By Amy O’Hair
As an innovative entrepreneur whose heart was set on righteous social justice, Mary Ellen Pleasant belongs to San Francisco; now Ingleside can lay a claim to her remarkable legacy as well. Pleasant had far grander properties than her modest ranch on San Jose Avenue, set among the expansive vegetable fields of the nineteenth century. But this was where she built a business important to her early career, and the place she retreated to at the end of her life when her empire was crumbling. In between, she used the land and the house there she named Geneva Cottage for many different purposes—from a brief stint as a sex-party venue, to a ranch for hogs and cattle, to a home she extended to her Black friends and family members in times of need. In 1900, she sold the whole block, under duress, to the engineer and architect who built the Geneva Car Barn, Office Building, and Powerhouse. It was one of the last of her many properties that she sold as her fortunes dwindled before her death in January 1904.
Outpost on the Old San Jose Road
The property Pleasant held at San Jose and Geneva Avenues has not before this had the documentation it is due. The large cottage there was located where the landmarked Geneva Office Building now sits, which is currently being developed as a community arts center. The area is a major transit hub, with Balboa Park Station across the street, as well as Balboa Park Upper Yard, an eight-story affordable housing building to begin construction soon. Like the long agricultural history for this area, Pleasant’s presence here has been erased.
Modest as it may have been, the land was important to her, both personally and to the course of her career. In the late 1880s, this ranch was listed among her major assets in a newspaper feature about the wealthiest Black people in the US. It was probably at the bottom of her portfolio in terms of value, certainly in her wealthiest years. But her attachment to it is evidenced by the roles it played in her work and life. More than once she had to go to court to defend her ownership; once she sued her own daughter to get control of it.
The Geneva Cottage property bookended Pleasant’s life in the city: in the mid-1850s it was where she built a laundry that helped launch her entrepreneurial career; it was where she lived with her family during a difficult period in the 1870s; and in 1899, it was the comforting home where she took refuge when her fortunes were being eroded by relentless litigation. There is nothing of Pleasant’s legacy left there now. At the location of the much more famous mansion that Pleasant built in 1877 on Octavia Street (now gone), there is a large plaque in the sidewalk for her. The site of high drama, that grand homestead was called the “House of Mystery” by an army of scandal-raking reporters over the last dozen years of her life. Geneva Cottage may not have provided the same sensational news-fodder, but it was the set where some of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life was staged.
The scope of this article does not include a comprehensive account of Pleasant’s life, but documents new information regarding the Geneva Cottage property, including her transactions with other African American entrepreneurs in the early years of her career and her difficult relationship with her adult daughter. As Geneva Cottage has been the subject of some of the historical fiction about Pleasant’s life, I will review those tales.
A Spirit of the City
As a businesswoman in post-Gold Rush San Francisco, Mary Ellen Pleasant made use of whatever routes to influence, power, and wealth-making were available to her as an older woman and an African American. As a figure of legend, Pleasant has been a gift to story-tellers and slanderers alike for a century and a half. During her lifetime and for much of the twentieth century, she was the subject of newspaper scandals, black-face plays, half-hearted, half-researched accounts, and one notorious quasi-historical biography; in recent decades writers both academic and creative have worked to wrest from her legacy something more remarkable and more interesting, and freer from racist taint. I aim to add something to this ongoing reassessment, and to bring light to this hidden aspect of local history for the Ingleside district.
Below: photos and drawings done of Pleasant during her lifetime in newspapers. (A commonly published photo said to portray Pleasant was revealed years ago not to be her, but actually Queen Emma of Hawaii.)
Pleasant began in the narrow rut of domestic work, cooking, and laundering—almost entirely the scope of what was open to a Black woman then. This humble start eventually led to a large fortune, as she leveraged both personal relationships and investments with skill and resourcefulness. In a much re-published account, she was counted among the richest African Americans in the US in the 1880s, although her exact worth at any point was hard to reckon. Many Black woman ran boardinghouses, but she ran one of unprecedented luxury, catering to wealthy and influential white men, which gave her strategic reach. From the pre-Civil War years to the Jim Crow era, Pleasant built a network of businesses and properties in San Francisco, while sometimes also affecting the persona of a Southern “mammy” for her white audience, a role that she lost control of later in life when the newspapers routinely referred to her as “Mammy Pleasant,” a moniker unfitting someone of her accomplishments. In an interview toward the end of her life she said:
“I don’t like to be called mammy by everybody. Put that down. I’m not mammy to everybody in California.”
A Friend to Many
Pleasant did not just work for profit; she put her intelligence and money to work helping others. She made new lives for many African Americans who came to the city for the wealth and relative freedoms that the new state promised, by providing money, employment, and homes. She was involved with the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts before she arrived in California, and she materially assisted people escaping slavery in San Francisco. Her life here spanned the critical civil-rights events in the state’s early history, and she was linked to each development, such as her precedent-setting suit against discrimination in transit accommodation in 1866, and those beyond California’s borders, such as her support for the abolitionist John Brown in 1858. Once the ban on the testimony of Black people in California courts was lifted in 1863, Pleasant often found her way into court to speak on behalf of those more vulnerable than her.
The force and persuasiveness of her personality was widely acknowledged. As one lecturer who knew her and who presented public lectures on the Black pioneers of the city in 1895 said: She “was a woman loved by all and feared by many.” When she spoke for herself in her last years, she said: “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
In the one thin autobiography that was published, she articulated what could be inferred from her lifetime of working and living outside the strictures of public perceptions:
“Now, I never cared a feather’s weight for public opinion, for it is about the most ghostly thing I know of. No one but a rank coward fears it. For it don’t know its own mind a minute or where it gets its ideas about anything.”
Acclaimed the wealthiest Black woman of her era, she nonetheless died stripped of her fortune, at the age of nearly ninety—not in one of the extravagant and luxurious houses she built, but with friends who had taken her in.
The Third Laundry
Over a few years following her arrival in the city in 1852, Pleasant worked as cook and housekeeper, establishing her reputation, while opening three laundries in succession, the first two in the South of Market district, and the last one on the Old San Jose Road by about 1855. Laundries meant very good, very steady money.
Why did she choose this far-flung location for the third laundry? It should be remembered that in the 1850s this area was commonly not even considered part of the city. Even as late as 1896, a USGS map shows few standing structures and built roads (as opposed to those planned—the so-called ‘paper streets’). It gives us a clearer picture of just how unpopulated and unbuilt this area was then.
The capacious land she held, over two acres, may have made it easier to process large items, such as bedding. It was located uphill from “Lake Geneva” on Islais Creek, the fancy name that speculator Harvey S Brown gave to the swampy area a few hundred feet to the southeast when he platted this section of the Bernal Rancho in 1862. Pleasant did not purchase the property then, but may have informally leased it from the Bernal Family.
The Islais watershed meant the location was an excellent place to sink wells that would provide good water in abundance; when the Geneva Car Barn structures were built in 1901, there were three wells on the property, which filled a 12,000 gallon elevated tank by electrical pumps. Pleasant’s setup then would not have used electricity but instead a thirty-foot windmill, standard for the time, to fill smaller elevated tanks in order to create water pressure. Building a structure to house a boiler, a woodstove, tubs, mangles, and other equipment; erecting poles and lines for drying; and installing plumbing to move the water around, were all that was needed. At a dollar a shirt, the setup would pay for itself in short order. Providing some rudimentary housing for the workers, which was the norm for the agricultural workers in this area, would improve efficiency.
One account of Pleasant as an employer at this facility paints her as a driving “overseer”; the subject of Helen Holdredge’s interview said his father was forced to quit working as a deliveryman, because she worked him too hard. If Pleasant pushed her workers, there is no doubt she also worked hard herself.
“I am a great believer in work. Do your work and get through with it. I’ve washed for twenty-nine in family in early days, and sat on the lawn in the afternoon. I’m not saying how well the work was done—perhaps the selvages weren’t hung exactly straight, but the work was done and that’s the main thing. It would have taken an ordinary woman days to do that work.”
Pleasant left the operation of her laundries to other women when her career expanded in the 1860s. But she never forgot those who worked for her, such as Mary Alexander and Phoebe Ann Smith, both African American, both aging widows when they died. Pleasant paid for their funerals, and generously.
Later in her life, Pleasant bought a much larger ranch property in Sonoma County, comprising many hundreds of acres—far exceeding the modest Geneva Cottage property. But when she built a house on the Sonoma land the early 1890s, it was notably similar in appearance to its predecessor on San Jose Avenue, with a long low white picket fence, a veranda extending across the entire front of the structure, supported by white-painted wooden columns and railings.
The house on that ranch was of course much larger, with a second story. But the resemblance of the two homes, with echoes of Southern domestic architecture, is clear. Pleasant never lived on a plantation in the American South, but may have chosen this vernacular form to evoke associations in her audience, for reasons we can’t know now; in post-Civil War San Francisco, the form, like the mammy persona, may have held positive or sentimental meaning for some people in the city.
Nicely Situated Nowhere
When the laundry had been built in the mid-1850s, the railroad tracks to San Jose had not yet been laid—that would happen in 1863. At the point that Geneva Cottage was constructed in 1869, trains passed just nearby, with a whistle-stop depot situated at the intersection of San Jose Avenue and Mt Vernon Street, one block south of the cottage. Pleasant’s clientele were not likely to have needed public transit to get out to the cottage, as they kept their own carriages or hired them as needed. But the location of the railway here marked one step toward this area becoming what it is today, a transit hub.
The big landmark in the area in Pleasant’s time was the Industrial School, later Ingleside Jail, located on what is now the athletic fields of City College of San Francisco. In all directions, the good Islais Watershed land was used to grow vegetables and flowers, graze cattle, and raise chickens and ducks. Italian gardeners were in the ascendancy here after the 1870s; Pleasant shared Block 29 with Cristofero Razzo, a grower in the area for many decades, before she bought the other half of the block from him in 1894.
As a side note, in 1868 when the cottage was built, there was no actual Geneva Avenue; it existed solely on maps. But Pleasant consciously chose the name “Geneva Cottage”, referring to the cross street planned on the West End Map No.1 homestead map dated 1863. The name of the cottage also referred to the small body of water nearby, Lake Geneva, part of Islais Creek—although that marsh was destined to be filled in and built over later. Reality would catch up to her reference, and soon parts of the roadway were built. It took twenty more years before any address in the directory was identified as being located on Geneva Avenue; as late as 1950 two blocks of this street were still not cut through. I like that she chose a name in some sense from the future; it is possible that the naming of the car barn in 1901 was in a reference to the name of the cottage, which was prominent in the news in those years.
Gentlemen Wishing Rooms
I will briefly describe the events in the 1860s that led to Pleasant taking down the laundry on San Jose Road and building Geneva Cottage in 1869, detailed later in this article. In 1861, Pleasant’s daughter Lizzie J Smith, then 16 years old, joined her in San Francisco, and had a brief career as an actor and a singer in several well-known theaters. She was a minor player; the only instance I found of her name in print was this advertisement in April 1864 for the New Idea Theater Troupe, a company about which Mark Twain said “Each night the house is filled in every part….What Bert [the company manager] don’t know about catering to the public taste, is not worth knowing” (SF Call 3 Jul 1864). Bearing in mind of course this company was known for their minstrel shows.
Four years after arriving, Lizzie was married to a recently divorced older man named Rasberry (“RB”) Phillips. Pleasant settled two properties on the couple, the lot at 920 Washington Street, and the laundry on San Jose Avenue. The following year RB Phillips mortgaged the 920 Washington St property to Pleasant, perhaps because the couple needed some money.
The marriage did not last, and RB was granted a divorce from Lizzie on the basis of “willful desertion” in January 1868. By June, RB was mortally ill and staying in another of Pleasant’s houses. Pleasant convinced him to deed the laundry property to her. He died a few days after.
By then Pleasant had big plans, and the two properties were key. She was soon faced with a challenge from her daughter Lizzie, who felt she should have the income from the properties despite the divorce. So Pleasant took Lizzie to court, and won, establishing her ownership. First she transformed the 920 Washington property, building a new and luxuriously appointed boardinghouse there, targeted at rich and influential white capitalists and government officials. The place was finished by spring 1869.
Once that establishment was going, she built a new structure on the property out at San Jose and Geneva Avenues, which she called Geneva Cottage, finished toward the end of 1869. The intended use, according to the inventive speculations of the ‘biography’ by Helen Holdredge, was as a venue for sex parties aimed at her upscale customers in town. Although this sounds like a perfectly apt bit of vertical integration for this innovative entrepreneur, the plan appears to have been a dud; San Francisco was getting more respectable, and the needs of wives and families dictated more of the lives of its wealthy capitalists. In 1899, a Chronicle feature on Pleasant said of the cottage: “What happened there during the first year of its occupancy may best be passed over without comment.” Brilliant bit of late-Victorian saying-without-saying.
Bigger on the Inside
What lay behind the false-front exterior and stately veranda of Geneva Cottage? The only published description of the interior comes from Helen Holdredge’s vitriolic and unreliable ‘biography’ of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Despite her racism and her copious inventions, Holdredge nonetheless interviewed the adult children of several people who knew Pleasant. It is largely hearsay, but is likely to contain pieces of truth. With that caution, I proceed.
From the one surviving photograph (above) we can see the veranda running across the entire front, with windows and wooden posts. The centered front door, Holdredge tells us, opened into a small parlor, which was joined to a larger parlor by an archway. The two parlors had back-to-back fireplaces, and were furnished with elegant chairs and settees. Wainscoting ran along the walls.
In the rear of the one-story house was a very large dining room, with a table capable of seating at least twenty people. The kitchen, also in the back, was large and well-equipped. Off the smaller parlor, there were five tiny rooms, each with a sofa and table. This aligned with Holdrege’s tale of Geneva Cottage as a custom-built venue for sex parties—apt facilities for brief dalliances. But these little bedrooms also made the house useful later—able to accommodate several people at once, albeit in cramped sleeping quarters.
Given this description and the one photo, my estimate for the outside dimensions of Geneva Cottage is about 35 feet across the front on San Jose Ave, and about 40 or 50 feet deep, larger than almost every house on these residential blocks now. To compare, the Geneva Office Building is about three times wider and approximately as deep as the cottage was. The structure was placed slightly shy of the corner at Geneva Ave; when it finally was identified by a numerical address in the 1900 directory, it was 2309 San Jose Ave.
Pleasant had expensive taste in furniture (more on which later), so in its heyday it was likely to have been elegantly fitted out. In 1899, when she was interviewed after her forced expulsion from the Octavia mansion by Teresa Bell, the writer claimed Pleasant had hauled whatever she could get a hold of off to Geneva Cottage, but there would have not been room for very much there.
Daylight through the Roof
Geneva Cottage may not have been the refined structure described by Holdredge in her fiction-laden account. A lawsuit filed by the builder, Ole C Bergson, a few years after it was built reveals a different picture. Bergson, naturally enough, wanted to be paid what he was owed, ninety-five dollars to his reckoning.
Mary Ellen Pleasant countered that Bergson had done such a shoddy job buiding the house that the rain had leaked through the roof, ruining the fine furniture, wallpaper, and carpets inside, stating that she “could see daylight through the roof” (SF Chronicle, 20 Nov 1872). She contended that rather than owing him money, he should pay her two hundred dollars.
The house was located in vague terms as being situated on “the Harvey Brown Tract” (SF Bulletin, 19 Nov 1872). Produced as evidence during the proceedings was the contract under which Bergson had originally built Geneva Cottage, described as “voluminous.” It is easy to imagine Pleasant, being so exacting, creating highly detailed specifications for the modest building; a few years later she would design and build her huge house on Octavia, renowned for its eccentric details and unusual features.
The courtroom drama took some unusual turns that day in November, as Bergson’s lawyer, AM Heslep, himself a judge, confessed several things to the judge and all present. First, he disclosed that even as he stood there arrayed against Pleasant, he had been both a friend and patron of hers—even still owing her money. Knowing her well as he did, he was certain that Pleasant’s defense would be “an ingenuous one.” He even claimed, “I have been ruined by her,” and “I admit it and I am not ashamed.” (ibid.; SF Chronicle, op cit.). The audience in the courtroom was amused and entertained.
When Heslep questioned Pleasant on the stand, suggesting that her establishment (meaning the boarding house at 920 Washington) was of “bad character,” she retorted that he had been to see her there every day, until she had kicked him out of the house, one assumes for owing her money he wouldn’t pay.
Pleasant’s lawyer, Thomas V O’Brien, presented the argument for Pleasant’s defense, based on the shoddy workmanship of the house, a defense that the judge promptly called “absolutely preposterous.” Intriguingly, someone identified as Pleasant’s son was called to testify on her behalf. (She had no son as far as anyone knows.) Then things got even livelier, with O’Brien saying that his son was bigger than Heslep’s son. Heslep stated that although he was “decidedly averse to personal altercations between attorneys, yet he assured [O’Brien] of his readiness to resist any violence offered against him” (SF Chronicle, 20 Nov 1872). Just another day in a San Francisco courtroom, albeit with no pistols drawn.
Although the judgement was promised for that day, I did not find a followup to the case, until a notice in January 1873, when it was said that Bergson was awarded $62.50 and court costs (Daily Alta, 24 Jan 1873).
Geneva Cottage in Fiction and Fantasy
In the 1990s, author Denise Nicholas wrote a delightful play with just two characters, Rosa Parks and Mary Ellen Pleasant, entitled Buses. The place they meet is “a bus stop in a dream,” the time is “out of time.” The two women share their stories and secrets in a long conversation. Their very different natures and experiences are thrown in to high contrast; and they who both have had so many others speak for them now speak for themselves.
As the play opens, Mary Ellen is wonderfully and righteously vulgar as she chews out the conductor evicting her from the streetcar—the event at the center of her landmark court case that ended up before the California Supreme Court. Being thrown off the trolley, she is as completely pissed off as you want her to be; “YOU STINKIN PILE OF ROTTEN SHIT….YOU’LL KNOW WHO I AM WHEN I’M FINISHED WITH YOU.” The well-behaved and virtuous Rosa is appalled by the yelling and the language, and surprised to find out that Pleasant won her case—who had heard of it one hundred years later?
They talk about their lives and legacies, and what is written on one’s gravestone.
MARY ELLEN: I’m never gon’ be a flawless wonder. It’s too late for that….Nobody’s a flawless wonder.
ROSA: We need monuments! That’s it!! People need to be looking up.
MARY ELLEN: A piece of marble frozen in place and time, much as Joan of Arc; I would rather be free.
Nicholas said in an interview: “I sometimes think the characters are two sides of the same person…They are metaphors for the conflict that I, as Denise, have. They are reason and passion. And in that way it i[s] from my heart. I’m using these ladies, in a sense, to air that….The play is about telling one’s own story and not allowing people to write your epitaph.”
When they share stories, Mary Ellen tells of Geneva Cottage with a great deal of affection and pleasure. “Orchards of plums, apricots, peaches, and grapes on the vine….Oh, the sunsets such as you have never seen! It was a secret hideaway place for my best customers, away from the coming and going of the boarding houses in town.”
(Indeed the front veranda faced westward, and would have been a good place to see the sunset—fog allowing. As for the produce, those of us who live here know growing the type of produce she mentioned can be difficult, thanks to that fog. But this is the imaginative realm.)
Then Mary Ellen relates an incident at the cottage—“A glorified cat house” as Rosa calls it—in which a young girl she was grooming for marriage to a wealthy patron gets hurt—violated by two of the “pillars of the town” Pleasant counts among her clientele. The girl later kills herself, “broken and broke.”
MARY ELLEN: I needed those men!…They could do as they pleased, but I couldn’t. I had to sweep the thing under the rug. I had to protect my clients!
ROSA: No one was ever charged?
MARY ELLEN: As far as the world knew, nothin’ even happened.
As a passage in the play, it tells us what the playwright wants us to know about Mary Ellen Pleasant, about the time when she lived and the constraints which bound her. But was it true? The source of this dramatized story is from the only other published work that also addresses itself to Geneva Cottage: Helen Holdredge’s ‘biography’ of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Holdredge did a lot of research, yet managed to invent much of what she wrote and footnote nothing. Holdredge mentions Geneva Cottage over three dozen times, and puts it to hard work in service of her story about the diabolic machinations she attributes to Pleasant; Holdredge makes the cottage the location of an alleged crime during a sex party. One of the privileged white male patrons brutally murders a young Black girl—the original version of the story that the Mary Ellen character tells in Nicholas’s play Buses, above. Although certainly such things did happen in those rather lawless decades in the city’s history, I don’t believe the story is true.
The Tale of Two Properties
To go back to a critical point a few years before: in 1868, Mary Ellen Pleasant, then firmly established as excellent cook, efficient housekeeper, and small business owner, had plans to expand her wealth and influence. To get control of the two properties where she wanted to enact the next chapters, she took her adult daughter Lizzie to court. This was for the land where Geneva Cottage would be built and a lot at the corner of Washington and Stone Streets. Pleasant had new plans for both these lots; Lizzie had a bone to pick. It was just one of many tussles between the two women.
The story of those two properties, which came to mean so much in Pleasant’s career in the 1870s, begins years before with the stories of a few Black 49ers who preceded her to the city.
Pioneer Sully Cox arrived on one of the first ships after gold was discovered, did a little mining and a lot of gambling, and then established himself in partnership with Aaron White, as the owners of a saloon and boardinghouse on Kearny Street for many years. The number of African American people in the city in those first years was small; there were less than a thousand in the state as a whole in the 1850 Census. A boardinghouse meant sure profits, as everyone needed a bed and new comers arrived every week. Pleasant herself would take this to a new level later.
Sully Cox’s establishment was burned down twice, in September 1850 and June 1851, in two of the many great fires that leveled various sections of the city periodically during the early years. He rebuilt his place each time, which given the cost of labor and materials then, says something about his wealth. We have been given a peek into Cox’s establishment, as Mifflin Wistar Gibbs stepped through its door in September 1852, fresh off the ship that had brought him from Philadelphia, and later recorded his experience in his autobiography.
“I proceeded to an unprepossessing hotel kept by a colored man on Kearny street. The cursory view from the outside, and the further inspection on the inside, reminded me of the old lady’s description of her watch, for she said, ‘it might look pretty hard on the outside, but the inside works were all right.’ And so thought its jolly patrons. Seated at tables, well supplied with piles of gold and silver, where numerous disciples of that ancient trickster Pharaoh, being dubious perhaps of the propriety of adopting the literal orthography of his name and abbreviating it to Faro….The effervescent happiness of some of the worshipers at this shrine was conspicuous. The future to them seemed cloudless. It was not so with me. I had a secret not at all complacent….
“When I approached the bar I asked for accommodation, and my trunk was brought in….my eye caught a notice, prominently placed, in gilt letters. I see it now, ‘Board twelve dollars a week in advance.’…With the brilliancy of a search light they seemed to ask ‘Who are you and how are you fixed?’ I responded by ‘staring fate in the face,’ and going up to the bar, asked for a cigar. How much? Ten cents. I had sixty cents when I landed; had paid fifty for trunk drayage, and I was now a moneyless man—hence my secret.”
Soon it was dinnertime, and Cox seated Gibbs at one of the saloon’s tables, and fed him “a good dinner,” which gave him the fortitude he needed to go out in search of employment, a difficult feat that turned out to be a lesson in how California had not escaped the curse of racism. Cox evidently allowed Gibbs to doss there for that night, or for several nights, despite the sign on the wall in gilt letters.
Black Business, White Harassment
Cox was a gambler; Gibbs was a reformer. But neither sort of passion will pay your bills. So both men were entrepreneurs: Cox had his boardinghouse with partner Aaron White; and Gibbs, when he got settled, opened a shoe and boot store with his partner Peter Lester; both businesses were harassed by white people who knew what they could get away with. Cox and White were fined and bullied by police several times in the course of running their place. Lester was assaulted by a would-be customer who stole merchandise, while Gibbs could do nothing to fight back. “I would not have been allowed to attest to the ‘deep damnation of his taking off’,” Gibbs said of his helplessness at having to let the culprit leave the store without paying for either the boots or the beating he had given Lester.
Such affronts fueled Gibbs’ desire for change, and he helped in the effort over the next few years to overturn the ban on Black court testimony, although he had left the state when it was finally undone in 1863.
It was unlikely Cox and Gibbs did much business with each other after Gibbs’ initial stay at the boardinghouse. In San Francisco, Gibbs had a brief but notable career as a civil rights activist and leader, and later as a lawyer, judge, and diplomat elsewhere. In 1858, disgusted with the repeated threats to civil rights in the state, Gibbs organized an exodus of Black San Franciscans to British Columbia, where their freedoms had been guaranteed by officials beforehand. Cox declined to join the movement, and kept his modest boardinghouse.
Cox also bought and sold property with other 49ers, including the “Black King of Finance” Daniel Seales (1821-1905).
Like Gibbs, Seales had left the city by 1858, although for Cleveland not Canada. Seales maintained an interest in San Francisco for years to come, having property there, and also kept in contact with Cox after Cox had left the city to return to the Midwest. Seales travelled widely and wrote letters to one of San Francisco’s Black newspapers, the Elevator, full of news from those who had left the city for other places, as Cox did later, and relating useful information for other Black travelers.
Another man Cox did business with then was Robert Harlan, who was destined to later work for civil rights during reconstruction in Ohio. Harlan was born enslaved, but raised as the son of his owner, with many advantages of education. Harlan stayed in the city only about a year and a half, and made a large amount of money by skilled gambling. In June 1850, just before Harlan was to leave San Francisco to settle in Cincinnati, Cox bought from him a small lot with a small house, at the corner of Washington and Stone Streets.
That property would later have the address 920 Washington Street (now 962)—the famous boardinghouse where Mary Ellen Pleasant would make her name. It would also become linked with the Geneva Cottage property, as we’ll see.
Cooking, Cleaning, Investing
It was soon after this, in April 1852, that Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in the city. She brought a substantial sum of money, though how much is contested. She put the money to work by investing it as soon as she could, as well as taking a position as a cook and housekeeper in the houses of rich white men, something she made pay well. There is a scene recounted in several fictionalized histories that sets a scene on the docks upon her arrival, where her services are being bid for by wealthy white men in desperate need of a good cook; a high price is agreed upon. But now this story is like a dim and uncomfortable mirroring of a person being auctioned into slavery, and not amusing.
Pleasant left a daughter behind in Boston, Lizzie J. Smith, then about six or seven years old. Her first husband named Smith had died years before, and she had a second one, John James Pleasants, who travelled separately to San Francisco. Later he dropped the ‘s’ from their surname. Pleasant herself went by ‘Ellen Smith’ for a while after arriving, being listed in the directory as such even as late as 1862, although the legal transactions for the properties at the center of this story in 1856 were in the name Mary E Pleasants.
They had been married in 1847, after Lizzie’s birth, hence her surname, although there is some chance she was John’s daughter. Pleasant may have gone under the name ‘Smith’ for a while, as her adult daughter established a life in the city, in part to help her out. Though left behind, Lizzie was far from being forgotten, as some accounts would suggest. I believe she was important to Pleasant, who brought her to California later.
It is only that Lizzie was not alone in being one of the many objects of Pleasant’s efforts and aid; Pleasant brought many African Americans to the city, both born free and formerly enslaved, paying their way, and helping them once they got here, and making marriage matches on occasion. If Lizzie did not feel special to her mother, she had reason to feel so. The scope of Pleasant’s ambitions reached far beyond the nuclear family. Naturally, as a woman, this more expansive sense of her own purpose and purview has rankled some who have written about her life.
Bound to Each Other and Bound for California
One of the most poignant records I reviewed in preparing this piece was the index book showing the marriage on the last day of August in 1854 of Rasberry Phillips, 32, and Kate Rotchford, 24, in Ashland, Massachusetts. Where every other couple in the book have listed their parents in the space given for that, these two have given no names.
It speaks to the many and violent fractures forced onto African American families by the slavery system in the US. If either of them had come to Massachusetts to find safe harbor from enslavement, perhaps they did not feel free to name their parents for fear of revealing where they came from and endangering their family members. It is sad to think of now. But these two were embarking on a new life then, and may not have had time to dwell on their loss, when so much lay before them.
Almost as soon as they had wed, they boarded a ship bound for San Francisco, passing through Panama and arrived on the Pacific on 3 October 1854. Rasberry was listed as “R. B.” in the list of arriving passengers, and so he went by this name from then on, with his full name only appearing on certain legal transactions. The use of initials was more sophisticated, befitting his new city life.
Perhaps they were among the many people Pleasant invited to come to California, perhaps receiving money from her for the journey. Once in the city, RB worked as a barber, and they lived in the small house on Washington Street at Stone, owned by Sully Cox. Beyond these slim facts and slimmer speculations, I don’t know.
Property is Better than Gold
In the mid-1850s, Sully Cox was not doing well; his saloon on Kearny Street was no longer listed in the directory; his tussles with the police no longer appeared in the newspapers. In 1855, he was delinquent on the taxes due on the 920 Washington Street house. Friends with RB Phillips, who lived there, Cox brought him in on the deed, and they both took out a mortgage on the property from a local merchant in May 1856. Pleasant, I believe, paid off their mortgage, and then asserted her right of ownership of the property. She was by then planning new ventures, even as she worked in the household of a wealthy capitalist’s family as housekeeper and ran her laundries. This location was a prime spot, even if the little house on it was dismal. It had potential. By December 1856 she had the deed, although it would be more than a decade before she would turn this property into the spectacular luxury boardinghouse that made her name.
A Marriage Broken, a Match Made
Unfortunately, RB and Kate Phillips split up within five years, with RB filing for a divorce in January 1859, and being granted it in December 1860. Kate went her own way; in the 1859 city directory, she was listed separately. By June 1860, she had a job as a stewardess on the steamer Sophie McLane, which had a regular route between the city and Santa Cruz. The break may have been what prompted RB to leave San Francisco and relocate to Napa City for a while; in June 1860 he was recorded there in the US Census, and he was absent from the SF directory for the period 1858-1863, though this is not concrete evidence for his absence for all those years.
Now RB was an unattached man. Pleasant may have thought him a good match for her daughter, who was still back in Boston and was nearing the age of 16. According to a story that Lizzie told to a reporter many years later—a very imaginative tale involving Shakespearian twists but probably some kernels of truth—Pleasant sent her a photo of RB and a letter from him, saying they would make a good match, and paying her way to San Francisco. To add some merit to the tale, Pleasant settled the 920 Washington lot on Phillips, while he was still in Napa, for a discounted price of $2500. This happened just after Lizzie arrived in San Francisco; I surmise this was to lure him back to the city, and into a match with Lizzie.
Although Lizzie wasn’t willing to give up her free and single life in the theater for another four years, she finally did marry RB in April 1865, when she was 19 and he was 43. The wedding was held at AME Zion Church. In celebration, Pleasant hosted what was described in one of the local Black newspapers as “a splendid entertainment,” probably at her house at 49 Clara Street, where the couple lived afterward.
The Dying Gift
The marriage did not last, and RB filed for a divorce from Lizzie on the basis of willful desertion, which was granted in January 1868. Soon after, RB became mortally ill, dying at a boardinghouse run by Pleasant on 6 June 1868, five days after signing over the Geneva Cottage property to Pleasant. The 920 Washington lot was already mortgaged to her in 1866. She had her aim within her grasp.
In the fanciful tale Lizzie told to a reporter later, she asserted that RB promised her she’d be provided for after his death, from the properties and the income they generated. Her mother had done much to prevent Lizzie getting possession of that. After RB’s death, when threatened with a claim from Lizzie regarding the properties, Pleasant filed and won the lawsuit against her, as I detailed previously. These properties were the linchpins in her nascent empire.
Lizzie Marries Again (and Again)
The drama was not over for Pleasant and her daughter. The following year, Pleasant arranged another marriage. Lizzie was joined to William B Peck, another barber in the city, in March 1869. It was perhaps another effort by Pleasant to get her daughter to settle down. Pleasant’s strong managing hand in the marriage might be inferred from a strange twist this passage in the story takes. On March 14, two days before the marriage to Peck, Lizzie went to Stockton, and got married to a 24-year-old farmhand, placing a notice to that effect in the Elevator.
The name she gave for that ceremony was “Mrs L Peck” which was not yet her name, as she had yet to be married to William. Apparently giving a false name is not enough to invalidate a marriage. On March 16, she and William Peck were married by Rev. John Francis in the city. I don’t know how this mess got disentangled, if it ever did. Pleasant had fixed worse problems, though it surely cost her something in social humiliation, as Lizzie intended.
Soon after the marriage, William opened a new business as chiropodist, advertising in the Pacific Appeal, one of the Black newspapers in the city. His office was on Pacific near Kearny, around the corner from where Sully Cox once kept his boardinghouse during the 1850 and 1860s. “Particular and skilled attention given to toe-nails,” read the ad. Pleasant was by then making good money from the 920 Washington boardinghouse, and perhaps she advanced him some money that helped him fulfill his dream.
This period in Pleasant’s life was intensely busy. After building the grand house on the 920 Washington Street lot, designed by architect Peter J Barber, she furnished it with the finest pieces, from walnut chamber suites to elegantly upholstered parlor sets to beautiful rugs lining the rooms and hallways. The specifics of her choices are recorded twice over the coming seven years, as she had the entire lot auctioned off twice so she could replace everything with all-new furniture. Working from those detailed lists of furnishings, I present some photos of pieces that date to that period and fit the descriptions given in the auctioneers’ lists. (View one list here.)
Pleasant had very expensive tastes, and her elite clientele counted on that. Her boardinghouse promised the best in food and accommodations, and she did not disappoint. Famously, Republican politician Newton Booth was elected governor while living at 920 Washington, something the Democrat-leaning Examiner made much of for months before the election, repeatedly implying that Booth’s morals were in doubt if he stayed at the house of a Black woman. The adverse publicity did not seem to dent her robust business, for rich white men well placed in government and business continued to stay there for years to come.
Forgery, Blue Jeans, and Hog Drives
For the next chapter in the Mother-Daughter Saga, Pleasant had Lizzie arrested for forging her signature on notes in February 1875. The flutter in the newspapers that the charges generated gave Lizzie a brief moment in the limelight, and she told a long sad story about how Pleasant had cheated her of RB’s support years before, as if to justify having forged Pleasant’s signature to obtain money. The dates don’t add up, and there was never any sister, but it makes an interesting read. The gist is one of feeling shortchanged by her mother. The charges that were eventually dismissed in June, with the court concluding “It was proven that she was in the habit of getting money from [the firm in question] for her mother and she had no intention of stealing the money.” All was well once again.
Pleasant may have experienced health issues; she left the 920 Washington boardinghouse with a caretaker and retreated to Geneva Cottage by early 1875. In the directory published in March, Pleasant was listed at Geneva Cottage, along with her husband John and one of the domestic workers from the boardinghouse named Sarah Green. Amazingly, Lizzie, even as she was contending with her mother’s forgery charges, was also listed as living there (and not with her husband William).
It says “hog ranch” on Pleasant’s directory entry for 1875 and 1876. Holdredge’s made-up story was that Pleasant retreated to the rural idyll in order to feign poverty after the crash of the Bank of California in August 1875, but the date of the directory listing tells against this, being earlier in the year: the move preceded the crash. The feature in the Chronicle at the end of her life states that during this time Pleasant drove hogs daily over the five miles to the market at Washington and Kearny, attired in blue jeans. It sounds like something from a midcentury movie. However, Pleasant had a strong sense of image-making and knew the value of performance, and so there may be a kernel of truth—although surely one would quickly run out of hogs if this were a daily trip, not to mention how exhausting such a regime would be for a woman who was then sixty years old.
After Pleasant left 920 Washington with caretakers, the social status of the tenants there began to decline somewhat, going by the occupations of those listed in the directories later in the 1870s—clerks, teachers, widows on fixed incomes. The glory days of her famous boardinghouse were over. Pleasant had new plans, and soon she would start to build her enormous mansion at Octavia and Bush Streets, the place where she would assemble a synthetic family, with millionaire financier Thomas Bell, her protégé Teresa Percy, and an assortment of children that other people did not want, the so-called Bell Family. That is a story for a different writer; what happened there was the source of much wealth as well as many of the slanderous accusations that Pleasant endured in the last two decades of her life. In the 1879 directory, she was listed at the Geneva Cottage address as well as her new mansion at 1661 Octavia. So for four years, while building her new project, this rural outpost on the Old San Jose Road served as a base for her.
Unfortunately, it was during this period in the late 1870s that Pleasant lost both her husband John Pleasant and her daughter Lizzie Smith Peck. In April 1877 John died of diabetes at a house Pleasant owned South of Market. Lizzie died of TB of the lungs in the following year in August. This puts a sad cast on the odd assemblage called the Bell Family that Pleasant created in the following year at 1661 Octavia mansion. Her own family was now gone.
Safe Harbor and Working Ranch
Although her plutocratic dreams looked to be realized on Octavia Street, Pleasant of course retained ownership of 920 Washington and Geneva Cottage, two of many properties she held. While her life with the Bells played out, she continued to assist Black friends who needed a leg up. At 920 Washington for the 1880 US Census, a large extended African-American family lived in the huge house, Allen and Susan Myzell and a great many of their adult children and grandchildren, along with several lodgers and a few unrelated children—all told 17 adults and seven children. Almost everyone said they were Mulatto or Black, the choices given for that census.
In the 1880s one person Pleasant helped support was a young woman named Rebecca Howard, who came from Cleveland, Ohio, with Pleasant’s help in the 1870s. By 1879, she was married to Nicholas Gordon, the son of George W Gordon, a barber who had become very wealthy dealing in real estate in the city. In 1861, George Gordon’s brutal murder brought to the fore the injustice of the California’s ban on Black testimony, as the prime witness could not testify at the trial. Young Nicholas went to work at a stockbroker’s firm. Rebecca had arrived in the city with some money to her name back in Ohio. She looked on Pleasant like an aunt, and entrusted her money to Pleasant’s management.
Although Pleasant built a large beautiful house for the Gordons at 2016 Pine Street in 1880, one of the few structures she built that still stand, the growing family moved to Geneva Cottage ranch in 1884, with Pleasant transferring the property to Rebecca in November 1883 as a gift. The family, with four little daughters, lived there until 1887 or 1888, with Nicholas raising dairy cows on the land in partnership with Rebecca’s brother John William Howard. A story recounted later in the newspaper states that he had thirty head at one time; one of the entries in the directories lists an office downtown to support the operation.
Sockin’ it to the Manahan
Pleasant’s title to the land on San Jose Road where the cottage was located, which dates to that 1868 transfer of the deed while RB Phillips was on his deathbed, may not have been clear and true. While the Gordons were living at Geneva Cottage and ranching cattle, trouble had been set in motion by the death in September 1883 of a white saloon and boardinghouse keeper named John Manahan. In 1884, his heirs had some of his property auctioned off, apparently to pay his debts. The lot presented in the advertisement for the sale was Lot 1 in Block 29, amounting to one sixth of the property that Pleasant claimed as hers, and which she, just a few months before, had transferred to her friend Rebecca J Gordon. (Refer to this page for detailed information about the property.)
Geneva Cottage itself sat at least partially on the lot in question. How could this have come to happen? How did Pleasant defend her property? Answering the first question took a great deal of paging through old property records, but the effort paid off, revealing that in 1862 John Manahan bought that one lot from Harvey S Brown; the deed exists and shows the transaction. Like many speculators, Manahan may never even have come out to this far-flung spot on the Old San Jose Road to see the bit he was buying. If he had, he would have seen the laundry structures in 1862, though by then they may not have been in use. Certainly he is unlikely to have visited this little investment any time in the last fifteen years of his life—for if he had, he would have seen Geneva Cottage and its gardens sitting on what he took to be his land.
In February 1887, Manahan’s son-in-law and heir, James Kelly, took Pleasant’s friend Rebecca J Gordon to court to evict her and her family from Geneva Cottage, winning the suit one year later. In court, the defense put forward the case that Mary Ellen Pleasant had bought the land in 1871, neglected to obtain the deed, and the seller had since died. For fifteen years, Pleasant had occupied the land—the basis for the lawyer asserting Adverse Possession gave her title, essentially squatter’s rights. Judge Hunt was having none of that, and ruled in favor of Manahan, calling it “dangerous” to give title based on occupancy when the grantor is dead and no title exists. Sounds reasonable.
Nonetheless, Pleasant did not give up, and appealed the ruling in some fashion, and by September Judge Hunt was listening to new testimony, changing his tune. In November, he ruled in favor of Rebecca Gordon’s right to the land, through Pleasant’s ownership. Kelly persisted, but the following April, his request for a new trial was denied.
Pleasant’s control over the Geneva Cottage property, through her friend Rebecca, was now solid. I don’t know what the testimony was that changed Judge Hunt’s mind, but the persistence and use of the courtroom to keep control over her assets and support her friends was a mark of Pleasant’s life in San Francisco, and it served her well now. The title was now clear.
The marriage did not survive the pressures of the Kelly challenge and the trials of running a ranch, with Nicholas and Rebecca splitting in July 1887. Rebecca moved back to Pine Street, and Nicholas stayed for a while longer on the ranch before returning to clerking at a stockbroker’s. Their divorce was finalized in 1891.
Civil War Hero and Father
Geneva Cottage did not remain empty for long. In Sept 1889, Robert Morse Park, a cousin of Rebecca Gordon and a veteran of the Civil War, died at the age of 43, leaving a wife, Jessie Susannah, and six sons. The Parks had met and married in England in 1875, where a mixed marriage was not illegal, and had moved to San Francisco shortly afterward, living in one of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s houses South of Market. She helped them get established in Noe Valley, providing a home and the means to keep a chicken ranch. When Robert died, he left Jessie struggling to make ends meet. Pleasant gave Jessie and her sons use of Geneva Cottage from then until about 1899.
A Crumbling Empire
During the 1880s and 1890s, Pleasant did not live at Geneva Cottage, but it was still a part of the life she shared with friends and family. In 1884, when the Lee family, who were visiting San Francisco from Ohio, lost an infant child, Pleasant paid for and sponsored the funeral, and it was conducted from Geneva Cottage.
In the 1880s and 1890s Pleasant’s life and finances were entangled with the Bell Family, and the result was a great deal of dramatic newspaper fodder. It all went south in April 1899, when Teresa Bell, the woman with whom Pleasant had shared much of the previous two decades with, evicted Pleasant from the mansion at 1661 Octavia Street that Pleasant herself had designed and built.
Faced with having no home, Pleasant moved to Geneva Cottage, where she was interviewed for the Chroncile in July. It wasn’t a particularly sympathetic interview; one historian suggests it was the work of James E Brown Jr, a Black journalist with a grudge against Pleasant, in cahoots with Teresa Bell; such subterfuge was the backbone of the Bell Family saga. The one thing the article gives us is the only known photograph of Geneva Cottage, with Pleasant standing on the veranda in front, just discernable.
Pressed on all sides by creditors, her finances a tangle, Mary Ellen Pleasant (and her friend Rebecca Gordon Boone) sold the whole block in May 1900 to Albert B Southard, who built the Geneva Office Building complex soon after.
Her health ailing by then, Pleasant was given the aid she needed by friends over the next few years. She passed away in January 1904 at the house of friends named Sherwood on Filbert Street. Famously, she asked that she be remembered as a friend to John Brown, the abolitionist, but this was not added to her gravesite in Napa until ten years ago.
A memorial plaque was installed for Pleasant in 1972 at the site of her Octavia Street mansion, where in 1877 she planted six eucalyptus trees, five of which still stand tall.
My deepest gratitude goes to local researcher Kathleen Laderman for the generous amount of time, effort, and feedback that she has extended to me over the course of this project. Her diligence found many of the needles we sought in the great number of haystacks we searched through–all of which made it possible to tell a truer story. My thanks as well to attorney Kenneth Hollenbeck for helping me sort out the handwritten property records. The original research about Mary Ellen Pleasant and Geneva Cottage was uncovered by Evelyn Rose of Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project in 2019, and for this I am grateful to her.
- SF Call, 17 May 1900; SF Chronicle, 15 May 1900. Rebecca Howard Gordon Boone was also a grantor, the person that Pleasant had gifted the property to in 1883, someone who entrusted Pleasant with her financial affairs, something Boone attested to in court (“Letter to Fred from Mrs Bell,” SF Chronicle, 22 Sep 1897). Note: There is a new website for the Geneva Office Building project: https://www.fgobp.com/ ↑
- In Oct 1886, The Times of Philadelphia printed a long piece entitle “The Enfranchised: How the Colored Race of the Country have been Prospering,” researched by John W Cromwell of the Advocate, a Black newspaper of that city. “Mrs Mary Pleasants has an income from eight houses in San Francisco, a ranch near San Mateo, and $100,000 in government bonds.” Locating the ranch, i.e. the Geneva Cottage property, “near San Mateo” was typical of the vagueness of many San Franciscans then about land that lay south of the Mission. This long article was re-printed over fifty times in newspapers all over the country over the following year, and then another version originating with New York World and re-printed in the Chicago Tribune on 4 Nov 1887, was consequently re-printed in many other papers until at least March 1888. This second version assessed Pleasant’s total wealth at $150,000, as well as listing the houses, the ranch, and bonds. ↑
- “Injunction Suit,” SF Chronicle, 16 Sep 1868. Pleasant won against her daughter, gaining control of the Geneva Cottage property as well as the lot at 920 (now 962) Washington Street, site of her most famous luxury boardinghouse. ↑
- Read much more about Pleasant’s life and career in Lynn Hudson’s book The Making of “Mammy Pleasant” (2003). The Wikipedia article about Pleasant relies a great deal on secondary sources and magazine features, but is a good summary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ellen_Pleasant ↑
- For a discussion of the many ways in which the figure of “Mammy Pleasant” has been employed, please see “Making Mammy Work for You: Mary Ellen Pleasant in Popular Culture”, in The Making of “Mammy’ Pleasant”, Lynn Hudson, pp99-116. Also, Meina Yates-Richard, ” ‘In the Wake’ of the ‘Quake: Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Diasporic Hauntings,” American Studies, Vol.58, No.3, 2019. ↑
- Most notably among those casting the greatest slanderous pall over Pleasant’s life was Helen Holdredge, author of a quasi-historical “biography” published in 1953, Mammy Pleasant, currently out of print. Holdredge’s account makes Pleasant responsible directly or indirectly for several murders, based on hearsay. ↑
- The Times (Philadelphia PA), 17 Oct 1886, p12. A year later, in the Chicago Tribune, a piece based on the original Times article put Pleasant’s total worth at $150,000 (4 Nov 1887, p9). Early in her career, for the 1870 US Census, Pleasant stated her worth as $15,000 in real estate and $15,000 in personal assets. ↑
- Pleasant’s first important boardinghouse at 920 Washington Street operated from the spring of 1869 through the 1870s. (Location now has address number 962.) It was home to a number of important men of business and government, such as Newton Booth, who in September 1871 was elected Governor of California while living there. Pleasant had been housekeeper to the Selim Woodworth household before this, but running a high-end boardinghouse gave Pleasant a greater range of contacts and confidantes among SF’s elite. ↑
- The use of ‘mammy’ began with Pleasant’s appearance in court during the Sharon divorce case in 1884; The Examiner identified her as ‘Mammy Pleasance’ on 1 May 1884, the first instance I found. ↑
- Nonetheless, the reporter tellingly used just that moniker for the title of her feature. Isabel Fraser, “Mammy Pleasant: The Woman,” SF Call, 29 Dec 1901, p4. ↑
- Pleasant’s work on behalf of African Americans in San Francisco and elsewhere is discussed in Hudson, pp35-47. Much as Holdredge casts Pleasant’s work in a disparaging light, she also notes numerous instances of Pleasant enabling Black people to come to the city from elsewhere, and providing employment in her businesses, such as the laundries and the boardinghouses. Rebecca Howard Gordon, a young women from Cleveland who was given property by Pleasant later said in court that “she came to this city from Cleveland, O[H], when she was 17 years old [c.1871], with $500 in her pocket. This amount, she acknowledged, was forwarded to her by Mammy Pleasant from California….’Mammy has managed my “estate” for me always’.” (SF Chronicle, 22 Sep 1897). ↑
- A good account by Lerone Bennett Jr. ran in Ebony in two parts in 1979, though it has some errors and a lack of complete footnotes; it is a love-letter of sorts, a deserved one. One of its aims was to undo the damage Holdredge had done (her “biography” of Pleasant had recently been reprinted). There is a link to these articles in the Bibliography. ↑
- Quoting Willian H Carter, in “The Colored Pioneers,” SF Call, 18 Jul 1895. ↑
- Quoted in: Isabel Fraser, “Mammy Pleasant: The Woman,” SF Call, 29 Dec 1901, p4. ↑
- Quoted in “’Mammy’ Pleasant: Memoirs and Autobiography,” Pandex of the Press, January 1902, page 4. PDF: http://vm136.lib.berkeley.edu/BANC/bancphot/Bancroft%20Scanning/PH1-040735%20Grattan/cubanc00001259_pm_a.pdf **** This link isn’t working presently (June 2021, July 2022) — Please view my local copy here: https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/1902-Jan-PANDEX_MEP_cubanc00001259_pm_a.pdf ↑
- Although she never listed any of her laundries in the classified section of the directories, the date of 1855 for the San Jose Road laundry has been accepted by researchers, such as Lerone Bennett Jr, “A Historical Detective Story: Part II: Mystery of Mary Ellen Pleasant,” Ebony, May 1979, p74; and Meina Yates-Richard, ” ‘In the Wake’ of the ‘Quake: Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Diasporic Hauntings,” American Studies, Vol.58, No.3, 2019, p39. Lynn Hudson does not give a year for the San Jose Road laundry, but the property transactions I dug up suggest that 1855 or 1856 is a good bet. ↑
- Hudson, p34. ↑
- Helen Holdredge’s account in Mammy Pleasant posits that Pleasant secured a contract for providing laundry services for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which Holdredge asserted had a facility out at Hunter’s Point—hence this spot, being somewhat closer to that dock. I was unable to find enough to support this idea; the Pacific Mail Steamers docked in the city, which is where the passengers and cargo were headed. If Hunter’s Point was used regularly to prepare ships for sailing, then perhaps Holdredge’s notion would make sense, but I can’t say if this was the case. ↑
- A search for Pleasant’s name (or indeed “Ellen Smith”) as the lessee or grantee on any transaction in the San Francisco Land and Property Records between 1852 when she arrived, and 1858 when she left to aid abolition activities on the East Coast, revealed several transactions, but none that could reasonably be construed as relating to the land on San Jose Road, that is transactions with the holder after 1857, HS Brown, or the Bernal family, who often leased their land before that. I don’t know how Pleasant held the property while she built the laundry and operated her business there before the actual purchase in June 1868, but she did. ↑
- As per the written notes on the Sanborn Insurance Map of 1915, Volume 9, Sheet 975, showing City Block 6972. ↑
- A long-running and much larger laundry down the hill from Pleasant’s, the Hayes Park Laundry (now lot 6954039 at Alemany and Ocean Avenues) was recorded in the 1900 Sanborn Insurance map (Vol.6 Sheet 707) as having two wells and a 12,000 gallon tank, although it appears to have used coal power to pump up the water. ↑
- Holdredge, p38. ↑
- Quoted in: Isabel Fraser, “Mammy Pleasant: The Woman,” SF Call, 29 Dec 1901, p4. ↑
- Hudson (p.35) suggests that Pleasant closed her laundries by the 1860s, but I find it easier to believe she leased out a functioning business like a laundry, and likely did not leave fallow a property that could be generating an income. This is suggested both by her extending use of the San Jose Road property to Lizzie and RB upon their marriage, and wanting it back after RB died, and taking Lizzie to court to get it. ↑
- Not enough has been shown of Pleasant’s attachments to other African American women, a legacy in some respects of the shoddy research and racist agenda of Helen Holdredge’s quasi-historical ‘biography’ that ignored Pleasant’s Black friends and family. I found these two older Black women whose funerals Pleasant paid for, but my search was not complete, and I would think there were others to whom she extended this care as well. Mary Alexander was a Black woman born in New York (or Louisiana, as she reported on the 1860 Census) in 1797, who died in SF on 1 Jan 1871, age 74. She worked in one of Pleasant’s laundries. Pleasant paid $47 for her funeral, burying her in her own plot in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Holdredge asserts that Alexander worked for Pleasant in her laundries, and I find that credible. Mortuary record: “California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DZBQ-1BX?cc=1385518&wc=MJCC-K66%3A1042889701%2C1042918901%2C1042889403%2C1042918503 : 20 May 2014), San Francisco (San Francisco) > 1869-1873 > N. Gray & Co. > Index, book A-Z > image 266 of 397; San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center. [Also image 267.]1860 Census: Alexander, no first name, a Black woman, age 58, occupation washerwoman. Year: 1860; Census Place: San Francisco District 2, San Francisco, California; Page: 600; Family History Library Film: 803067. She was also in the SF directories in 1858 and 1859 with washing as her occupation. Phoebe Ann Smith was born in 1795 in Massachusetts and died in SF 19 Nov 1860, aged 65. Pleasant paid about $100 for her funeral, nearly as much as for her own husband years later. Holdredge, working from some tidbit she picked up somewhere, asserted that “Ann Phoebe Smith” was a nubile young Black women who was murdered in about 1860 at Pleasant’s Ecker St laundry by “a Frenchman” as she tried to resist his advances; supposedly Pleasant had urged the match on Smith. A cursory check on death records when at the time Holdredge wrote would have revealed that Smith was 65, and the story was insupportable. But Holdredge had an agenda, to show Pleasant as responsible for several murders of young girls. Lynn Hudson notes: “The plot of Mammy Pleasant winds around Pleasant’s uncontrollable savagery and evil impulses,” as depicted by Holdredge (Hudson, p7).Funeral home records showing Smith buried on 19 Nov 1860: “California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-6PSQ-ZJF?cc=1385518&wc=MJC8-N36%3A1042889701%2C1042935301%2C1042889403%2C1042935302 : 20 May 2014), San Francisco (San Francisco) > 1854-1861 > N. Gray & Co. > Register, book p. 1-335 > image 221 of 252; San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center. Mortuary account book, showing Pleasant paid $100 for Smith funeral, 2 Dec 1860: “California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DCSS-42W?cc=1385518&wc=MJCC-6T1%3A1042889701%2C1042918501%2C1042918502%2C1042918503 : 20 May 2014), San Francisco (San Francisco) > 1857-1863 > N. Gray & Co > Index, book A-Z > image 194 of 283; San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center. ↑
- Razzo was listed as a gardener in the SF Directories from about 1870 until his death in 1908.SF Examiner, 30 Jan 1894. Sale of Block 29, lots 4-9, West End Map No.1. The purchase was in Pleasant’s friend Rebecca J Gordon’s name, under Pleasant’s direction as always; Pleasant’s control of the property is evidenced by the fact that the final sale in 1900 was in her name as well as Rebecca Gordon Boone’s ↑
- The 1948 San Francisco aerial photographs (davidrumsey.com) and the 1950 Sanborn Insurance Map (sheet 964) show that the first and third blocks of Geneva Avenue had yet to be completed by then. ↑
- Lizzie Smith was born Elizabeth Jones Smith to James W and M Ellen Smith on 6 July 1845 in Charlestown MA, on Salem Street. Citation: Births, 1843-1849; Vol· 5, Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, U.S., Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Town and City Clerks of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records. Provo, UT: Holbrook Research Institute (Jay and Delene Holbrook). Also on FamilySearch.org : “Massachusetts Births, 1841-1915,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6R4S-D1C?cc=1536925&wc=M61J-KNG%3A73571901 : 27 October 2020), 004150576 > image 301 of 827; Massachusetts Archives, Boston. From 1861-1864, Lizzie was listed in the San Francisco Langley directories as follows: 1861 “Smith, Lizzie Miss, actress, New National Theater”; 1862: “Smith, Lizzie Miss, vocalist, Maguire’s Opera House”; 1863: “Smith, Lizzie Miss, 59 Stevenson”; 1864: “Smith, Lizzie Miss, actress, New Idea [Theater], dwl 77 Fourth”. That this is the right person is confirmed by the fact that her mother Mary Ellen Pleasant lived at 59 Stevenson in 1862 (under the name Ellen Smith); and that there were no other Miss Lizzie Smiths in the few years before 1861-64; and by the fact that she was not listed after 1864, because she married RB Phillips in April 1865 (see next note). ↑
- I assert this largely because it was these two properties that Pleasant sued Lizzie J Phillips for in 1868 after Lizzie’s ex-husband RB Phillips dies. The detailed list of property transactions for Pleasant in the General Index from 1856 to 1869 are found in the Technical Notes associated with this article. ↑
- Mortgage, 1866 Feb 02. “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5FP-TCT?cc=1402856&wc=319Y-6T5%3A20726201%2C41295401 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 034, 1866 > image 210 of 297; San Francisco Public Library, California. ↑
- Sacramento Daily Union, 29 Jan 1868. ↑
- On 1 Jun 1868, the Deed Index shows two transactions that indicate that in the last week of RB Phillips’ life, Pleasant arranged the purchase of the property on San Jose Avenue from the owner of the land, Harvey S Brown, who filed West End Map No.1 as a homestead with lots for sale in March 1863. The same day, Pleasant bought it from Phillips. This indicates that if Phillips had control of the ranch land, it was likely to have been an informal arrangement. Deed Index, HS Brown to RB Phillips, 1 Jun 1868 (deed itself is gone): “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5D3-FHJ?cc=1402856&wc=319V-T38%3A20726201%2C21751601 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > Deed Index, Vol. 39, A-Z, 1868 > image 34 of 301; San Francisco Public Library, California. Deed Index, Phillips to Pleasant, 1 Jun 1868 (deed itself is gone): “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5D3-FF5?cc=1402856&wc=319V-T38%3A20726201%2C21751601 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > Deed Index, Vol. 39, A-Z, 1868 > image 214 of 301; San Francisco Public Library, California. The set of two transactions were recorded in the general index at the beginning of August. I don’t have an explanation for the gap. Brown to Phillips: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-95FP-99JF?cc=1402856&wc=319Y-FMS%3A20726201%2C41387901 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 051, 1868 > image 31 of 318; San Francisco Public Library, California. Phillips to Pleasant: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-95FP-9S6M?cc=1402856&wc=319Y-FMS%3A20726201%2C41387901 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 051, 1868 > image 227 of 318; San Francisco Public Library, California. ↑
- The mortuary record shows Pleasant paid $106 for RB Phillips’ funeral, just a dollar less than what she would pay for her own husband’s funeral nine years later. This record also gives Pleasant’s address as 708 Stockton, the site of a boardinghouse she ran then. “California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-67WQ-X5K?cc=1385518&wc=MJCZ-4WT%3A1042889701%2C1042919701%2C1042889403%2C1042919702 : 20 May 2014), San Francisco (San Francisco) > 1868 > N. Gray & Co. > Day Book, book p. 1-350 > image 140 of 354; San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center. The roster recording Phillips’ death gives “Stockton and Sacramento” as the place of death, which is an approximate location for 708 Stockton. On Ancestry.com: California, U.S., County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980 for R B Phillips > San Francisco > Death > 1865 – 1873 ↑
- Pieces of this story came out later, in 1875, when Pleasant had Lizzie arrested for forging her signature on some notes, and to explain herself Lizzie told a Call reporter a fantastical story, in which she was swindled out of her due by her mother, i.e. a promise of support from RB Phillips made on his deathbed. It was reprinted in the Los Angeles Herald, 3 Mar 1875. The tale also concerns how Pleasant supposedly lured Lizzie to San Francisco with the promise that Philips wished to marry her, but upon seeing his photo (he was forty-something) Lizzie balked and sent her “sister” ahead to SF as a substitute. Shakespearean chaos ensued. Much of the story was invented (e.g. there was no sister) but I believe it contains the core of their dispute about the properties after Phillips’ death. Read the whole article here. ↑
- Surmise, working from directory listings for 1869 (published in December) for Pleasant’s tenants at 920 Washington Street, and the 1870 Census. ↑
- This date given by Pleasant’s “biographer” Helen Holdredge, Mammy Pleasant, p72. Date accords with year cited in SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899. ↑
- Helen Holdredge, Mammy Pleasant, New York: Ballantine Books, 1853, pp72-73. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899. ↑
- Denise Nicholas, “Buses,” in The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African-American Theaters, Woodie King Jr (ed.), New York: Applause Theater Books, Inc, 1995, p302. ↑
- For a thorough review of the Mary Ellen Pleasant and the streetcar cases, see Hudson, pages 47-55. ↑
- Nicholas, Buses, p297. ↑
- Holdredge, Mammy Pleasant, pp79-81. ↑
- I looked into this story, searching in news and mortuary records for anything that fit. I don’t believe Holdredge’s account happened, even if she got it from an interview. Mostly the story served her agenda: not only does the murder support Holdredge’s purpose of condemning Pleasant as evil or complicit in evil, it also serves to explain why Geneva Cottage, after just one year as supposedly the hottest out-of-town locale for sex parties, ceases to be a place any rich white man would want to go, as well as providing Pleasant with blackmail material to leverage against everyone who was there for decades to come. Wherever Holdredge got it, it was just too useful to pass up. ↑
- “Injunction Suit,” SF Chronicle, 16 Sep 1868. Records of the legal transactions are found in SF Land and Property Records. Please see this page for details: ↑
- William H Carter gave lectures in San Francisco in 1895 about African American pioneers to the city, and claimed that Cox arrived on 18 July 1849, making him among the first Black people here. (“The Colored Pioneers,” SF Call, 18 Jul 1895.) This date doesn’t align with a known ship arrival (as listed at https://www.maritimeheritage.org). He may have arrived on the SS Panama on 4 June 1849, though there is no complete passenger list for that journey. Cox’s saloon was not listed in the city directory until the one published in Sept 1852 by AW Morgan & Co: ‘billiards, 228 Kearny’. (Later listed at 218 Kearny, i.e. near Pacific; address numbers on this block were later changed to the 900s.) ↑
- Rudolph Lapp, “Negro Rights in Gold Rush California,” California Historical Quarterly, March 1966, p3. ↑
- “A Fourth Terrible Conflagration,” Daily Alta, 18 Sep 1850: “A drinking house kept by Sully Cox, resorted to by negroes, [was] also destroyed.” The value was put at $2000. The type of establishment was changed to ‘boarding house’ in a report two days later in the Maryville (CA) Herald. The next year: “List of Losses by the Fire,” Sacramento Daily Union, 25 Jun 1851. “Sully Cox house” among the destroyed structures, valued at $2500. ↑
- Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century. Edited by Booker T. Washington. Washington D.C.: M.W. Gibbs, 1902, pp40-42. https://archive.org/details/shadowandlightan00gibbrich/page/40/mode/2up ↑
- An account of Cox’s gambling comes to us from a backassward and racist story in Overland Monthly in February 1883, where we are told that Cox served as the “boy” to a flamboyant gambler named JJ Bryant, as that white man sauntered from faro table to faro table, with Cox schlepping his gold in bags for him. The irony is that while Bryant went down in flames due to an ill-advised attempt at becoming elected Sheriff, and numerous huge gambling losses that resulted in seizures of his properties, Cox kept his own business going for years, long after Bryant had left town. Overland Monthly: https://archive.org/details/overlandmonthly21116sanfrich/page/134/mode/2up The rest of the bits come from reading the newspapers, but I haven’t got the citations, because I have my limits, which is why this story is tucked into a footnote. ↑
- In June 1850, the saloon was raided by police who “very summarily put a stop to a ‘ball’ which was in operation at this time, and carried off the proprietors, both negroes. The inhabitants of the vicinity declare the house a nuisance, and the Recorder will hear testimony on that point in the coming week.” Bear in mind this was a markedly lawless period in San Francisco history, so the discretionary nature of the charges stand out. Cox and White were both discharged two days later. (Daily Alta California 22 June 1860 and 24 June 1850.) The same paper reported that Cox was fined for keeping his place open after midnight (14 Aug 1851) and that Aaron White was fined $75 for assaulting a police officer who was attempting to arrest a young Black woman in their company (4 July 1853). ↑
- Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century. Edited by Booker T. Washington. Washington D.C.: M.W. Gibbs, 1902, pp45-46.https://archive.org/details/shadowandlightan00gibbrich/page/40/mode/2up ↑
- Rudolph Lapp, “Negro Rights in Gold Rush California,” California Historical Quarterly, March 1966, Vol.45 No.1, pp8-9. ↑
- Sully Cox and Daniel Seales bought a lot on the steep side of Telegraph Hill at Union and Calhoun in 1852 for a mere $200. Deed: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5DS-NY5?cc=1402856&wc=319J-JWG%3A20726201%2C24527101 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > Deeds, Vol. 0011B, 1852 > image 60 of 318; San Francisco Public Library, California. Then a year later, Seales bought Cox out for $1000. Deed: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G56H-3LS?cc=1402856&wc=319L-YWG%3A20726201%2C26315901 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > Deeds, Vol. 0035, 1853-1854 > image 153 of 317; San Francisco Public Library, California. Forty years later, Seales still had the lot, and many more in SF, as he related in an interview for the SF Call during a visit to the city. “Black King of Finance: Arrival of Daniel Seales, Who Owns Property in Many Cities,” SF Call 6 Dec 1895. Read the article by entering search string ”black king of finance” with the quote marks, here: https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=cl&cl=CL1&sp=SFC&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1 . ↑
- Two of Seales’ columns in the Elevator give San Franciscans updates on Sully Cox after he moved away from SF. On 8 March 1873: “Our old California friend, Mr Sully Cox called to see me. He lost his brother Lee Cox about six weeks ago. He died in New Orleans, and was buried in Louisville.” On 6 December 1873: “I was two days in St Louis, where I met Mr Sully Cox; he is an old Californian, and has many friends in your city, to all of whom he desired a kind remembrance.” After his brother Lee (Leonidas) Cox died, Sully went to live with his widow and grown children in Louisville, KY. He passed away in 1883, and was buried in the (in)famous Eastern Cemetery there. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/eastern-cemetery Death record: Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives; Frankfort, Kentucky, Film 7007127: Louisville, Books 5-6 (Ancestry.com) Douglas Henry Daniels discusses the importance of Seales’ correspondence with the Elevator in his book Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (pp60, 70). ↑
- James W Gordon, “Did the First Justice Harlan Have a Black Brother?” 15 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 159 (1993), pp170-171. ↑
- The exact date of Harlan’s departure isn’t known, but he purchased land in Cincinnati in Oct 1850 (Gordon, p175n52).Cox’s purchase of the lot at the NW corner of Washington and Stone Streets for $3500 took place in June 1850, but the deed was not recorded until November 1853: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G56H-3J1?cc=1402856&wc=319L-BZS%3A20726201%2C26390801 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > Deeds, Vol. 0036, 1853-1854 > image 310 of 404; San Francisco Public Library, California.Harlan originally bought the lot and house during a sheriff’s sale a few months before this; the property is described in the ad for the sale in the Daily Alta (22 Feb 1850). Although Pleasant would in 1868 build a much bigger house on the property, the 24 x 57.5 foot lot had a two-story house on it then, 24 feet along Washington and 20 feet along Stone Street. ↑
- Although Pleasant claimed other dates for her arrival, I find Lynn Hudson’s account creditable. Lynn Hudson, pp 39-40. ↑
- Hudson, p26 and p32. ↑
- Lizzie Jones Smith was born to James W Smith and M Ellen Smith in Charlestown, Boston, Massachusetts, on 6 July 1845. LINK. Lizzie arrived in San Francisco by September 1861, age sixteen, old enough to work, when she first appears in the San Francisco directory without a dwelling address but her occupation lists as an actress New National Theater. In 1862 she again appears, this time as a vocalist with Maguire’s Opera House. Then in 1863 her dwelling place is listed as 59 Stevenson St, which is house that Mary Ellen Pleasant owned or rented by 1862, according to her directory listing. In 1864, Lizzie’s listing gives her theater as The New Idea, and her dwelling as 77 Fourth Street. ↑
- The vague and spotty knowledge about Lizzie J Smith’s life was used by Helen Holdredge in her vitriolic “biography” of Pleasant as another way to damn her as evil and unnatural. Holdredge did a lot of research, but missed so much, mostly because she had a strong personal agenda that bent her mind. ↑
- Pleasant, as usual, playing with and against type at the same time: playing both caring Mammy and clear-eyed Master of Capital. Hudson: “It was a common [white] belief that although black mammies spoiled and cherished their white charges on the plantation, they were unfit to mother their own children.” (Hudson, p29.) Helen Holdredge in her semi-historical biography of Pleasant (1953) makes a great deal of Pleasant’s disregard for her own daughter, and that notion has exerted an inertial tug on almost everyone writing about the relationship afterwards. Holdredge did not read the Black newspapers in the course of her decades of research, or indeed seem to care where any of Pleasant’s black friends or family members were or what they were doing. ↑
- Massachusetts, U.S., Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, Ashland, Births and Marriages, 1840-1897, image 77 https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/70784791:2495?tid=&pid=&queryId=e4ed6112c5a76617249e346332040217&_phsrc=qhN1037&_phstart=successSource ↑
- “Passengers,” Sacramento Daily Union, 3 October 1854. ↑
- ‘Rasberry’ shows up as a name for men in the US South, judging by records on Ancestry.com, including several records of Black men with that name were born in Maryland, as Phillips was. There is also a slew of other first names ending with -berry all over the South, like Greenberry, Elsberry, Wainberry, Nickelberry, Littleberry, and others. Phillips used just the initials ‘RB’ while in San Francisco, although I cannot know what his friends called him, with just a few occasions where ‘Rasberry’ appears. One is the legal filing he makes in January 1859, probably for divorce from Kate, in which his name is recorded as “Rasbury B. Phillips.” “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G56Q-93XR?cc=1402856&wc=319L-7MQ%3A20726201%2C41026201 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 009, 1859 > image 66 of 192; San Francisco Public Library, California. ↑
- The 1856 Colville Directory for San Francisco lists RB Phillips at 284 Washington Street, the old number for what would become 920 Washington Street in 1861 after house numbers were redone in the city. This lot currently has the address 962 Washington St. ↑
- For link to all the technical details of the property transactions, please see the chronology on this page. ↑
- Pleasant satisfied a mortgage with Cox in Aug 1856 .https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-956Q-9739?cc=1402856&wc=319L-7M7%3A20726201%2C41040001Then she files her intent to sue Cox et al. Nov 1856. https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-956Q-9SJC?cc=1402856&wc=319L-7M7%3A20726201%2C41040001 Then she gains the deed in Dec 1856. From Cox: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G56Q-99D4?cc=1402856&wc=319L-7M7%3A20726201%2C41040001 And Phillips: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-956Q-9SJC?cc=1402856&wc=319L-7M7%3A20726201%2C41040001 ↑
- In the General Index, it shows ‘Rasbury’ Phillips filing his intention for some legal action against Kate Phillips on 29 Jan 1859. It could be something besides divorce, so this is my speculation, as the actual text of the transaction is long gone. “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G56Q-93XR?cc=1402856&wc=319L-7MQ%3A20726201%2C41026201 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 009, 1859 > image 66 of 192; San Francisco Public Library, California. Then he is granted the divorce in December 1860. Daily Alta, 2 Dec 1860. ↑
- As per the 1860 US Census in San Francisco, for Katie Phillips, age 32. Year: 1860; Census Place: San Francisco District 1, San Francisco, California; Page: 921; Family History Library Film: 803068 ↑
- Los Angeles Herald, 3 Mar 1875. The item was originally published on 28 Feb 1975 in the SF Call, but that issue has not been digitized. It’s such a marvelous yarn, I offer it here. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/1875Mar03-LA-Herald-p2-Lizzie-Peck-s-tory.jpgBoth mother and daughter were drama queens in their own ways. ↑
- Bennett (May 1979), p76. I don’t have access right now to issues of the Elevator from April 1865, but Bennett quotes the item as describing the wedding as “fashionable”. RB’s real name was Rasberry, as per his marriage in 1854 in Massachusetts and a couple of property records. ↑
- The Elevator, 14 Apr 1865. The wedding notice is cited in Hudson, p28, and p133 n38. RB Phillips is listed in the 1865 directory at 49 Clara Street. ↑
- Sacramento Daily Union, 27 Jan 1868. ↑
- This is evidence by a set of transactions recorded in SF Land and Property Records on 1 Jun 1868, the transfer of a deed from Harvey S Brown to RB Phillips, and from RB Phillips to Mary E Pleasant on the same day. Details in this page of technical notes about the properties. ↑
- RB Phillips mortgaged the property at 920 Washington St to Mary E Pleasant on 2 Feb 1866. Details in this page of technical notes about the properties. ↑
- Los Angeles Herald, 3 Mar 1875. The item was originally published on 28 Feb 1975 in the SF Call, but that issue has not been digitized. The notice of the marriage of Lizzie Phillips to William Peck on 16 March was published in the SF Chronicle, 18 Mar 1869, p4. ↑
- I surmise that Pleasant arranged this second marriage for her daughter based on the fact that Lizzie rebelled against it, the fact that Pleasant arranged marriages for many other young women, and to some extent the way Holdredge portrays the union (Holdredge, p 145). Lizzie’s notice in The Elevator: 19 Mar 1869. Thomas Hutchinson, age 25, white, was recorded in the 1870 US Census as a farm laborer living just north of Stockton. Year: 1870; Census Place: Elliot, San Joaquin, California; Roll: M593_86; Page: 74A. There was also another Thomas H. Hutchinson in Stockton, then aged 76, who subsequently died, with an obituary published in the Stockton Herald on 21 July 1873. ↑
- There were six advertisements for Peck’s business in The Pacific Appeal between 8 Oct 1870 and 3 Dec 1870, and then never again. According to the directories, he kept a bar for some years, and then in the early 1880s, he was again listed as a chiropodist, after Lizzie’s death. ↑
- Peter J Barber, an architect who lived in Santa Barbara then, placed a lien on the Pleasants in March 1869. “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-95FP-974Q?cc=1402856&wc=319L-DPX%3A20726201%2C41415301 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 056, 1869 > image 194 of 279; San Francisco Public Library, California. He was awarded in court in April $1,751 in gold coin from Pleasant (Daily Alta California, 15 Apr 1969). Pleasant paid this by Oct 1870. “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9567-H5Z?cc=1402856&wc=319L-4WY%3A20726201%2C41474201 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 067, 1870 > image 10 of 245; San Francisco Public Library, California. ↑
- SF Examiner, 26 Feb 1875, forgery charge against Lizzie Peck; SF Examiner, 14 Apr 1975, Grand Jury indictment; and SF Examiner, 1 Jun 1875, Lizzie Peck acquitted. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899. ↑
- Mortuary record for John J Pleasant, died 11 Apr 1877 at 49 Clara St; cause; diabetes. Pleasant paid for his funeral, spending $107. “California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6LK3-LRB?cc=1385518&wc=MJCZ-FM7%3A1042889701%2C1042920501%2C1042889403%2C1042920502 : 20 May 2014), San Francisco (San Francisco) > 1876-1877 > N. Gray & Co. > Day Book, book p. 1-351 > image 289 of 357; San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center. ↑
- Mortuary record for Elizabeth “B” Peck; died on 28 August 1878; cause: TB of the lungs (phthisis); funeral paid for by William B Peck, 720 Pacific, $45. “California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-6Q89-SKB?cc=1385518&wc=MJC8-SPV%3A1042889701%2C1042920401%2C1042889403%2C1042920402 : 20 May 2014), San Francisco (San Francisco) > 1877-1878 > N. Gray & Co. > Day Book, book p. 350-642 > image 297 of 301; San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center. Although he correctly reported that she was born in Boston, Lizzie’s husband William Peck reported that her age was 28 at death, which is wrong (she was born 6 July 1845 LINK). That would have made her eleven years old when she came to SF in 1861. He may never have known her true age. I think William gave her his own middle initial, as perhaps he did not know hers (J). ↑
- Year: 1880; Census Place: San Francisco, San Francisco, California; Roll: 73; Page: 489B; Enumeration District: 038. ↑
- Rebecca Howard Gordon, a young women from Cleveland who was given property by Pleasant later said in court that “she came to this city from Cleveland, O[H], when she was 17 years old [c.1871], with $500 in her pocket. This amount, she acknowledged, was forwarded to her by Mammy Pleasant from California….’Mammy has managed by “estate” for me always’.” (SF Chronicle, 22 Sep 1897). ↑
- SF Examiner, 16 Nov 1883. ↑
- Nicholas Gordon’s cattle ranching at Geneva Cottage is recounted in “Letter to Fred from Mrs Bell,” SF Chronicle, 22 Sep 1897, although this piece has several errors of fact in it. ↑
- SF Examiner, 1 Oct 1884, p2. The ad for the sale ran 16 days in the Examiner, and Pleasant could not have missed it. ↑
- Deed for Lot 1, Block 29, March 1862, HS Brown to J Manahan. “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-95FR-226?cc=1402856&wc=319L-T3T%3A20726201%2C27783201 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > Deeds, Vol. 0152, 1862 > image 233 of 405; San Francisco Public Library, California. ↑
- SF Examiner, 13 Feb 1887, p17; SF Examiner, 15 Feb 1888, p8; Daily Alta California, 15 Feb 1888. ↑
- Daily Alta California, 6 Sep 1888. ↑
- Daily Alta California, 10 Apr 1889. ↑
- Daily Alta California, 10 Apr 1889. ↑
- As per the SF directories. ↑
- The Parks are in the SF directories 1876-1878 at 49 Clara Street, one of Pleasant’s properties. After that they live near the corner of Church and Duncan, and also have use of a property on Duncan. Robert Park is listed as running a chicken ranch in the 1879 directory, and later with other occupations. Read his biography here. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/89060305/robert-m-park ↑
- As per SF directories, and a note in the SF Chronicle’s feature on Pleasant (9 July 1899) which mentions that the Parks are still at the Cottage. ↑
- Daily Alta California, 27 Dec 1884. John Lemuel and Susie M Lee lived in Cleveland OH, recorded in the 1880 US Census. Year: 1880; Census Place: Cleveland, Cuyahoga, Ohio; Roll: 1006; Page: 82B; Enumeration District: 019. ↑
- “Eviction of ‘Mammy’ Pleasant from the ‘House of Mystery’ May Uncover Some Secrets,” SF Chronicle, 26 Apr 1899. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899. ↑
- Lerone Bennett Jr, “A Historical Detective Story: Part I: Mystery of Mary Ellen Pleasant,” Ebony, Apr 1979, p94; ↑
- SF Call, 17 May 1900, p11. The price is given as $7500 in the Call, 25 Aug 1900, as a transfer from Rebecca Boone to Southard. Southard was awarded the contract for the structure five months later. “Builders Contracts,” SF Call, 3 Oct 1900. George H and Seth Walker were the contractors, with Albert B Southard named as architect and engineer. Nobody named Reid. ↑
6 thoughts on “Mary Ellen Pleasant in Ingleside: Stories of Geneva Cottage”
Stunning work Amy! It’s going to take me a while to absorb it all. As you know MEP is well known here in Sonoma Valley. This adds immeasurably to our knowledge.
Very nicely researched and compellingly written! Thank you so much. I’ve wondered whether this sort of info would ever come along, since the day(s) I read that quasi-bio.
This is fantastic! Are you going to publish a book? I first heard about “Mammy” Pleasant, years ago, from friends who lived in the Noe Valley (since deceased) They told me that there was another of her houses in their neighborhood.
Thanks for your comment, Claudia. Pleasant has been associated with the Poole-Bell House on Laidley Street, but she never actually lived there! So much local lore turns out to be myth — but interesting nonetheless. Read more about that here: https://sunnysidehistory.org/2020/03/04/bodies-in-the-well-trapdoors-in-the-foyer-how-the-poole-bell-house-became-mired-in-myths/
Amy, this is such good work. I will have to spend more time in order to digest all of the story. I have read a couple of the Holeridge books, and have a copy of “The Making of Mammy Pleasant” by Lynn Hudson, if want to use it.
[…] the Beltane Ranch, still operates today as a high-end retreat and another, the Geneva Cottage, served as a refuge in San Francisco’s Ingleside […]