Just wondering about… Mary Ellen Pleasant

Linda Blum | Sonoma Valley Sun

Mary Ellen Pleasant bought the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, previously the Drummond vineyard, in 1891 and renamed it after Celtic fertility festival.

Was she a saintly benefactor of fallen young women in the gilded age of San Francisco, or a voodoo practitioner and blackmailer? Did she run respectable boarding houses in San Francisco, or a bordello in Glen Ellen?

Mary Ellen Pleasant, widely known as “Mammy,” bought and named the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, previously the Drummond vineyard, in 1891. She may have wanted to create an island of calm away from her strenuous life in San Francisco, where she was considered the “richest colored woman” in the city, or perhaps something else entirely.

But how did she accrue all this wealth, and bad repute?

By many accounts, the ranch may have become a retreat for the wealthy and powerful men of the era, who could hop onto the new train line to Glen Ellen from the city, and while away a few hours with the young ladies that Mammy provided.

Even the name, Beltane, referred to an ancient Celtic fertility festival. And the house that she built on the property, as pointed out by the current owners, the Wood/Benward family, has only exterior staircases, with all the rooms originally unconnected, and which could only be reached from the wrap-around porches. Intriguing,  indeed.

Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in the frantic Gold Rush era of San Francisco about 1852, with a clouded past, but an eye to the future.  Born in 1814, possibly to a white father, she was first a slave in Georgia, then a bond servant in Nantucket, where she had the good fortune to be taught reading and writing by her employers, as well as acquiring a business sense in their dry goods store. All this would serve her well in her later dealings with the social elite in San Francisco.

Along the path that would lead her west, she married twice, inherited a Louisiana plantation from her first husband, befriended abolitionists, entered the world of voodoo and, it seems, became proficient in scheming.

In San Francisco, she first became a much sought-after cook to the wealthier families, such as the well-known sugar manufacturers, the Spreckles, and artfully listened in on their business dealings. With this inside information, she invested in mines, banks, and real estate, becoming more and more powerful. During these years, her influence on the elite of San Francisco became so pronounced that she was accused of “working weird spells” by the San Francisco Examiner newspaper.

But her “spells” probably owed more to blackmail than to voodoo, because she had the foresight to befriend young, black runaway slave women, and find them jobs as maids in wealthy households, where they could pick up scandalous gossip for her to use.

Still, her most famous coup was to arrange the marriage of her young “protégée” to an old business partner, Thomas Bell.  Teresa Clingan Bell was blonde and pretty, but rather simple, and for most of the next 25 years, the Bell family was completely ruled by Mammy. She even supervised, in 1877, the building of the 30 Bell mansion at 1661 Octavia Street in the city, where she then lived and ran the household until 1898. Poor Thomas Bell died in 1892 after a suspicious fall over a balcony railing, leaving Mammy in charge.

The Bell family eventually included six children, but at the end of her life, Teresa Bell claimed that she had never borne a child!  This harked back to the rumors in the past that Mammy Pleasant had helped young women in trouble by taking their illegitimate children into her home with the Bells, and by so doing, put them in her debt.  This debt could also have extended to the anonymous fathers of these children, and Mammy Pleasant knew who they were.

Of course, much of what we know about Mrs. Pleasant was gleaned from the tabloids of the time, and scandal was more readable than reality.

In reality, for instance, she was an ardent abolitionist, and a backer of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, even giving a large sum of money to John Brown to carry out his raid on the Harper’s Ferry ammunition depot.

Also, in 1868, she sued the North Beach & Mission trolley company for the right of blacks to ride, and won, earning her the title of “Mother of Civil Rights in California”.

But after a lifetime of schemes and intrigue, and an amassed fortune of  millions of dollars, in her old age, Teresa Bell accused her of fraud, and threw her out of the Beltane ranch and the Octavia Street house. She was declared an “insolvent debtor” in 1898, and died destitute in 1904.

A person familiar with Mrs. Pleasant’s story commented “She may have been shady, but she was savvy.” And very much a woman ahead of her Victorian times. She learned to manipulate investments as well as she manipulated people.

In one of the original bedrooms at Beltane Ranch, there is an enormous dresser with a full-length mirror that once belonged to Mammy Pleasant. And yes, there is a secret compartment in one of the drawers. An observer can’t help but wonder what secrets Mammy may have stashed in that hidden space…. and whether she was the conniving devil that so many of her time described, or a black woman that people didn’t want to believe was just too smart. Perhaps we will never know.

The restored Beltane Ranch as it looks today.

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