell from the Octavia property.
Mary Ellen Pleasant died broke in 1904, and is buried in Napa. The small grove of eucalyptus trees at the Octavia property known as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park were planted by Pleasant herself.
Copyright 2001 Hank Donat