Saturday, May 7, 2011

Guest Blogger: Elizabeth Kerri Mahon of Scandalous Women

Murder by Gaslight is pleased to welcome guest blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon of Scandalous Women She will be sharing the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, one of several dozen brazen ladies— famous and infamous—profiled in her fascinating new book Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women

Mary Ellen Pleasant and the ‘House of Mystery’

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s (1814-1904) is one of the most enigmatic women of the 19th century American West and that’s exactly the way she wanted it. During her long life, she was an entrepreneur, abolitionist, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in California, confidante of the rich and crazy, but was she also a murderer? What actually happened that rainy night in October 1892 at 1661 Octavia Street when Thomas Bell died? Did he fall, did he jump or was pushed down stair? A coroner’s inquest ruled that his death was accidental, and he was buried in a grave in a plot owned by Mary Ellen. At the time of Bell’s death, neither his widow, nor his children, nor the San Francisco police raised questions about foul play. So how did the myth begin that Mary Ellen Pleasant was somehow responsible for his death?

Thomas Bell was a multimillionaire, a co-founder of the First Bank of California, nicknamed the Quicksilver King of the West. Mary Ellen had met Thomas Bell soon after her lawsuit against the cable car companies in San Francisco sometime in the late 1860’s. No one knows exactly how they met or what the exact nature of their business partnership. The exact nature of Mary Ellen’s relationship to Bell has never been established, was it sexual or just financial or both? There is no doubt that Thomas Bell considered Mary Ellen to be the best businessman he’d ever met. One of the rumors surrounding Mary Ellen was that she provided some of the seed money for Bell’s success. Bell was a bachelor when they met, and Pleasant introduced him to Teresa Percy, who was one of her protégée’s, who he married. A few months after the couple married in 1879, they moved in a 30-room mansion at 1661 Octavia Street that had been designed by Mary Ellen. The mansion built and decorated according to her specifications, was worth one hundred thousand dollars, one of the largest black-owned residences in the nation.

The Bell mansion, or in truth, the Pleasant mansion was a strange place. People were under the impression that Pleasant was the housekeeper, which she did nothing to correct but things were clearly different behind closed doors. Thomas and Teresa Bell lived separate lives, with Mary Ellen Pleasant acting as a mediator between the two. All money matters between the couple were handled by Mary Ellen; she bought all the groceries and hired and fired the servants as well. Mary Ellen also controlled where Teresa Bell went. In fact she controlled all aspects of Teresa Bell’s life, including choosing her clothes and friends.

Mary Ellen didn’t care what people thought of her. As she told a judge, “Mr. Bell knows what I was there for, and I knew what I was there for.” If that wasn’t clear to people, then they could go hang! White San Franciscans decided to fill in the gaps with their own mythology. The gossip around town was that Mary Ellen Pleasant dominated by the Bells by using voodoo, that her power stemmed from blackmail, and that she trafficked in prostitution and selling babies on the side. Well they would soon have something else to talk about.

On October 15, 1892, at half-past ten in the evening, the servants at the Bell mansion heard the cries of 72 year old Thomas Bell, and a dull thud as his body fell over the stair railing twenty feet to the basement. Only Mary Ellen and Fred Bell, the Bell’s eldest son were at home. Teresa Bell was at the ranch house in Sonoma that Mary Ellen later claimed to own. Fred Bell ran for the nearest doctor, a Dr. Murphy while Mary Ellen went for pillows and blankets. Another doctor, Dr. Kearney who had been treating Bell was also summoned but it was too late. Thomas Bell never regained consciousness and died at 1:30 p.m. the next afternoon. At the inquest, Mary Ellen stated that Thomas Bell had been ill for about two months, and then when he woke up in the night, he must have gotten disoriented and fallen down the stairs. The coroner’s verdict was that the death was accidental but that didn’t stop the whispers in San Francisco society.

It wasn’t until years later when Teresa Bell was in a bitter fight with Pleasant over the disposition of the Bell property that she began to tell people that Pleasant pushed Thomas Bell to his death. She wrote in her diary that Thomas Bell had actually died a ½ hour after his fall, after Mary Ellen instead of helping him, used her finger to probe the wound, ‘pulling the protruding brains from a hole in the top of his head.”

Teresa Bell’s children later had her declared incompetent after she claimed that she could fly and that she light gaslights with a wave of her hand. They also supported Mary Ellen’s claims that every last dime including the jewelry belonged not to Teresa Bell but to her. But the damage was done. There were plenty of people willing to believe that a black woman could be a successful by blackmail, murder, and witchcraft. Mary Ellen Pleasant breathed her last on January 11, 1904 taking her secrets with her to the grave. She was eighty-nine years old. Legend has it that Mary Ellen was once offered a small fortunate to spill the beans about San Francisco society. She regarded the man with disdain and told him, “I have never needed money bad enough to betray anyone.” Biographer Sam Davis wrote in 1902 that Pleasant knew, “the history of San Francisco’s people better than any other living person. In her breast are locked the secrets of hundreds of leading families.”

In 1953, Helen Holdredge, who had inherited Teresa Bell’s diaries, wrote the best-selling biography ‘Mammy Pleasant’. Holdredge devoted 37 pages to Mary Ellen’s achievements up to 1875 and 250 pages to the scandalous newspaper accounts of the 1880s including Bell’s death. She did not index the book nor did she do citations in the text. In her biography she weaves a sinister tale, claiming that on the night that Bell died, Pleasant prepared a cup of mulled wine for him, implying that Bell might have been poisoned. On her way upstairs, she told one of the maids to lock up the house for the night. This was unusual since Mary Ellen was known for making sure that every blind was shut and the doors were locked. When Bell’s body was found later, Holdredge repeated the story that Mary Ellen was seen pulling out Bell’s brains, the red shawl that Pleasant often wore lying on the balustrade. Holdredge added further to the myth by implicating Pleasant in at least 4 other murders, at least two attempts on the life of Frederick Bell, Thomas Bell’s son.

Mary Ellen hit a lot of the hot buttons in post-Civil War California. Not only was she a woman who had amassed a certain amount of money and property but many powerful white men had confided their secrets to her, giving her access to their secrets. She stepped out of the role that society assigned her, that of domestic servant. People who knew her described her as a formidable and terrifying presence. Recent biographers have done much to restore Pleasant’s reputation as a businesswoman and activist, but there will always be a mystery about what happened that night at 1661 Octavia Street.


Anonymous says:
June 12, 2012 at 4:33 AM

A little proof-reading would not come amiss.

Laurence says:
May 28, 2014 at 9:20 PM

What a delicious story - what a good film it would make, if well-written and well-produced, that is. Picture Halle Berry in the title role.

John says:
October 3, 2016 at 1:44 PM

Helen Holdredge was out to sell a novel by using allegations of a woman who was later deemed mentally incompetent, whose children sided with Pleasant, and, as well, had a dog in the property-rights fight.

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