Mary Ellen Pleasant: “The Voodoo Queen of San Francisco”
Photos by Luke George
Have you ever walked through a cemetery and admired its beauty? The stillness. The serenity. The tombstone artwork. The pops of color from a floral arrangement – or a Vodou (Voodoo) votive with ceremonial paraphernalia. Such is a sight you might find at Tulocay cemetery in Napa, specifically on the grave of one mysterious woman: Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Few things are known to be true of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story, mainly because she made it her business to muddy the waters.
She wrote three memoirs in her life, none of which corroborated the others. She leveraged the rumor mill to her own advantage in life, and in death, only seems to have left clues to confirm the facts that mattered most to her.
What we do know is that she was an extremely wealthy and successful businesswoman in San Francisco in the mid-late 19th century. Her self-made fortune, reportedly of $30 million (roughly $1 billion in today’s dollars), was impressive for a man at the time, let alone for a woman. She amassed her fortune by starting out as a domestic laborer during the gold rush, when such skills were in high demand. With her early earnings and an inheritance from a deceased husband, she bought up laundries and property, building high-end boarding houses where wealthy men would live.
Mary continued working as a domestic, becoming a favorite cook of many powerful men. She would listen in on their business conversations, picking up stock tips and growing her net worth under the radar. She began cultivating her social capital by looking after the men in her care, earning their trust and respect. Through them she learned more about business and the inner workings of government. Leaning into the promise of the western frontier, in a government census she listed her profession as “capitalist.”
When the Civil War ended, she made another bold claim in the census. She revealed herself as Black.
Few facts are known about Mary Ellen Pleasant’s origins, but most sources agree that she was born into slavery in Georgia or Virginia around 1814. She is said to have escaped slavery at a young age into the care of Quakers in the north. Her ethnic background is ambiguous, but it is said that upon arrival in San Francisco, when the Fugitive Slave Act was still in effect, she passed herself off as white and was only known as Black among the Black community – the community to whom she dedicated her wealth.
Mary was an abolitionist, using her wealth to fund the western terminus of the Underground Railroad. She worked with John Brown to that end and was supposedly one of “The Secret Six” to fund the raid at Harpers Landing. She used favor and capital to help people win their freedom and fight a prejudiced judicial system. She used her boarding houses to provide safe haven to escaped slaves and employment to members of the greater Black community.
She helped overturn racist laws and customs, funding the suit against California’s ban on Black testimony and, along with Charlotte Brown and Emma Jane Turner, suing San Francisco’s streetcar companies, forcing them to provide service to Black customers (over 90 years before Rosa Parks sat in defiance). Her political savvy earned her the nickname “The Black City Hall.”
There are many reasons why a person of color would have concealed their racial identity during this time.
The more wealth Mary amassed and dedicated to her cause, the more she had to lose. While she tried to keep a low profile and obscure her origins as much as possible, rumors of ill-gotten means flew, and that became especially true after she outed herself as Black. Speculations arose about her running brothels and other unsavory businesses. She became known as “Mammy,” a derogatory term for black women who cared for the children of a white family, and a name she hated. She became implicated in the “mysterious” deaths of lovers and husbands. Accused of casting spells and curses to make her fortune and gain favor among the city’s elite, she earned another nickname, “the Voodoo Queen of San Francisco.”
Mary leaned into these rumors. She leveraged the white community’s fear, ignorance, and fascination with her to stoke conflicting stories and obscure the truth behind her machinations. By doing so, she ensured she could continue her abolitionist work undetected, but also villainized herself to the press.
At the height of her prosperity, Mary had an enormous mansion built on the corner of Bush and Octavia Streets in San Francisco.
She lost it and her fortune later in life, dying in poverty. Much of her holdings had been put in Thomas Bell’s name (a friend and possible lover who was a white man) in order to safeguard them in a racist society. This backfired when he died and his widow sued for ownership, cutting her out of any will that may have existed.
While the mansion no longer stands, a piece of the property was turned into the smallest park in the city, dedicated to her. A plaque commemorating her is embedded in the sidewalk among the six eucalyptus trees she planted there, labeling her “The Mother of Civil Rights in California.” If you believe in ghosts, it is said that her spirit haunts those trees, casting eucalyptus pods at those who disparage her name. She is a favorite of many a ghost hunt tour business in the city.
She came to be buried in Napa because her friend, Olive Sherwood, had her interred in her family plot at the Tulocay cemetery.
If you visit her grave, it is decorated, as mentioned, with Vodou items. Far from demonizing the woman beyond this life, it seems those who leave these items do so to honor her memory. Whether she truly practiced Vodou in life or not isn’t the question. Some Pleasant scholars indicate the way she conducted herself in her circumstances – leveraging the powerful to help the powerless, making allies in high places, uplifting the community, and carefully crafting a public image – is reminiscent of Marie Laveaux, “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.” These are celebrated attributes, and the gifts are perhaps a tribute to the “magic” she worked for so many people as The Mother of Civil Rights in California.