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Article

Lynn Hudson

Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, probably sometime in 1852. For the next fifty years, she worked as cook, accountant, abolitionist, and entrepreneur in the bustling town on the bay. Histories of the West describe her as madam, voodoo queen, and prostitute. Pleasant herself requested that the words “she was a friend of John Brown’s” be printed on her gravestone, indicating her own desire to be remembered as an abolitionist. She was the target of what one historian has called an “avid conspiracy” that sought to silence her, and it was said that she harbored the skeletons of San Francisco’s elite in her closet.

The folklore about Pleasant reveals conflicting stories of her background (some say she was from Georgia, others Virginia), but Pleasant herself claimed she was born in Philadelphia She described her mother as a free colored woman and her ...

Article

One of San Francisco's most colorful and controversial characters in the late nineteenth century was Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who moved to the city in 1849. She began managing a boarding house whose reputation for cards, liquor, and beautiful women—it is likely her services included procuring prostitutes—earned it a devoted following.

No mere businesswoman, Pleasant involved herself in both local and national politics. In 1858, she personally presented abolitionist John Brown with a $30,000 U.S. Treasury Bond, after which she traveled south to promote his upcoming revolt. When Brown was captured at Harpers Ferry, Pleasant returned to California under an assumed name, where she raised money for the Union cause in the Civil War, and continued her work for civil rights.

Throughout her life Pleasant helped escaped and former slaves find work in San Francisco mostly as domestic servants Some historians speculate that Pleasant ...