Teresa Bell and the Bell Children

An addendum to the main article “The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name.”

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

The tale of the children of the Bell household is a sad story, and a testament to the compliance of Teresa Bell and the machinations of Mary Ellen Pleasant. [1] Bell didn’t give birth to them, and yet they shaped much of her life and her legacy after her death.

Thomas Bell married Teresa Clingan Harris aka Teresa Percy in 1878 or 1879, a union engineered by Pleasant and assented to by Teresa.[2] By 1880, the US Census shows them living at Pleasant’s Octavia Street mansion.[3] There are three children, Viola, age six, Fred, age five, and Marie, age four; they are all older than the Bell union. Pleasant had brought them into the household, telling both Thomas and Teresa that they were Thomas’s progeny by other women. Teresa accepted the children and went along with the fiction that made their presence in the household legitimate.

Four more children were introduced into the house later—all in a single year, 1884, if credence can be accorded to the sworn testimony in 1923 of a black servant in the house, Nicholas Gordon.[4 Gordon said:

“Six months before [Teresa Bell] died she called me and said, ‘The children have deserted me. You know Nick, they weren’t mine. You know where they came from.’ Of course I knew but I didn’t say anything. In fact I knew who their mothers were better than she did. I saw Robina the day she was brought into the house, and she was a three- or four-month old child. I had been in the house before and Mrs Bell hadn’t been [pregnant]. I thought it funny and I smiled. Two months later I saw Reginald for the first time. I couldn’t understand and I knew something was funny and I laughed. Then about two or three months later I saw Muriel, who looked to be a five- or six-months old baby. It amused me a whole lot, but when they brought in Eustace a few months later I burst out laughing and asked Mrs Bell, ‘What’s this?’ But she only said, ‘Nick, shut up!’.”

That was the year that Pleasant’s reputation as someone who placed unwanted babies where they were wanted was revealed in court testimony.[5] Two of the children were born close together, and so the story was adopted that they were twins. (See list of children at this end of this article.)

The oldest child, Viola Smith Bell, was removed and erased from the household during her childhood. [6] At age seven, she had had an accident leaving her crippled for life. Teresa Bell had swung a hammock with Viola and her younger brother and sister too violently, and they toppled out. Viola suffered a serious hip injury from which she never fully recovered. Pleasant soon put her in the care of her friend Rebecca Boone out at the Geneva Cottage, which Pleasant owned.

Then at age sixteen, Viola was placed in a convent by Pleasant, who told her to stop using the Bell name, and to go by Smith, which was Viola’s middle name. She had previously been told she had been given it in honor of a friend of Thomas Bell’s. Perhaps it was the name of her real mother or real father. Surely Pleasant did this in order to keep the peace in the home, serving as it did the needs of Thomas Bell; undoubtedly the household would tick along better without a lame child. A family in which children could be added or removed so casually is heartbreaking to read about.

In 1923, Viola resurfaced and her story was made public during the lawsuits over Teresa’s will after her death. She put a good case forward for her parentage, with photographs and people who recalled her at the Octavia mansion as a child, including the priest who had baptized her. She won her case at first, but later lost out to the other adult children; she did not get any part of Teresa’s money.

For many years, Teresa Bell raised these children with Pleasant, having every reason then to go along with the illusion, as producing children was supposed to be part of her job. Later she had little reason to continue with the fiction, and some financial incentive to deny her maternity, even at the cost of social opprobrium.

A friend of Bell’s, Vinnie Hall Oberle, came forward just after Bell’s death to tell a detailed story of their friendship in the city in the 1880s and 1890s. Bell had told Oberle that none of the children were hers, and that the fiction had been exposed within the family before Thomas Bell’s death, causing a terrible upheaval. Oberle said Thomas “was never the same man afterwards.” When the children learned the story, they left home “and there were quarrels.”[7] Later the adult children brought numerous lawsuits over the Bell estate—fights surely fueled by the lingering sense of betrayal of trust and love brought about by the ever-crumbling fictions on which the family had been built.

Viola Bell, then and now, after Teresa Bell's death. SF Examiner, 28 Nov 1923.
Viola Bell, then and now, after Teresa Bell’s death. SF Examiner, 28 Nov 1923.

Bell’s will, written in the years at the Laidley Street house, cut off the children or their survivors with just five dollars each. Despite the competent way in which Bell resuscitated her dead husband’s fortune, she was branded as insane in the court tussle over her will after her death in 1922, and her children’s claims to her money were in the end affirmed, except Viola.

SF Chronicle, 31 Dec 1923.
A summary of the tussle over Teresa Bell’s will. SF Chronicle, 31 Dec 1923. View larger here. 

Biographical Summaries

  • Teresa Clingan Harris Percy Bell (1845 NY – 1922 SF)
  • Thomas Frederick Bell (1820 Scotland – 1892 SF)
  • Viola Smith Bell (1874 SF – 1966 CA)
  • Thomas Frederick (‘Fred’) Bell (1875 SF – 1934 SF)
  • Marie Teresa Bell Holman (1878 SF – 1908 CA)
  • Robina May Bell Vellguth Hessel (1882 – 1974 CA)
  • Muriel Bell Hoster (1884 – 1949)
  • Reginald Thomas Bell (1884 SF – 1961 CA)
  • William Eustace Bell (1884 SF – 1922 CA)

An addendum to the main article “The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name.” Part of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco. 


ENDNOTES

    1. This brief account of the Bell children is the result of reading hundreds of newspaper accounts of lawsuit testimonies from 1884 to 1925; sifting what reality there can be found in Helen Holdredge’s mostly offensive and racist “biography”, Mammy Pleasant (1953; 1972); reading Teresa Bell’s diaries for 1906-1908 (SF History Center); and from the cursory details about the children in Lynn Hudson’s book The Making of “Mammy Pleasant” (2003).
    2. Holdredge records a date of 2 Apr 1879 (p163). Teresa Bell testified in court in the 1890s that she was married to Thomas Bell in 1878 (SF Examiner, 16 Sep 1897, p14).
    3. “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9YYY-9QTS?cc=1417683&wc=XHZB-JWL%3A1589395335%2C1589395647%2C1589395646%2C1589395502 : 24 December 2015), California > San Francisco > San Francisco > ED 205 > image 11 of 25; citing NARA microfilm publication T9, (National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d.)
    4. “Negro Witness in Bell Case Center of Row,” SF Chronicle, 5 Dec 1923. p5.
    5. SF Chronicle, 13 Aug 1884. The Sharon lawsuit court testimony relating to Pleasant’s placement of unwanted children is reviewed by Lynn Hudson in The Making of Mammy Pleasant, p72.
    6. Viola Smith Bell’s coherent and supported account of her early years in the house and how she was removed are revealed in court testimony during her bid to be granted some of the Bell estate money in 1923-1924. The series of articles about the case are examples of excellent headline-writing, and tell the story in telegraphic form:-“Teacher Tells Story of Life in Bell Home,” SF Chronicle, 28 Sept 1923, p7.
      -“Girl’s Identity to be Revealed in Bell Fight…Miss Viola Smith declared protégé of Old Negro Mammy” SF Chronicle, 23 Nov 1923, p5.
      -“New Chapter in Bell Lives to be Bared,” SF Examiner, 28 Nov 1923, p6.
      -“Claimant to Bell Estate Reveals Past,” SF Examiner, 29 Nov 1923, p14.
      -“Severe Quiz Undergone by Bell ‘Heir’,” SF Examiner, 4 Dec 1923, p15.
      -“Banished Girl Story Told in Bell Fight,” SF Examiner, 5 Dec 1923, p3.
      -“Negro Witness in Bell Case in Center of Row,” SF Chronicle, 5 Dec 1923, p5.
      -“Baptism Told in Bell Suit,” SF Examiner, 6 Dec 1923, p9.
      -“Bell Will ‘Heir’ Upheld in Claims by Old Servants,” SF Examiner, 7 Dec 1923, p19.
      -“Affidavits Feature Bell Will Contest,” SF Examiner, 22 Dec 1923, p9.
      -“Bell Claimant Will Case end Today, Belief,” SF Chronicle, 27 Dec 1923, p13.
      -“Girl Wins Suit as Bell Heir,” SF Examiner, 29 Dec 1923, p1.
      -“Heirs Move to Reopen Bell Case,” SF Examiner, 24 Jul 1924, p7. “Viola Bell’s claims were opposed by the five other heirs.”
  1. “Bell Children ‘Trick’ Waifs, Woman Avers,” SF Chronicle, 23 Aug 1923, p1.