Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mother of Civil Rights in California: The Truth About Her Link to the Mansion on Fairmount's Laidley Street

A truncated version of this article was originally published in the Noe Valley Voice, March 2019 (article) and April 2019 (Letter to the Editor).

By its architectural design alone, the gothic-like mansion located near Laidley and Fairmount streets in today’s Fairmount Heights neighborhood evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue. Yet for more than a century, that aura has been enhanced by the house's association with Mary Ellen Pleasant, who today is recognized as the mother of civil rights in California. 


As a woman of color, Pleasant's ground-breaking achievements in the 19th century would be tempered by the disdain and derision focused against her by white residents and newspaper organizations of Jim Crow California. Descriptions of her life have often been sensationalized. Based on hearsay and innuendo, these characterizations solidified myths and stereotypes rather than celebrating a woman who should be recognized as an American hero. 


So, who was Mary Ellen Pleasant, and what exactly is her association with the Poole-Bell mansion on Laidley Street?

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Mary Ellen’s true origins are unknown. A daughter of a black woman and a white man, she was born into slavery, likely in Georgia, around 1814. Separated from her mother at the age of 10, as a bonded servant in Rhode Island she learned how to run a store, cook, and make wine. She later married an abolitionist in Boston, James Smith, and worked with him on the Underground Railroad transporting slaves to freedom. When Smith died and left her a small fortune, she married James Plaissance, and the two moved to New Orleans. 


Continuing to work on the Underground Railroad, Mary Ellen met Marie Laveau, a woman renowned for her so-called voodoo powers. Yet, rather than magical spells and sorcery, it seems Laveau may have taught Mary Ellen more down-to-earth skills, including how to exert influence for social change and “pressure the powerful to help the powerless,” primarily blacks and poor women. 


When Mary Ellen’s role in slave rescue was discovered, she left New Orleans and followed her husband who had already departed for San Francisco. Arriving in 1852, they changed their name from “Plaissance” to “Pleasant.”


Success in San Francisco 
In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, initially for Case and Heiser, importers and commission merchants. She also encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, about this time. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Mary Ellen and Bell would remain close confidantes for a lifetime. Often, she would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.


Through her domestic work, Mary Ellen became privy to conversations among the city’s nouveau riche about the next big investment, then proceeded to make the investment herself. Her wealth continued to grow, and she is credited with being the first African American woman to become a millionaire. After financially and logistically supporting the transit of black men and women from the southern United States to San Francisco, she would help them find jobs, and establish and maintain their own businesses. Mary Ellen bought properties throughout the city and Bay Area, and opened boarding houses primarily for young women in need, some of whom were married off to wealthy men. 
Near today’s intersection of Geneva and San Jose Avenues on the site of the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s Geneva Car Barns, Mary Ellen built what became known as the Geneva Cottage, described as a “resort” by some newspapers. With legends of unbridled lust and debauchery perpetrated by resort guests and female hosts, the San Francisco Chronicle stated in 1899, “What happened there during its first year of occupancy may best be passed over without comment.” 


A Friend to John Brown 
In San Francisco, Mary Ellen’s participation in the Underground Railroad continued. Acquainted with abolitionist John Brown, she provided $30,000 to finance his “army of emancipation” and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause. When his attack on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (today, West Virginia), failed in 1859, Brown was captured by future Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart and executed for treason. Legend has it that a note from Mary Ellen with the initials “W.E.P.” was found in Brown’s pocket. If true, and if the inversion of “M” to “W” was intentional, it worked. She was never pursued by investigators.  

 
Despite California being a free state, during and immediately after the Civil War several privately owned railroad companies in San Francisco maintained a “whites only” policy. After being ejected from an Omnibus Railroad car, in 1863 Charlotte Brown became the first person of color to challenge the practice. She was eventually awarded $500. 


In 1867, Mary Ellen sued the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company when a car with ample room for additional passengers failed to stop to allow her to board. A female passenger had urged the car to stop for her, but the conductor had responded, “We don’t take colored people in the cars.” Like Charlotte Brown, Mary Ellen would also be awarded $500. It would be another 25 years before the California State legislature would pass a law prohibiting segregation on railroads in California. 


Championing Women
Mary Ellen’s rise to notoriety would not necessarily be due to her ongoing fight for equality and civil rights in Victorian San Francisco. Instead, when the private lives of some of her most intimate and trusted friends became embroiled in very public and sordid affairs, her name would be dragged into the mire. 


Mary Ellen’s dearest friend, Sarah Althea Hill, in 1880 would seek divorce and a substantial settlement from William Sharon. He had become one of the richest men in the world through underhanded business dealings while representing the Bank of California in Virginia City, Nevada during the Comstock silver rush. Historian Gray Brechin claims, “To call Sharon a piranha would be to insult the character of the fish.”


Sarah presented papers documenting their marriage. Sharon vehemently denied any marriage had existed, declaring she had only been his mistress. Mary Ellen, likely knowing she was entering a snake pit, testified for Sarah during the drawn-out and very public “Sharon v. Sharon” legal battle, one that the Healdsburg Tribune reported, “challenges the world of fiction for its many startling developments.” The final verdict was in favor of Sharon: the court declared there had been no marriage.

 

Sarah would later marry Judge David Terry, the man who shot and killed abolitionist U.S. Senator David S. Broderick in a duel near Lake Merced in 1859. What Mary Ellen may have thought about Sarah marrying pro-slavery Terry is unknown. However, after Terry was shot and killed on a passenger train in 1889, Sarah became very unstable and eventually insane. Mary Ellen was left with the sad responsibility of signing papers to commit Sarah to the Stockton State Hospital, the first psychiatric hospital in California, where she remained until her death in 1937.


As noted earlier, Mary Ellen continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. When she met a young new arrival by the name of Teresa Percy, Mary Ellen introduced her to Bell, and they married in 1879. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets. Living there with the Bells, Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances. By the end of the 19th century it would become apparent that the residence may not have been the happiest of homes. 


Betrayals in Later Life
In the early 1890s, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 concluded their Sonoma acquisitions with the purchase of the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell, or identifying it as the House of Bell. It has been speculated that the three were seeking a country home away from the Octavia mansion, where they could relax and grow wine and other agricultural products. 


They began enjoying the property by staying at the former Nunn home. Sadly, their pleasure was short-lived. In October 1892, Thomas Bell fell over a balustrade at the Octavia mansion and died at the age of 70. The San Francisco County Coroner ruled his death accidental, yet, speculation was rampant that Mary Ellen was the diabolical agent who had caused his death, either with a push (even though she was not in the house at the time) or a voodoo spell. Teresa Bell began to turn against the now aging Mary Ellen, claiming she had stolen thousands of dollars from them. Courts had a difficult time ascertaining the line between Thomas Bell’s and Mary Ellen’s finances. Teresa Bell, determined to destroy “the old she-devil,” eviscerated Mary Ellen in testimony, an injustice her legacy still struggles to overcome today. 


With their ongoing rift growing deeper and more tenuous, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen supervised construction of the new ranch house and, with phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa was determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture horses and other livestock.


Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the Octavia mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell. By this time, in her 80s and frail in health, Mary Ellen continued to see her investments fail and her funds dwindle. For a time, she lived at the Geneva Cottage in what was still rural San Francisco, spending her time tending her garden. She spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa. 


Mary Ellen died in San Francisco in 1904 at about the age of 90. She is buried in the Sherwood’s plot in Napa's Tulocay Cemetery, where her tombstone reads, “She was a friend of John Brown.” On January 31, 2019, in a series titled “Overlooked,” the New York Times belatedly published an obituary of Mary Ellen Pleasant


After Mary Ellen’s death, Teresa Bell continued to own Beltane. An incident at the ranch made it apparent to Sonoma residents that Teresa may not have been of right mind. In 1913, a carpenter asked Teresa to be paid for his work. She responded by threatening to beat him with a club. The carpenter had earlier been advised to carry a gun when on the property because it was believed Teresa always carried a revolver or dagger. Incensed at her refusal to pay, he drew his gun and started firing. His son-in-law gained control of the situation. and no one was injured. The carpenter may have had additional, more deep-seeded reasons for his violent action - his wife was a former friend of Teresa but had been committed to a sanitarium, having become addicted to alcohol and drugs under Teresa's influence.

 

Teresa Bell died in 1922. The Beltane Ranch house built by Mary Ellen still stands today and is now available as a farmhouse stay bed-and-breakfast offered by the Heinz/Wood Family, who have been caretakers of the property since 1936. Saved by first responders in the catastrophic Nunns Fire of 2017, the home came within a hair’s breadth of being lost.

 

The mansion at Octavia and Bush – the so-called “Bell House of Mystery" – was demolished in 1927 to make way for the Green Brothers Eye Hospital. Today, a small memorial parklet is located at 1669 Octavia that includes six enormous eucalyptus trees planted by Mary Ellen herself, as well as a small plaque commemorating her life.

 

The Laidley Mansion

So, what exactly is Mary Ellen Pleasant's link with the mansion on Laidley at Fairmount? 


Attorney and notary John P. Poole, who came to prominence as secretary of the Swamp and Overflowed Land Commission in the late 1850s, had purchased the lot where the mansion now sits in the late 1880s. Poole and his wife Annie are first listed as residents at the Laidley mansion in 1894, a structure which by coincidence is nearly identical in design to the “House of Mystery” at Octavia and Bush. The following year, John Poole was indicted for defrauding the federal government in a pension scam. He died suddenly shortly thereafter. Annie was eventually forced to sell many of their properties. Annie sold the Poole mansion to Teresa Bell in 1906 – two years after Mary Ellen’s death. Therefore, neighborhood lore claiming the Laidley house had been owned and resided in by Mary Ellen, or that the cottages across the seat housed her protégés, are just that – fictional history.


While Mary Ellen had purchased lots near Church and Duncan Streets in Noe Valley in 1878 and 1879 from the real estate agency of J.M. Comerford, evidence that she resided on those properties or anywhere in Fairmount Heights has yet to be found. Regardless, the indirect association of Mary Ellen to the Poole-Bell mansion on Laidley Street is is history we will continue to tell, so that we can continue to honor and conserve the true legacy of the Mother of California Civil Rights.

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