The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name

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

On the first day of October 1906, Annie Poole, widow of a disgraced public official, and Teresa Bell, widow of the city’s once-richest financier, met to discuss the sale of the small mansion that now bears both their names, the Poole-Bell House.

Bell was moving out to this remote enclave, the sparsely settled Fairmount district, where the house sat perched on a hill with a fine view of the city in the distance. She wanted to put a bit of space between her and the nattering classes of society. It was a prickly conference; Bell wanted to move in a day earlier than the transfer of the funds between the two women, a presumptuous request that Poole resisted. Bell recorded their conversation, with commentary, in her diary.

“Mrs Poole said she could not personally let me move in until Wednesday. I said I only cared because of the family, her and their discomfort. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘tell them I am an old cross crank.’ I said, ‘No. I told them the facts that you had no right to let me in your house until you had your money, and that you would not let me in.’

“She stopped laughing quickly and her eyes popped out with surprise. She saw she was not fooling me. With all the lies she had told about ‘the people not removing their things yet,’ her stare of astonishment showed I was right in my surmise as to her not letting me in.

“Of course I do not blame her a bit, but she could have accommodated me one day, considering my paying her in cash down for her furniture, and I paid enough for it too. But it’s all right, she knows nothing about me nor I of her, and she didn’t do business on trust evidently. She is one breed and I another, that is evident.”[1]

Bell thought herself a cut above, as if more money granted more nobility. The irony is that the Bell family scandals far outpaced the minor frisson of shame that the Poole family endured. The Bells provided sensational fodder for newspapers for decades, whereas Poole’s husband had made a mistake and in the way of the times taken the ‘honorable’ way out through suicide.

Teresa Bell had had a thirty-year-long close relationship with Mary Ellen Pleasant, so unlike Annie Poole, her life has seen print. The specter of Pleasant’s powerful control and manipulations followed Bell to the new house on Laidley Street—even though the two had a big public break in 1899 and Pleasant had died two years beforehand. Through the twentieth century, local lore and rumor kept alive the idea that Pleasant must have had something to do with the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount, although she never set foot inside it. (Read more about the myths surrounding the house here.)

Two Women of a Certain Age

Despite her obvious wish to distinguish herself from the woman she was buying the house from, the Widow Bell had many things in common with the Widow Poole. The two women were nearly the same age, in their sixties when the sale took place in 1906. Both had humble origins elsewhere, and each was the daughter of an Irish-immigrant mother who had been convicted and incarcerated. Both their lives had been transformed by the prodigious wealth-making of nineteenth-century San Francisco. Each had re-built fortunes from the financial messes their husbands had left them in death. Both women had adopted children, although under very different circumstances. And both had weathered disasters of impropriety and public exposure, although very different in scale and outcome.

Teresa Bell did not gain her requested early occupancy; Annie Poole had sharpened her business skills over the previous decade managing her own finances and dealing in property, and she did not give anything away for free. Two days later, on 3 October 1906, Poole vacated and Bell moved in, bringing with her some of the massive furnishings from the huge mansion on Octavia Street, the so-called “House of Mystery” Pleasant had built in 1875.

Although she and the other members of the Bell family would continue to provide hot copy for the newspapers for years to come, this move marked the beginning of a time when Teresa Bell would marshal her resources and take control of her life and her finances, after most of a lifetime of being someone else’s dolly.

Down Under to Out West

Before we find out where Teresa Bell was headed, first the story of where Annie Poole had been. Her life begins in Australia, as the daughter of a transported criminal, Anne Fogarty, convicted in 1829 in Tipperary, Ireland, for “Robbing her Master.” Many of those transported to Australia during the years 1788-1868 were guilty of only petty crimes, under circumstances of poverty and displacement due to the industrial revolution. Convicts who behaved well were given a ticket of leave after their sentence was over, when a person could choose to return to Great Britain or remain as a settler. When her sentence of four months was over, Fogarty remained in Australia and married, and her daughter Annie was born in 1843.[2]

In 1865, Annie married an English immigrant, John Pascoe Poole, in Sydney; they promptly sailed to San Francisco for a new life, where John worked as an attorney. He quickly became the Deputy Clerk for the State District Court in San Francisco. In 1877 he was appointed a clerk for the California Supreme Court, which took the family to Sacramento for a while. Later he was appointed the Notary Public for San Francisco.[3]

The couple had one daughter, Minnie, born in 1868. Later there was another girl who was a part of the family, Emily, born 1874. As she was born in Australia, and she was absent from the household for the 1880 US Census, it is likely that she was adopted through a family connection in Australia.[4]

Building the House at the Center of Fairmount

When the Pooles resettled in San Francisco in 1881, they chose the Fairmount district for their home, living on Chenery Street before building the grand house on Laidley Street.[5] They also owned a great deal of land in the district, comprising the majority of their property investments. Once he had moved his family to Fairmount, John Poole had taken his time—six years or so—to find just the right spot to build his beautiful new house. Looked at from the perspective of the original Fairmount homestead map, the placement of the house at Laidley and Fairmount streets puts the property at the very center of the district, adjacent to the planned Fairmount Plaza. It was a prominent place, on paper and on the ground, and it suited this man’s idea of himself and his position.

1864. Homestead map for Fairmount, marked to show lot on which Poole-Bell House built in 1887 (red) with Fairmount Plaza marked in green (still park space). Altered from an image taken of the original map by Evelyn Rose. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
1864. Homestead map for Fairmount, marked to show lots on which Poole-Bell House built in 1887 (red) with Fairmount Plaza marked in green (still park space). Altered from an image taken of the original map by Evelyn Rose. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

In 1887, they built the large two-story house that would later be called the Poole-Bell House.[6] It sat in the middle of four large lots (now eleven lots), well isolated from the flatter, low-lying parts of Fairmount, which were then filling out with narrow houses on smaller lots. Perched alone on the hillside, the view of the city from the front rooms was magnificent, then as now. One corner is oriented due north, an aspect of the construction that may be related to Masonic ideas.[7] It had the address 198 Laidley Street (now 192-196 Laidley).[8]

1900 Sanborn map, sheet 692, Shpowing the Poole-Bell House at that time, two-stories with a lathe summerhouse and well on the north, a hen house and stable on Miguel St the west. Library of Congress.
1900 Sanborn map, sheet 692, Showing the Poole-Bell House at that time, two-stories with a lathe summerhouse and well on the north, a hen house and stable on Miguel St on the west. Library of Congress.

Like a Thunderbolt

As Notary Public for San Francisco, a great deal of public trust was invested in John P Poole. Every sector of business and law depended upon the truth that a notarized document attested to. Poole’s reputation was excellent when he was chosen to serve in this office, and he was reappointed several times. But in February 1895, Poole’s reputation ran up against the rocks of the Federal Government. He was accused of having issued a blank affidavit to a self-proclaimed disabled veteran who fraudulently applied for an undeserved war pension. A US Government war pension was one of the only types of public welfare at this time. Poole’s handwriting and seal were on the document, yet he had not been present to verify the veracity of the witnesses to the man’s alleged war disability.

In March, an SF Call reporter spoke with Poole’s friends, who said, “The charges against him are all based on a desire for revenge,” although no one named any person who might desire such revenge. One associate is quoted as saying, “A truer hearted, more whole-souled gentleman than John Poole never existed. If he erred it was an error of judgment and not of intention.”

Poole himself said, “In the case of old soldiers, I always do their work for nothing.” However, in this, Poole may have been too liberal in what he thought was service to a disabled veteran, but was in fact someone determined to defraud the government and to use Poole’s unwitting help to do so. He was bewildered by the charge, and seemed to buckle under it without a fight:

“If I have made a mistake, why, I’ll have to suffer for it, and that’s all there is to the question. I am an old man and my record is an honorable one, so this affair comes on me like a thunderbolt.”[9]

In early April 1895, Poole was indicted by a grand jury. Six weeks later, John Poole, not yet convicted of this crime, died at the house on Laidley Street. I believe he killed himself.[10] Choosing the ‘quiet way out’ would not be unusual for a disgraced man of his standing in that era. The newspaper related the story that he had caught a cold on Friday evening, and the following day sunk to the point of death. His suicide saved his family the ignominy of his trial and conviction for fraud. In June, the charges were dismissed, because by then, as the Chronicle bluntly put the matter, “Poole is dead.”

Annie, Survivor

Annie Poole was left a widow with two adult daughters, but she had a good many resources to draw on. The properties her husband had purchased over the previous fifteen years in the district were worth a good deal, and became even more valuable after the 1906 Quake and Fire pushed residents out to this previously sparsely populated district in search of safety and homes.

In April of the next year, one of her properties, the then-vacant cottage at 136 Laidley Street up the hill from the house, was attacked by an arsonist in the early hours of the morning. “Mrs Poole cannot understand why any person should attempt to set fire to her cottage. She says she has no enemies, so far as she knows, and concludes that the arsonist must be insane. She is having the cottage watched over during the night.”[11] Annie was a level-headed, practical woman–the true daughter of an Australian settler.

Money got tight for her family at a certain point, and in 1901 she put the house up for sale, as well as other properties she owned. We get a description of the house as it was then in the newspaper.

SF Examiner, 22 Apr 1901. A description of the Poole-Bell House at that time: Ten rooms, stable, outhouses.
SF Examiner, 22 Apr 1901. A description of the Poole-Bell House at that time: Ten rooms, stable, outhouses.

However, Annie Poole survived these difficult times; the house was not sold, and within a few years, she seemed to get the hang of buying and selling property for the purposes of profit. In 1903, there were dozens of notices of real estate transactions in her name.

In 1905, Poole finally had piped water connected to the house from the Spring Valley Water Company.[12] Previously, like many other people in Fairmount Heights, Sunnyside, and other outlying districts, the household had depended upon wells, with tall windmills to pump water up, and an elevated water tank to store it and create pressure. Hetch Hetchy, San Francisco’s municipally run water supply, was not implemented until 1934.

Getting water connected may have been part of her plan to sell the house. But the late date for installing such a basic amenity indicates something of the household then—self-reliant, isolated, and a bit old-fashioned.

An Urban Retirement

After selling the big drafty house to Teresa Bell in 1906, Poole chose as her retirement home not another lonely hillside heap, but a humble rooming house in the heart of the Mission District, where she rubbed elbows with public school teachers, musicians, motion-picture operators, sales ladies, sheet-metal workers, train engineers, tailors, bookkeepers, and comptometer operators, and their children and aged parents.[13]

In June 1921, at the age of 77, she decided it was time to go home to Australia, and applied for a passport. She did not have a ticket for a ship yet, but said she would travel “as soon as possible.” Perhaps she felt her death was approaching. I have been unable to find whether or not she made the trip, nor where she died. But the passport application gives us a rare treat, a photograph, showing her bright blue eyes, open and direct, and her silver hair, the picture of a kindly old woman.

Annie Poole, about 1920. From a passport application, accessed at Ancestry.com.
Annie Poole, about 1920. From a passport application, accessed at Ancestry.com.

Now to return to Teresa Bell.

Self-Invention in California

Teresa Bell seems to have done much to obscure her origins. She was prone to fantastical stories, and throughout her life lied about many aspects of herself, especially her age. Working from some clues in the Holdredge book about Mary Ellen Pleasant, I managed to dig up some genealogical leads. Teresa was born in Cayuga County, New York, in 1846, to a woman named Bridget Clingan, an Irish immigrant. Her mother also had two other daughters and a son. The family was unstable, and no trace of a father turns up in records. When Teresa was four, her mother found herself in jail for a misdemeanor in Auburn; the four children were taken by other families and separated from each other. By the time of the 1855 New York Census, Bridget was out of jail and back with her son, but her three daughters continued to live with other families and never returned to their mother. Teresa was adopted by a family named Harris.[14]

Teresa’s adoptive father died when she was ten, and instability loomed again. By her own account, she married a man named Hoey, probably sometime in the 1860s. But when she came to California in 1867, she had with her neither the man nor his name, going by Teresa Percy then.[15] Her three siblings did well as adults and kept in close contact throughout their lives with each other; Teresa also had contact with them, especially her sister Kate Clingan Gray. However, her humble origins were a source of shame for her. Later in life she denied being related to the Clingans altogether, even going as far as asking her sister Kate to back up her story (Kate refused).[16] She thought her adoptive family, the Harrises, were a better breed, and sought to prove she was their progeny—and not the child of an Irish single mother who had seen the inside of a jail cell. It was all of a piece with her lifetime preoccupation with status and the money that marked it.

Doing Business on Trust

Before breaking with her in 1899, most of Teresa Bell’s adult life had been entwined with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s. As a young woman of twenty-two, freshly arrived in the city, Teresa met Pleasant in 1868.[17] It was Teresa’s weakness for luxury and disinclination for actual work that provided Pleasant with the Achilles’s heel she needed to use Teresa in her plans. Having recently established a silent partnership with mining financier Thomas Bell, Pleasant groomed Teresa as a wife for him.[18]

Teresa Bell, perhaps 1880s. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Teresa Bell, perhaps 1880s. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Within a few years, Pleasant was flush with money through her many entrepreneurial projects and smart investments. She designed and built a mansion at 1661 Octavia Street, and then engineered a family to fill it. Thomas was in his fifties by then and had shown no interest in marrying thus far, but depended on Pleasant to manage his life and advise him on investments. Teresa, 25 years his junior, was then married to him in 1878 or 1879 at the mansion.

Thomas Bell, undated, Portraits Collection-Bell, Thomas, ca. 1860-1870; California Historical Society
Teresa Bell donated this photograph of Mr Bell to the California Historical Society at an unknown date. Thomas Bell, undated, Portraits Collection-Bell, Thomas, ca. 1860-1870; California Historical Society

All her life Teresa called Thomas ‘Mr Bell’. There’s little evidence she and Thomas actually had a relationship, outside of both being profoundly dependent on Pleasant’s directions management. Teresa’s desire for support and luxury is attested to by her diaries. Thomas did not leave a record of his thoughts on his life; people who knew him say he was fond of children, and that he relished socializing with friends, at least earlier in life. With this arrangement, the fiction of the “Bell Family” was cemented into place, and managed to serve each of their needs–for a while.

Pleasant managed every aspect of the family’s life, later passing for the public eye as a humble black servant, dressing for white eyes as a Southern “mammy.” She brought into the house several children born to other women; in the 1880 US Census, there were three, all of whom predated the marriage; over the next few years four more were added to the household, all presented as products of the Bell marriage. (Read details of the saga of the Bell children here.)

Mary Ellen Pleasant. 1901. Pandex of the Press. Accessed at Archive.org.
Mary Ellen Pleasant. 1901. Pandex of the Press. Accessed at Archive.org.

Teresa Bell complied with Pleasant’s plans, and for her compliance received the wealth and security that went with a place in a prominent man’s family. Pleasant got the superficial appearance of a conventional wealthy family, at least for a while, which allowed her to continue to control many aspects of Thomas’s money. Teresa adhered to the fiction about the children until late in the game, serving as it did her own purposes, a well-financed life of luxury.

Teresa Bell, perhaps late 1870s, about the time of her marriage to Thomas. Altered from an image from San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Teresa Bell, perhaps late 1870s, about the time of her marriage to Thomas. Altered from an image from San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Pleasant became supremely notorious by the end of her life in part because of the degree to which she bent the conventions of societal norms to her own plans; if she had restricted herself to arranging provision for men’s sexual and gustatory needs, she would have shown she knew her place, and then have suffered merely the usual amount of contempt from virtuous society members. But she pushed the envelope way beyond anyone’s imagination, with great confidence in her own capacity to persuade others, to talk or buy her way out of anything, a confidence that was largely justified. But the matter about bringing unrelated children into (and out of) the family of a prominent man pushed public opinion over some sort of red line for respectable members of San Francisco society.

Her manipulations of the uber-rich aside, Pleasant should be remembered for the beneficent work she did on behalf of civil rights in California and elsewhere.[19]

Emotionally Charged Partnership

When Thomas Bell died in 1892 after falling over a balustrade at the Octavia mansion, the finances of the family were revealed as a tangle of Pleasant’s manipulations.[20] Within a few years, Teresa Bell broke from Mary Ellen Pleasant, evicting her from the the Octavia Street house and the Sonoma ranch; it was the end of a long, fraught relationship that had been “central to their lives in every conceivable way: emotionally, financially, and socially.”[21] Together, for twenty years, they had raised the Bell children, and overseen the family’s Sonoma ranch and Octavia Street mansion, and managed the aging Thomas. When Bell found Pleasant had drained off the estate’s money, it seemed to tip her over into action. It cannot be the first time Bell was aware of Pleasant’s machinations, but seeing the arrangement that had meant her survival for the previous two decades now crumbling, she had apparently reached the end of her willingness to comply. Bell wrote in her diary:

“Mary E Pleasant has been my evil genius since the first day I saw her. She has simply had me for a pocket book to help have a standing which otherwise she could not have reached. A demon from first to last.”[22]

When Bell bought the house on Laidley Street in 1906, it had been years since she had seen Pleasant, who died in 1904. But during the time she lived there, she periodically wrote about Pleasant in her diaries. These passages have the enraged affect of someone traumatized by past events, full of resentment, and still trying to make sense of her own compliance in and responsibility for what happened to her.[23]

In this sense, a ghost of Mary Ellen Pleasant had taken up permanent residence in Bell’s head, and thus came with her to the Laidley house. There was never any factual truth in the claim that Pleasant bought it or lived there, let alone operated a prostitution business there. Still, the lore that clung to the house for many years reflects the shadow of an emotional truth—at least for Bell herself.

Self-Exile in Fairmount

After Bell broke with Pleasant and left the Octavia Street mansion, she lived on Sutter Street for a while, and then bought the house on Laidley Street in October 1906.[24] Her purchase took place soon after she signed a lucrative lease of the Octavia property for a hotel, something post-Quake San Francisco was in dire need of. So by then she had some liquidity. This was just the beginning of Bell’s career managing her finances and rebuilding the dwindling fortune she had been left by her aged and addled husband. For the next eleven years she would live in Fairmount with two aged servants, Ellen Calder and William (‘Blind Billy’) Tomlinson. Furniture from the ponderous mansion on Octavia was moved to the smaller house on Laidley, although much had to be left behind—and fought over later.[25]  

A Home at Last

Teresa Bell about the time she lived at the Poole-Bell House. SF Examiner, 8 Dec 1922.
Teresa Bell about the time she lived at the Poole-Bell House. SF Examiner, 8 Dec 1922.

When she moved in on the first Wednesday in October, Bell christened the house “Casita Belmira,” and wrote that she hoped she could finally make a home for herself there, the first that was her very own.[26] Naming things was something she learned from Pleasant, who had called the Sonoma Ranch they shared ‘Beltane’; Bell had a favorite horse at the ranch called ‘Geneva’, named for Pleasant’s first country place, Geneva Cottage, which itself had been given a rather grand name by Pleasant, given it was a glorified shack.[27]

After Bell’s belongings were moved in and she had been working for three days to get things arranged, she wrote:

“I am about as tired as is possible to be….Tonight sat on the front steps until 9 PM, the night was fine and the view of the City by gaslight very attractive.”[28]

In later months, she took pleasure in working in the garden, cooking, and getting many things in the old house fixed up, as her finances allowed. Details of running the house fill the pages of her diaries; her other great preoccupation is the Bell estate, and the frequent conversations with her lawyer, TZ Blakeman, about managing the money. Later during the battle over her will, she was posthumously accused of taking laudanum and drinking brandy to excess, but honestly, to this observer, it is entirely unclear when she could have fit in such dissipated activities.

A year after moving in, on 8 November 1907, Bell wrote:

“The two tons of coal came. This is my birthday. It’s so long since I remember it before. I might as well forget it now—there were no bouquets or presents for me, nor have there been any since Mr Bell died—all the crew I know think of is trying to coax or bully something from me.”

She turned 61 that day.[29] She always called her husband ‘Mr Bell.’

There is a hefty sprinkling of entries in which she simply says, “No once called,” by which she may or may not be lamenting her lonely sojourn out in the Fairmount district. Other times she delights in being left alone in the house, as on one Sunday when Blind Billy went to church and Ellen went “out to find some razzle dazzle.”[30]

A reporter who visited later wrote, “Mrs Bell lives alone with two or three servants in a big gloomy house at 198 Laidley Street, which she purchased after the fire. A few traces of her one-time wealth and refinement are still to be seen, but nearly all of her best possessions of early days have vanished.”[31]

This was an exaggeration, and missed the poignancy of her desire to make a home for herself, by herself, after decades of being other people’s toy. As well, it seems that many of the Bell household possessions did come to Laidley Street, as we’ll see.

Gilded Angels and Mountains of Furniture

To understand what the property was like when Bell bought it in 1906, I turn to descriptions given in the interviews that Helen Holdredge did in the course of her research for her books about Mary Ellen Pleasant, contained in the collection of materials under her name at the San Francisco History Center. The sources are not entirely reliable, but something of the truth may be gleaned.

At that point the house did not yet have its top floor.[32] Behind the house there was a large stable on the Miguel Street side, which had a windmill on it, used to pump up water from a well on that side of the property. The water tank there is marked with a circle inside a square on the Sanborn map.

There was another well and windmill lower down the hill, near the octagonal lath summerhouse. Although Poole had had piped water put in in 1905, the wells were left in place; even as late as 1923, after Bell’s estate had sold the property, these wells were not filled in.[33] There were many pine trees located on the south side of the property, called ‘cypress’ trees in one recollection.[34]

1900 Sanborn map, sheet 692, Shpowing the Poole-Bell House at that time, two-stories with a lathe summerhouse and well on the north, a hen house and stable on Miguel St the west. Library of Congress.
1900 Sanborn map, sheet 692, Showing the Poole-Bell House at that time, then two stories over basement, with a lathe summerhouse and well on the north, a hen house and stable on Miguel Street, southwest of the house. Library of Congress.

Inside the house, Teresa Bell had a great deal of heavy Victorian furniture. A favorite motif was gilt angels—carved ones covered in gold leaf decorated her enormous bed, which was covered “with gold silk damask.”[35] One item commented on by several reports was a huge heavy desk for which Thomas Bell purportedly paid $7,500 (or $10,000 according to another account), a large sum in the late nineteenth century.[36] This would have been where Teresa Bell conducted her business during these years, and wrote her infamous handwritten will in 1910 (more on which later).

When Bell moved away in late 1917, she left many pieces of furniture behind, some of which were sold for the paltry sum of $300.[37] Much was still left at the Laidley house; the son of the next family who moved in later described the house as being twenty-one rooms “solidly packed with furniture, some of it just piled up.”[38]

A Familiar Silhouette

The primary change that Bell made to the property was the addition of a third story. The addition can be dated to between Bell’s purchase of the house and about 1910; on the 1905 Sanborn Insurance map, the house is marked as a two-story structure over a basement; a photograph, dated about 1910, shows the house in the distance, with its top story in place.

Permits on file with the city’s Dept of Building Inspection indicate Bell did other work as well during her ownership. [39] In her diaries, there are some accounts of work done on the house between 1906 and 1908, although the details are thin.[40]

The interesting thing about the big change she made, adding the third story behind a mansard roofline, is that it made the Poole-Bell House look a great deal more like the original Bell mansion on Octavia Street, designed by Mary Ellen Pleasant.

It is as though Bell was still in dialogue with Pleasant, born of a lifetime of being under her control; as though she is saying:

Look, I’ve made a mansion of my very own, and it’s got a grand name; See, I can run things myself, without you.

Neighbors and Friends

Bell’s wealth and eccentricities were a source of enmity for neighbors. One woman, who lived at the top of the hill on Fairmount Street, was interviewed by Holdredge. She recalled Bell as having “a crooked little finger, and when she raised her hand to beckon me I would shutter for there was something sinister in that crooked finger and something even more terrifying in Teresa Bell’s strange eyes. I must confess, I was very much afraid of her.” She also claimed that Bell “held spiritualistic parties in the attic [i.e. top floor]….They walked about the attic carrying lighted candles and sang loudly, and were probably drunk, from the noise they made.” [41]

Despite the suspicions she generated in some neighbors, Bell made a few friends while she lived on Laidley Street. In her will, she bequeathed $500 each to two woman who lived nearby: Mrs Anne Southern, who lived at 8 Bemis, and Mrs Vina Dyer, who lived across the street at 177 Laidley, a house that was built just after Bell moved in.[42] Both women were of Bell’s generation. Bell’s diaries record that she made many shopping trips to Hales Department Store in the Mission with Mrs Southern, inviting her to lunch after, often serving a dish that Bell seems to have considered the apex of fine hospitality, an “oyster loaf.”[43]

The Trials of the Fairmount Years

Of publicly embarrassing years, Bell had many. Her years at the Laidley house encompassed two separate, parallel streams: her brilliant revival of the family fortune, and a string of public scandals. This odd coupling of spite-filled family battles with her steady, practical management of finances leaves a legacy for her that cannot quite be reconciled. Was she insane, or ingenious?

One thing Bell did in the house that became the stuff of legend and headline after her death was to write, in longhand, her own will on 7 June 1910—without witnesses or legal advice. In it she repudiated all the Bell children.

Teresa Bell's handwritten will from June 1907, written at the Poole-Bell House. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
Teresa Bell’s handwritten will from June 1907, written at the Poole-Bell House. The Holdredge Collection. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

I imagine her sitting in the front room at the enormous desk Thomas had bought years ago, looking over the city stretched out to the Bay before her, and scratching out some sort of settling of accounts on expensive paper. After a lifetime based on lies, she wanted some form of resolution—or absolution—for herself. She took the time to compose a poem to cover the document.[44]

Perhaps in some one great heroic act
The soul its own redemption may attract,
And thus from sin and shame swift fly,
Made fit and ready to meet the Eternal eye,
Oh to live until all is dead within us
but ambition, and that live to mock us!

In this will, she denied maternity of any of her children, saying she had nothing to do with them or naming them, and that Pleasant had arranged their baptisms and, by producing children for Thomas, had extorted money from him. She portrays herself as Pleasant’s victim, adding, “But even after I learned the true history of the said Bells [i.e. the children] I did not turn against them, but tried to help them make good. But blood will tell and I had to leave them to their ways.”[45]

For the decades she lived in Pleasant’s household, Bell was deferential to her will and resigned to submit to her plans, and had accepted the introduction of multiple unrelated children into the house without objection. The two women shared mutual objectives—the pacification of Thomas and the management of his fortunes to benefit them both—and they worked together in an uneasy partnership. But later Bell would not continue to support the lie about her maternity, no matter who was harmed in the process. She had to reckon with her complicity in this shocking enterprise, and chose a narrative that blamed Pleasant, and so she could “thus from sin and shame swift fly.”

In her diary in 1908, she records this succinct assessment of her relationship to the Bell children.

“If I made a mistake or wrong in helping on the deception that I was their mother, they have made me pay dear for it.”[46]

They did indeed make her “pay dear” for the deception, even long after her death.

Anni Horribiles

The years on Laidley Street were trying ones for Bell. Her son Fred had been an embarrassment for years, “a well-known character in the Old Tenderloin before the Fire” who often got arrested for public drunkenness.[47] He was prone to stunts like going to Alaska to “find fortune” and making a big stink in the newspapers when he ran out of money.[48] And the papers lapped it up, because he was a Bell. He never seemed to have enough money, and always thought he was due more.

Fred married a woman named Bessie, a well-regarded public school teacher, but they had big public fights. The only time he served jail time for his exploits was once when he slapped Bessie in public, then pursued her to her home (they lived apart) and attempted to break in.[49] He was getting to his mid-thirties, and his peccadilloes no longer looked like boyish exploits. He drove her to desperation with his neglect, and when she took to drinking, it was she who was then in the newspapers for her public drunken rampages. Five weeks after Bell wrote her will in 1910, Bessie was arrested for threatening her fellow residents at an apartment building with a butcher knife.[50]

Within two years, Bessie was dead. Teresa Bell publicly insinuated that her own son conspired to kill his wife for her money.[51] Fred had put Bessie into a sanatorium in April 1912, ostensibly to cure her of her self-destructive and publicly embarrassing drinking habit. There she died of alcohol poisoning in July—hardly the outcome one would hope for in an institution devoted to recovery. Before she died, Bessie signed over a large amount of money to her husband. Before being committed, Bessie had told friends that she feared her husband was after her money and would do away with her.[52]

A San Francisco Call reporter visited the Laidley Street house on 11 July 1912, and Bell consented to be interviewed, telling him: “Scarcely two weeks…before she disappeared, Fred’s wife told me she would never under any circumstance sign a paper relinquishing her right to the property. So when she left mysteriously and I heard she was detained somewhere, I concluded that she was being held a prisoner by her husband. I set about to find her, and in June I discovered where she was. I tried to see her, but was denied the privilege of entering her room, I do not say that Fred Bell poisoned his wife, but I do say that I believe he caused her to become addicted to the drink habit in the hope that he could get her to sign the property over to him. He had been trying for a long time to get it.”[53] No love lost there.

Brandy and Laudanum, or Bonds and Leverage?

Simultaneous with these scandals was the period when she took command of her finances and rebuilt a fortune. Part of the resultant wealth was born of luck: huge tracts of land her husband had purchased years before in Southern California became the site of oil fields, at just the moment when the country was building the first mass-produced automobiles. On the cusp of a century hungry for petroleum, the Bell estate held lands that investors badly wanted. She managed the sales so as to maximize her profits, taking her time to sell pieces over years.[54]

After Bell moved to the Laidley house, the estate of Thomas Bell had been settled to some extent, and she had more control of her money, and she began to sell the oil-rich property in the Santa Maria Valley. In 1908, a detailed SF Chronicle article about the estate praised Teresa Bell’s “careful and skillful management” of the insolvent estate she inherited from her husband.

“The administratrix, with the aid of her attorney, has finally brought the estate to the condition that it will pay all of its creditors and leave something substantial for the heirs.…All of this the lawyers and the creditors say speaks volumes for the business ability and acumen of the Widow Bell.”[55]

There was nothing the city loved better than someone who showed themselves to be good with money; it could erase a multitude of past sins.

In these years at the house, sitting at the same desk where she wrote her vicious will, she also reviewed financial and property information, and made responsible, consequential decisions. “She was known to be a very methodical person,” observed a lawyer who knew her.[56] When her will was contested by her children, the case “set forth in detail how [Bell] met current debts, sold properties, collected money, and made numerous disbursements.”[57] Another lawyer said Bell was “interested in good bonds, a keen business-like guardian of estate property, and a defender of her rights in litigation through the courts.”[58]

Despite what she thought of her children, including that she did not consider them her own, she steadfastly paid out their shares in the Bell estate during the years at the Laidley Street house. “The first distribution was in 1909, and there were two partial distributions in 1910, 1911, and 1912, three in 1913, one in 1914, and the final settlement in 1917.”[59] 

Teresa Bell in later life. She was said to ride around the Sonoma Ranch on a horse as well. SF Chronicle, 21 Aug 1922.
Teresa Bell in later life. She was said to ride around the Sonoma Ranch on a horse as well. SF Chronicle, 21 Aug 1922.

Later, to prove her insanity, witnesses were brought forth who testified that Bell was prone to some odd thoughts, such as that spirits advised her on her financial affairs, that she could float, and that there was a special “electric” rock on the ranch property in Sonoma. It was said she drank five brandies a day and that in her house the “wine flowed freely.” Her rents collector testified that Bell rode on horseback about the ranch with an ornate nine-inch dagger at her side, and described how she had a kind of dual personality, changing quickly from a “sweet and motherly” woman into someone capable of slugging her beloved faithful servant Blind Billy to the ground.[60]

The cumulative conclusion in the face of these and other reports is that she could certainly be an imperious, willful, hurtful, even abusive person; these stories were used after her death in 1922 to undermine the will she made which cut off the Bell children.

Time to Leave Fairmount

In June 1917, the final disbursements from the estate of Thomas Bell were made, and in October the “House of Mystery” on Octavia Street was sold.[61] Teresa was a wealthy woman with liquid assets. She promptly purchased a big mansion on Buchanan Street that had been built by the Bogart family, for $25,000—a “magnificent home.” Certainly a finer place than the house on Laidley Street where she’d been in a kind of exile for eleven years. Now she could live back amongst respectable society in the heart of the city. It was located on the corner of Page, with “splendid lawns…one of the most attractive in this portion of the city.”[62] The house is now gone, but the lot is now Koshland Community Park.

1858. The mansion at 350 Buchanan, where Teresa Bell died in 1922. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
1858. The mansion at 350 Buchanan, where Teresa Bell died in 1922. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

Bell moved out of the Poole-Bell House at the end of 1917 to her new pile on Buchanan Street. She was too savvy a manager of her assets to allow the house on Laidley to be vacant; it was rented out for a few years to a Black family named Tyrrel, until it was sold by her estate after her death. Teresa Bell died at her Buchanan Street house in August 1922.

The will she wrote while living at the Poole-Bell House, cutting off the Bell children, was challenged after her death, and a jury declared her insane, a process that involved raking out stories of her talking to birds at Beltane and holding séances. Viola Smith Bell reappeared, the child who had been evicted from the household when she was about twelve, asking for her share, but was ultimately cut out.[63] (More about the children here.)

The Legacy of Two Widows

Annie Poole and Teresa Bell, two widows who shared much and yet diverged widely, both left their marks on the Poole-Bell House. Now well cared for, this remarkable petite San Francisco Stick/Eastlake-style mansion still stands, a local landmark in the Fairmount district. Its construction in 1887 happened at a time when the neighborhood was thought to have the potential for many more grand homesteads to house the well-heeled and prominent citizens of the city—before the area became built up, the large lots subdivided, and the teaming post-Quake middle-class families filled out the blocks instead.

Teresa Bell moved out to this relatively unknown area as a breather in her career as a widow resuscitating a flagging but famous fortune. She altered the structure, giving it a more stately appearance, and leaving a trail of stories behind her, before her return to a more established neighborhood in the heart of the city.

Bell’s tenancy at the Poole-Bell House brought the legacy of Mary Ellen Pleasant out to this district, and all the scandalous stories that surrounded that remarkable figure of San Francisco legend, despite the fact that Pleasant never lived there, and by then was already dead.


Read more about the place Mary Ellen Pleasant actually lived in south-central San Francisco here.

Read more about the myths surrounding the Poole-Bell House here.


Many thanks to local historian Kathleen Laderman for her help with research on this piece.


ENDNOTES

  1. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated 1 Oct 1906. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  2. As per original ledgers of transported convicts accessed on Ancestry.com, matched with marriage and birth records for the family members.
  3. John P Poole was first listed as a deputy clerk for the district court in San Francisco in 1872 (SF Examiner, 30 May 1872). Then as a notary in a newspaper notice in 1887 (Sacramento Bee, 6 Apr 1887, p3) but I believe the appointment happened earlier. He first appears as a clerk for the State Supreme Court in a notice in 1877 (Sacramento Bee, 6 March 1877).
  4. The 1880 US Census says Minnie Poole was twelve years old, i.e. born in 1868c; later, when she was in her thirties, she said she was born in 1870. I did not find the family in the 1870 US Census. I tend to believe parents when they report their children’s ages, not an unmarried woman in this era, who can, after she has reached a certain age, be frequently disposed to shaving a few years off, even to a census taker. The adopted daughter Emily was included on the 1900 US Census, taken when Annie and her two daughters were living at the house on Laidley Street. Citation: Year: 1900; Census Place: San Francisco, San Francisco, California; Page: 7; Enumeration District: 0140; FHL microfilm: 1240103
  5. The first address listing for the Poole family in Fairmount in the 1881 San Francisco Directory is simply stated as the west side of Chenery Street, near Fairmount Tract. The following year it says Chenery near Roanoke, a designation that remained the case through 1886. This type of approximate address listing was common then in Fairmount, before house numbers were fixed. I have been unable to pinpoint the Chenery Street house where the family lived from 1881 to 1886. For our purposes, these listings establish that the Pooles lived in Fairmount, but had not yet built the house on Laidley Street. Much of their property investments in Fairmount were in the form of large lots of the original 50 x 100 foot size. All were on the hillside portion of the district, all residential properties, and none near the railroad tracks that bounded the district on the east. The newspaper real estate notices 1895-1905 show Annie was as shrewd an investor as John; after his death she continued to buy and sell property there with enthusiasm and with good profits.
  6. I believe the construction date for the Poole-Bell House is 1887. The supposed date of 1872 for the house was first published in the book Here Today: San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage, published by The Junior League of San Francisco, Inc. in 1968. This date is without doubt not even close to the true year, despite being associated with the house for almost fifty years. The 1886 Sanborn Insurance map does not yet show the house. In August 1888 John Poole registered to vote and gave Laidley as his street. This is the first evidence in print I find for the existence of the house. There are two suggestive pieces of evidence in addition to the voter’s register that take the form of financial transactions; in October 1886, Poole had mortgaged the Laidley lots for one year, and then did so again in August 1887 for three years—likely in order to raise the capital to build the house. (SF Examiner, 15 Oct 1886, p6; and SF Examiner, 28 Aug 1887, p7). The 1900 Sanborn Insurance map indicates that it was originally built as a two-story structure; Teresa Bell later added the third story, as I detail in a later section of this article.
  7. It was related to me by one of the present residents in the house that the fact that the orientation of the structure puts one corner of the house precisely due north indicates that it may have been built with Masonic construction techniques. I was not able to confirm this by research, but Poole would very likely have been invited to join the Freemasons, given his prominent position in San Francisco and his associations with well-placed men in government. If he favored building techniques tinted with supernatural significance, then his choice of placement at the center of the district may also have been important to him.
  8. In the 1890s, the SF Directory listings say “NW Corner, Laidley and Fairmount.” The first instance of the address 198 Laidley in print that I found is a newspaper classified ad in 1896 (SF Examiner, 5 Feb 1896), after John’s death; Annie was selling one of their numerous properties in the district. The change in numbering that removed “198” from the house happened when another house was built next to it in the 1980s, which needed the number 198. The four units in the Poole-Bell House now have the numbers 196, 194, and 192 Laidley, and 97 Miguel for the top unit that is accessed from a door on Miguel Street.
  9. SF Call, 2 Mar 1895, p5.
  10. A reference to Poole hanging himself from a tree in the front yard at the Laidley Street house surfaced in one of the interviews in the Holdredge Collection at the SF History Center, but this seems too dramatic a gesture for a man of his propriety. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, interview with Joseph Saraceni, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Saraceni, whose father bought the house from the Bell estate in 1923, states the story about Poole hanging himself on the tree as a matter of fact. However, the interview is a mixture of fact and sensational fiction, and I can’t assess the credibility of the story at this point in time.
  11. “The Mysterious Woman in White Walks the Mission with Kerosene…” SF Examiner, 6 Apr 1896, p1.
  12. Spring Valley Water Company water tap records, entry for 198 Laidley Street for 9 Jan 1905. Accessed at Archive.org
  13. As per US Census data for 1910 and 1920 for Annie Poole.
  14. Genealogical information for four Clingan siblings:
    Mary Jane Clingan Potter Norton Sewall (1841 NY – 1833 CA)

    • Mary Jane ‘Cingham’ with adoptive family Shehan. 1850 United States Federal Census. Year: 1850; Census Place: Auburn Ward 2, Cayuga, New York; Roll: 482; Page: 239a.
    • Mary J ‘Cinyan’ with adoptive family Potter. New York, State Census, 1855. New Paltz, Ulster, New York, USA. Household Number 306. Line Number 3.
    • Mary J ‘Cingham’ with adoptive family Potter. 1860 United States Federal Census. Year: 1860; Census Place: New Paltz, Ulster, New York; Page: 21.
    • Mary Norton, now married to Benjamin Norton, with son Charles C, just born. New York, U.S., State Census, 1865. New Paltz, Ulster, New York, USA, District 01, Line Number 39, Page number 46.
    • Mary Norton, with two sons, Charles and Edward. 1870 United States Federal Census. Year: 1870; Census Place: New Paltz, Ulster, New York; Roll: M593_1107; Page: 7B.
    • Mary Norton, servant; Her sons are living with her sister Kate Gray. 1880 United States Federal Census. . Year: 1880; Census Place: El Monte, Los Angeles, California; Roll: 67; Page: 430C; Enumeration District: 034.
    • Later married a man named Sewall

    Katherine Clingan Chappell (1845 NY-1932 CA)

    • Katherine ‘Clemon’ with adoptive family Chappell. “United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DZ4W-S1X?cc=1401638&wc=95RS-4WB%3A1031313801%2C1033342201%2C1033361901 : 9 April 2016), New York > Cayuga > Auburn county, ward 2 > image 40 of 48; citing NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
    • Kate Chappel, with adoptive family. New York, State Census, 1855. Auburn, Ward 2, Cayuga, New York, USA, Household Number 295, Line Number 15, Sheet Number 36
    • Catherin Chappell, with adoptive family. 1860 United States Federal Census. Year: 1860; Census Place: New York Ward 22 District 1, New York, New York; Page: 86
    • Kate Gray with husband F Edward Gray. 1870 United States Federal Census. Year: 1870; Census Place: Springfield Ward 1, Hampden, Massachusetts; Roll: M593_618; Page: 25A
    • Kate Gray in Southern California. Her sister’s two sons are living with her and husband Edward Gray.  1880 United States Federal Census. Year: 1880; Census Place: El Monte, Los Angeles, California; Roll: 67; Page: 430C; Enumeration District: 034.

    .
    Teresa Clingan Harris Hoey Bell (1846 NY – 1922 CA)

    • Teresa Harris, with adoptive family, Wessel and Elmina Harris. “New York State Census, 1855,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K6S6-YM8 : 3 March 2021), Teresa Harris in household of Wessel Harris, Sennett, Cayuga, New York, United States; citing p. , line #5, family #317, county clerk offices, New York; FHL microfilm 1,435,219.
    • Wessel Harris’s accidental death on 7 Jun 1856. Buffalo Morning Express (Buffalo NY), 11 Jun 1856, p3.
    • Terressa Harris, with adoptive mother Almina Harris. “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MC7G-Y9M : 18 February 2021), Terressa Harris in entry for Almira Harris, 1860.

    .
    John Clingan (1848 NY – <1900?)

    • John ‘Clinger’, with mother Bridget. New York, State Census, 1855. Brutus, Cayuga, New York, USA, District E.D. 1, Household Number 63, Line Number 26, Sheet Number 7
    • John ‘Clingin’, with sister Kate Gray in Springfield MA (see citation above).
    • John ‘Clinkon’, 1880 US Census, “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MZNW-11W : 19 February 2021), John Clinkon, New Paltz, Ulster, New York, United States; citing enumeration district ED 140, sheet 413D, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,254,939.

    Despite claiming that she was born to Mrs Harris, courtroom testimony after Teresa Bell’s death attested to her birth to a Mrs Clingan in Auburn NY: SF Examiner, 3 Dec 1922, p16; SF Chronicle, 8 Dec 1922, p3; and SF Chronicle, 4 Jan 1923, p13.

    My thanks to Kathleen Laderman for her help in sorting out the genealogical data for Teresa Bell and her family.

  15. Teresa was listed in the SF Directories as Teresa Percy from 1867 until Pleasant put her in the directory as “Mrs Theresa Bell” in Feb 1878, *before* the marriage to Thomas. In 1897, Teresa Bell testified in court that when she married Thomas in 1878 she was a widow with the name Teresa Percy Hoey (SF Examiner, 16 Sep 1897, p14). However, ‘Hoey’ is not a name she ever used in print in California, not in the news, the directories, legal transactions, etc. Holdredge tells the story of Teresa trying to escape from the abusive Hoey, the reason for her decamping to California; it was a story that well served Holdredge’s dramatic tale, which ends with Pleasant goading Teresa onto murdering Hoey in 1872, an unsubstantiated and unsubstantiate-able yarn.
  16. Kate as an old woman recalled “that she and Mrs Bell came to California at one time on the first Overland train to make the journey to the Pacific,” which make contain truth, but the date for each of their arrivals in the state don’t match that particular trip in 1869 (SF Chronicle, 11 Dec 1922). Teresa denied being a Clingan while testifying about her origins and history, and denying that she had given birth to two of the Bell children (SF Examiner, 16 Sep 1897, p14). Mary Ellen Pleasant, however, wisely chose to conduct business for Teresa in her maiden name (see Note 17 below). No one in San Francisco much cared, but the matter became obsessional for Teresa at the end of her life. According to her sister Kate Gray, during the years that Teresa was living at the Laidley Street house, she “declared that she could not die until she was sure she could be proved Harris’ daughter.” (SF Chronicle, 8 Dec 1922, p3.)
  17. Teresa Percy is listed in the SF Directory first in September 1867. In June 1868 there is an entry in the General Index for Teresa “Clinghen”, her maiden name, likely to be the purchase of a house on Tehama Street, which according to Helen Holdredge was the first house that Pleasant bought for Teresa. 19 Jun 1868, deed from Ole Bergson to Teresa “Clinghen”: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9567-QZP?cc=1402856&wc=319Y-FMS%3A20726201%2C41387901 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 051, 1868 > image 9 of 318; San Francisco Public Library, California. I surmise this is the house on Tehama, because Teresa Percy is listed there in the October 1868 SF Directory, and as an owner “Theresa Clingham” is subsequently assessed for sidewalk construction on that block (SF Examiner, 16 Feb 1872, p2). Pleasant buys Teresa another grander house the following year; the next entry for Teresa Clingan is in Dec 1869, for a house at 719 Sutter Street. Edmonston had been living at the house for some years before according to the SF Directory. 11 Dec 1869, Deed from BB Edmonston to Teresa Clingan: “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9567-HXB?cc=1402856&wc=319L-44C%3A20726201%2C41441801 : 20 May 2014), Land and Property Records > General Index, Vol. 061, 1869-1870 > image 72 of 281; San Francisco Public Library, California.
  18. Although Helen Holdredge’s “biography” of Mary Ellen Pleasant is mostly a racist slander, it does contains some bits of research that I find credible, as the book has some basis in Holdredge’s interviews conducted in the forties and fifties. The date of 1868 or so for when Pleasant and Thomas Bell began working together to make money aligns with upturns in both their careers. For more about Mary Ellen Pleasant, see my article about Geneva Cottage and for a complete account, read the excellent book, The Making of “Mammy” Pleasant, by Lynn M Hudson (2003) or the entry for Pleasant in Wikipedia.
  19. Read more about Pleasant’s life and career beyond her relationship with Bell in Lynn Hudson’s book The Making of “Mammy” Pleasant (2003), including about her work on behalf of abolitionist John Brown and her landmark 1866 California Supreme Court case for public accommodation on transit. The Wikipedia article about Pleasant relies a great deal on secondary sources and magazine features, but is a good summary of her life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ellen_Pleasant
  20. “Widow Tells Story: Bell ‘Mystery’ Kept Fresh by Suit,” SF Call, 28 Jul 1912.
  21. Hudson, p90.
  22. Quoted in Hudson, p90.
  23. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diaries dated 1906-1908. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Bell is not a reliable chronicler of the Bell family history; it is the affective qualities of her entries that I am characterizing, and the persistence of her anger.
  24. “Real Estate Transactions,” SF Call, 4 Oct 1906, p15.
  25. “’House of Mystery’ Furniture in Dispute,” SF Examiner, 27 Aug 1919, p13.
  26. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated 3 Oct 1906. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  27. Geneva mentioned as Bell’s “favorite horse” in Holdredge, p292.
  28. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated 6 Oct 1906. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  29. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated 8 Nov 1907. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Going by census data from Bell’s childhood, when parents are unlikely to wrongly record a child’s age, along with this recognition of the date by her in the diary, I put Bell’s birthdate at 8 November 1846.
  30. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated 5 Jul 1908. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
  31. “Widow Tells Story: Bell ‘Mystery’ Kept Fresh by Suit,” SF Call, 28 Jul 1912.
  32. One account was taken from an elderly neighbor by the photographer that Holdredge hired to photograph the house in the 1950s, Russell Leake. It told of how the original roof had a wrought iron fence at the top as decoration. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 25, Letter from Russell Leake dated 7 Nov 1957. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. I think it is likely that the first roofline looked like the building at 1498 Dolores Street, which was built about the same time; the false-front roofline there hides a shallow pitched roof behind the short vertical front, visible from above on Google satellite view.
  33. According to the son of the owner who bought it from the Bell Estate in 1923. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, interview with Joseph Saracini, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  34. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 25, Letter from Russell Leake dated 7 Nov 1957. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  35. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, interview with Joseph Saracini, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  36. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 25, Letter from Russell Leake dated 7 Nov 1957. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Also Box 4, Folder 26, TV Script from KCBS, Jim Grady “This is San Francisco: House on Laidley Street,” 22 Dec 1953.
  37. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, interview with Joseph Saraceni, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Also Box 4, Folder 26, TV Script from KCBS, Jim Grady “This is San Francisco: House on Laidley Street,” 22 Dec 1953. Some of this information about furniture comes from Saraceni, who also asserted that Bell built the notorious closet with the trap door for unwanted guests, so these are secondhand stories at best.
  38. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, interview with Joseph Saracini, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  39. According to the permits on file, in June 1908, Bell installed a retaining wall and six flights of steps on the steep hillside behind the house, thus making it a more usable space. In February 1912, Bell applied for a permit to “Alter 9 windows on the 3rd floor so that [unreadable word] will be 20” lower than it is at present.” This permit indicates that by this point the third floor had been added. Thank you to Gayle Laird for allowing me to review a complete file of these permits.
  40. There is work on the roof in 1907, but precisely what was done is not recorded. She hired a carpenter in December 1907, after much haggling, who proceeded to work “downstairs” and in the garden over the next few months, while plasterers and plumbers were also at work in the house. She had a new mantel installed on the fireplace, and cement retaining walls in the garden, as well as unspecified work on the roof and porch. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diaries dated between October 1906 and September 1908. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  41. Holdredge Collection, Box 4, Folder 24, interview with Katherine MacDonald, undated. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  42. “Bell Fortune Entangled in New Mystery,” SF Examiner 16 Aug 1922, p4.
  43. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated 21 Jan 1908. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. She also served the oyster loaf to the Wilkinson family when they visited 25 Nov 1906.
  44. “Bell Fortune Entangled in New Mystery,” SF Examiner 16 Aug 1922, p1, 4.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Holdredge Collection, Teresa Bell’s diary dated September 1908. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  47. SF Call, 8 Feb 1908, p3; and SF Call, 7 Mar 1900, p7.
  48. “Son of ‘Tom’ Bell Penniless and Starving,” SF Examiner, p2.
  49. SF Chronicle, 11 Feb 1908, p16.
  50. “Mrs Bell Arrested for Scaring Roomers,” SF Chronicle, 13 Jul 1910, p5.
  51. “Will Hold Inquest over Body of Mrs Fred Bell,” SF Chronicle, 12 Jul 1012, p12; “Fred Bell not Worried about Poison Theory,” SF Call, 12 Jul1912, p2.
  52. “Bessie Bell Feared her Husband,” SF Call, 12 Jul 1912, p1.
  53. “Bessie Bell Feared her Husband,” SF Call, 12 Jul 1912, p2.
  54. Relevant articles over the years in question: “New Phase in the Bell Estate: Sale of Valuable Oil Lands Will Add Materially to Its Value,” SF Chronicle, 15 Aug 1907, p16; “Bell Litigation Finally Closed,” Santa Maria Times, 20 Jun 1908, “Twelve years of litigation involving 14,000 acres of rich agricultural and oil lands in the Los Alamos rancho belonging to the Thomas Bell estate ended last Monday”; “Widow is opposed by Thomas Bell’s Creditors,” SF Call, 12 Mar 1909, p11; “This estate was increased several hundred thousand dollars in value by the sale of Santa Barbara oil lands last year”, “Another Rich Strike,” SF Call, 4 Jan 1912, p5; “San Franciscans Will Open Gusher in South: Flow of 2000 Barrels Daily is Expected to Follow,” SF Call, 8 Jan 1908, p6; “Two Million Dollars Paid for Oil Lands,” Los Angeles Times, 5 Jun 1912, p25, Purchase of 2,000 acres of Teresa Bell’s property in Santa Barbara.
  55. “Rehabilitates the Bell Estate: The Widow Proves an Excellent Administratrix of the Properties,” SF Chronicle, 16 Feb 1908, p28.
  56. “Bell Mystery May Be Ended,” SF Examiner, 15 Nov 1922, p6.
  57. “Defense Made of Competency of Teresa Bell,” SF Chronicle, 25 Nov 1922, p3.
  58. “Sonoma Ranch Figures in Contest,” Santa Rosa Republican, 5 Jan 1923, p1.
  59. “Defense Made of Competency of Teresa Bell,” SF Chronicle, 25 Nov 1922, p3.
  60. “Bell Contest Stirs Anew Weird Tales,” SF Examiner, 4 Jan 1923, p11.
  61. “Thomas Bell Estate Finally Distributed,” SF Examiner, 10 Jun 1917; and “Mystery House Memories Stirred by Sale,” SF Chronicle, 10 Oct 1917.
  62. “Mrs Bell Purchases Bogart Residence,” SF Examiner, 23 Dec 1917, p18.
  63. “Heirs [that] Mother Disowned to Share Estate,” SF Chronicle, 19 Jan 1923.

 

2 thoughts on “The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name”

    1. Hm there were a few unwanted children in the city in these years. To MEP’s credit she tried to find homes for many. But, you know, “No good deed…”

      I haven’t given it enough room I think. MEP talks about doing this in an article, SF Call 29 Dec 1901 p4: “What’s given to you is yours…Well I had this little girl given to me to bring up…the Bells took the child and money and me and gave the child their name…but when she finished at the convent Mrs Bell didn’t want her to come home…So I found the girl another place in another family…”

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