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
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