Bodies in the Well, Trapdoors in the Foyer: How the Poole-Bell House Became Mired in Myths

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

When interest in San Francisco’s unique Victorians houses revived in the 1960s and 1970s, Fairmount Heights’ local example of the glorious era, the Poole-Bell House on Laidley Street, became an object of interest of preservationists and aficionados.

The Poole-Bell house in 1957. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
The Poole-Bell house in 1957. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

Legends that had grown up around the house—local lore and neighborhood stories—finally saw print. In the way of things, once in print, the stories had a resilience, despite the lack of historical grounding. From then until the 2000s, the house was noted in various places, but almost every fact recorded about it was wrong. The stories took on a robust life of their own, and hung on for decades.

Much of the narrative centered on the legendary Mary Ellen Pleasant, although she never lived there—never even set foot in the house. But her own sensational history meant that when something of the building was published, Pleasant’s previous association with one important owner, Teresa Bell, cast a long heavy shadow over every account.

The ghost of these stories clung onto the house for decades, and it has taken some digging to find true stories about the house. Here is a brief synopsis before diving into the myth-making:

Built in 1887, the house was the prized accomplishment of attorney John Poole, who unfortunately died in disgrace a few years later. His widow Annie Poole lived on there as she successfully rebuilt his estate. She sold the house to another widow in 1906, Teresa Bell, who had a great deal of work done on it, including adding a top story. The Bell family household had been previously been entwined with Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was an object of newspaper scandal stories in the late nineteenth century. Bell was the mother of a scandal-ridden family who nonetheless also rebuilt her dead husband’s estate, and created for herself in Fairmount the first home she could call her own. After Bell left in late 1917, the house was home a great many other people. Bell died elsewhere in 1922. (See more stories here).

A Genealogy of the Thrilling but Erroneous Lore

How did so many wrong facts and skewed stories about the house rise up like trick ghosts at a carnival haunted house—and persist for so long?

The error-ridden lore about the house over the last fifty years can be traced back to one publication, which was used as a reference after that, without any fact-checking. Later the legends were further embellished by an enthusiastic and convincing real estate agent, Polly Gilmore, who owned the house. The problem has its roots in the 1968 picture book called Here Today: San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage, which was published by The Junior League of San Francisco, Inc.

Unfortunately, well-meaning women of the League did not employ any trained historians, and so the book is full of sloppy errors, large and small.

The text from Here Today [with my corrections in square brackets]:

A house with considerably more exotic background…is found at 196-198 Laidley Street at the corner of Miguel [Fairmount Street], overlooking the gap between Diamond Heights and Bernal Heights traversed by the old San Bruno Road [Old San Jose Road] and the original line of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad. This three-story, frame Second-Empire-and-Italianate structure was built by an attorney, Cecil Poole [John P Poole], about 1872 [1887].

Around 1900 [1906] the house was bought by Teresa Bell, associate of the legendary Mammy Pleasant, and wife [widow] of the millionaire Thomas Bell. An obscure web of intrigue, [alleged] blackmail, and [alleged] murder had spun itself out, leaving Teresa the survivor and a millionairess [only after she rebuilt the fortune from the debts she inherited] by the time she occupied this house. Teresa died in 1916 [in 1922, elsewhere]. Today her house is given over to apartments.

Once printed, in the way of things, the story took on the weight of fact, Ten years later, in 1979, Laura Goderez of the Glen Park Perspective (later the Glen Park News) published almost verbatim what the Junior League had published without checking facts.[1] Then the legend began to attract more sensational bits to it like a magnet.

Local Gossip in the Examiner

The year after that, Margot Patterson Doss retold the story in a piece highlighting Fairmount in her “San Francisco at Your Feet” column in the SF Examiner.[2]

SF Examiner, 11 May 1980.
SF Examiner, 11 May 1980.

She got the house number wrong and went on state that it was the so-called “House of Mystery” that was so often featured in the nineteenth-century newspapers, when that in fact was the Octavia Street mansion where the Bell family had lived from the 1878 to 1899, and which Mary Ellen Pleasant had designed and owned. Doss was simply repeating what she had been told by the owner (and real estate agent) Polly Gilmore, who was holding an open house benefit for the Victorian Alliance.

An excerpt from Doss [corrections in square brackets]:

When you reach 96 [196-98] Laidley you are at the Victorian mansion which may have been more of a nightmare than a dream house. Built for an attorney, Cecil Poole [John P Poole], about 1872 [1887], it was bought around 1900 [1906] by Teresa Bell on the advice of her mentor, Mammy Pleasant ….Old stories, possibly apocryphal, say that there was once a closet at the top level whose floor was in the basement. Teresa was reputed to have used the trap as a handy way to dispose of unwanted guests. [Emphasis mine.]

The addition of this new and sensational supposition that Bell tossed visitors down a shaft to their death in the Laidley house was Gilmore’s embellishment and had never before been published as a fact about the house. Helen Holdredge had been told this tidbit as a secondhand story during interviews she conducted for her historical fiction book on Mary Ellen Pleasant published in 1953, but she had never published this item in any of her books.[3] Gilmore was involved with the Victorian Alliance then and appears to have viewed the Holdredge materials directly, but not having the wherewithal to sort through the material with discernment, she related the story to Doss as if it were a fact. Admittedly, doing original research and discovering stuff no one else knows is quite exciting, but not a license to rumor-monger, even for realtor.

The Misguided Guide

This was followed in 1982 by an entry in Architecture San Francisco: The Guide, by Sally Woodbridge and John M Woodbridge FAIA. These authors turned up the juice a bit by making the purchaser of the house Mary Ellen Pleasant herself. As the book purported to be a comprehensive guide, and was published by a body no less august than the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter, the entry had the imprimatur of irrefutable fact.

The Woodbridges’ entry in the “Outer Mission/Diamond Heights” chapter of Architecture San Francisco [with my corrections in square brackets]:

Poole-Bell house
C 1872 [1887]
196-98 Laidley
Built by Cecil Poole [John P Poole] an attorney, this imposing mansard-roofed house with a phenomenal view of the city was bought around 1900 [1906] by “Mammy Pleasant” , a famous madam [reductive characterization] and a housekeeper here for Thomas Bell’s widow after he died.

The one positive legacy of the book is the name “Poole-Bell” for the house, which is still useful today, despite the false parts of the entry.

The story in the Woodbridge book was then repeated in the SF Examiner when the book was reviewed in November 1982.[4] When the book was reprinted in 2005, no corrections whatever were made to the entry, and it is today still widely available as a used book.

Sensation Sells?

In 1985, when Gilmore wished to sell the house, the Noe Valley Voice featured the house in an extended piece in which Gilmore retold the story with lots of details, many false. She added and changed things, and referred to it as the “Teresa Bell Mansion,” which was new. Gilmore recounted more of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life than any other published piece about the house, such as her abolition work. But she also included the allegation about Pleasant as murderer of Thomas Bell, another tidbit that Holdredge was keen on, having made it a centerpiece in her fictionalized and racism-blighted account of Pleasant.[5]

Noe Valley Voice, September 1985, page 1. The house to the southwest had not yet been built. Archive.org.
Noe Valley Voice, September 1985, page 1. The house to the southwest had not yet been built. Archive.org.

Then the following year, the Glen Park News, under the persuasive influence of Gilmore again, trotted out the tattered bits of the story on the occasion of a party thrown at the house. The legendary killing closet was included, as Glen Park News had printed in 1979, although now we hear that the closet in question is located in the front hall.

We learn that Bell supposedly used her tricky closet to murder one of her partners by dropping him down the hole.[6] As none of Bell’s financial associates disappeared during her time in the house, I find nothing credible in this; the press was always hungry for stories about the Bell family, and would not have forgone such an opportunity for a hot feature, had anyone associated with Bell gone missing. Besides, if Bell wanted to get rid of a partner, she would surely have used one of her pearl-handled pistols.[7]

Murder and Mayhem, Continued

One novel detail added then to the pile of legends trotted out in the Glen Park News piece: the man who bought the house after Bell’s death (who is given the wrong name of Colomba) found “the remains of at least a dozen bodies” in the front yard in the 1920s.[8] Such a body count meant that more than one murder victim per year of Bell’s tenancy in the house had been sequestered in the well. One expects some sobriety from a reporter, but the cocktails always flowed freely at Gilmore gatherings, and this was surely no exception. (Read the Gilmore story here.)

Polly Gilmore again calls the attorney who built the house Cecil Poole, but then we learn that he “murdered his wife and fled to South America.”[9] The real attorney Cecil F. Poole, living at that time with his wife Charlotte in Ingleside Terraces, would have been surprised to hear. He was a prominent and accomplished African-American lawyer in the city who became a Ninth District Court judge. There was no relationship between this man and John P Poole. I hope Cecil missed out on the bumblings of these amateur historians. It is an illustration of how fake news is hardly new, and that sloppy research and rumor-mongering can have potentially negative impacts on reputation as well as historic facts.

Where the erroneous date of 1872 for construction comes from can never be known for certain. There was very little in Fairmount at that date besides a few cows, a few houses, and the railroad tracks to San Jose. Consulting the SF Directories at the public library would have shown that the Poole family lived elsewhere in the 1870s and for many years afterward. Records indicate that the Poole family did not build the house until 1887.

New Century, Old Lies

The stories persisted, even into the age of digitally-assisted research. In 2007, Emma Bland Smith published San Francisco’s Glen Park and Diamond Heights (Arcadia) in which her caption for a photo of the Poole-Bell House got quite a few more facts correct.

But even she could not resist embellishing the story by referring to Halloween and saying that Pleasant operated it as a brothel—although she went on to say Pleasant had never lived in the house and it was merely a “neighborhood rumor.” The text from Smith’s book [with corrections in square brackets]:

On the corner of Laidley and Fairmount Streets sits the Halloween-perfect Poole-Bell mansion, built 1890 [1887]. Neighborhood rumors have it that an African American woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant once ran a madam business out of the house. Pleasant was a notorious character in San Francisco history. Born into slavery around 1815, Pleasant became the business partner of wealthy San Francisco businessman Thomas Bell in the 1880s [1860s], and lived with him and his wife, Teresa. Pleasant’s story is stepped in lore and apocrypha—some called her the mother of civil rights in California; others labeled her the “wickedest woman in San Francisco” and whispered about black magic.[10]

Even as late as 2009, SF City Guides was still giving a Fairmount District tour whose description repeated the error of associating Mary Ellen Pleasant with the house.[11]

Knocking Out the Cobwebs

To a historian who laboriously checks her facts, the long-standing legacy of untruths around the house feels like a minor atrocity, but I try to keep things in perspective.

So here is the entry I propose for the next guide to San Francisco’s notable architecture:

Poole-Bell House
Built 1887c
192-196 Laidley Street
This petite San Francisco Stick/Eastlake-style mansion was built by attorney John Pascoe Poole, whose widow Annie Poole lived there until 1906. She sold it to Teresa Bell, wealthy widow of the financier Thomas Bell. The Bells’ lives had been interwoven during the nineteenth century with that of the legendary Mary Ellen Pleasant, but Pleasant never lived in this house and died before Teresa Bell acquired it. Bell added a third story to the structure, giving the present mansard roof line, and lending it a Second-Empire touch. In the 1930s, the house was divided into apartments and much of the original enormous lot surrounding the house was sold off for development. In the 1950s, first floor was divided again, giving the present four units, and the trapezoid window on the third floor was added. In the 1970s and 1980s, Read Gilmore, restaurateur of some of the city’s premier gay spots, lived in the house. In the 1990s, its fortunes were revived by the dynamic activist couple Moher Downing and Luis Kemnitzer, who made it into a tenancy in common.

The true-life stories, anchored in fine-grained research, are more interesting—and more delightful—than the sensational legends. Read more here.

The Poole-Bell House. Photo courtesy Gayle Laird.
The Poole-Bell House, 2019. Photo courtesy Gayle Laird.

ENDNOTES

  1. “The Architecture of Glen Park,” Glen Park Perspective, June 1979. Accessed through Archive.org.
  2. “San Francisco at Your Feet: A Hillside of Surprises,” SF Examiner, 11 May 1980.
  3. As related as a secondhand story in interview with Joseph Saraceni, who lived in the house after Bell died in 1922. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, Interview with Joseph Saraceni, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  4. “A Guide to Lead Buffs all around Town,” SF Examiner, 2 Nov 1982, p58.
  5. Noe Valley Voice, September 1985, p9. Accessed through Archive.org. Holdredge’s fictionalized book about Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mammy Pleasant, was published in 1953, and republished in 1961 without a single change, with every astonishingly racist bit of description, ‘humor’ and vitriol in place.  
  6. Glen Park News, February-March 1986, p3-4. Accessed through Archive.org.
  7. Bell describes buying two matching pistols from a visitor to the Laidley Street house in her diary in 1907. Holdredge Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. She wasn’t much one for sneaky revenge, preferring the plain-spoken sort.
  8. This is another indication that Gilmore had read hand-written interviews in the Holdredge Collection, as there are mentions of dead bodies regarding the well in the front yard. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, Interview with Joseph Saraceni, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  9. Glen Park News, February-March 1986, p3-4. Accessed through Archive.org.
  10. Emma Bland Smith, San Francisco’s Glen Park and Diamond Heights, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, p95. View on Google books here.
  11. SF Examiner, 14 May 2009, pA4.

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