A lantern illuminates the sidewalk plaque dedicated to Mary Ellen Pleasant on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt tour Anne Wernikoff / KQED
A lantern illuminates the sidewalk plaque dedicated to Mary Ellen Pleasant on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt tour (Anne Wernikoff / KQED)

Ghost of a Legend: How a San Francisco Civil Rights Icon Was Made a Monster

Ghost of a Legend: How a San Francisco Civil Rights Icon Was Made a Monster

10 min

“What are the most haunted places in San Francisco?”

That’s the question that Bay Curious listener Kelsey Poole asked us a few weeks ago. Which is how I found myself standing with her on the steep streets of San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood as the sun went down -- on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt.

Christian Cagigal leading the San Francisco Ghost Hunt through Pacific Heights (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

A Tennessee transplant to the Bay Area, Poole is actually already a fan of going on ghost tours when she travels, as a way to learn the history of a city she's visiting -- plus “you get some spooky stories that keep you up at night," she says. But she’d never done one in San Francisco. (Want to go on a ghost hunt with the Bay Curious team on Nov. 1?  Details and tickets here!)

The Ghost Hunt tour is led by performer Christian Cagigal, who leads us through these streets in full 19th century dress, top hat and clacking cane. From tales of ghostly apparitions to aristocrats meeting grisly ends, every corner brings another ghoulish story from San Francisco history.

Bay Curious listener Kelsey Poole (Anne Wernikoff / KQED)

There’s one stop on this tour we discovered, however, that tells a real-life story bigger than any Halloween legend: at the corner of Octavia and Bush streets, the place known as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park.

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The ghost of Mary Ellen Pleasant -- a 19th century entrepreneur who once lived in a now-vanished mansion nearby, and actually planted the eucalyptus trees above our heads -- is said to still haunt this unlit corner. Her spirit is said to summon chills, frighten dogs and even throw eucalyptus nuts at passers-by. (For the record, we escaped unscathed that night.)

Christian Cagigal holds up a photograph of 19th century San Francisco on his Ghost Hunt tour, at Mary Ellen Memorial Park (Anne Wernikoff)

Pleasant, Cagigal tells us, was born into slavery in the South and came to San Francisco in the mid-1800s -- defying white society’s constraints to not only amass great wealth, but to use her power to advance the cause of civil rights in the city.

Photograph of Mary Ellen Pleasant, age 87. (Courtesy San Francisco Public Library History Center)

Yet she was also described as a witch, a “voodoo queen” and even a murderer. What’s real here?

“Her life is so enshrouded in mystery because she was her own spin doctor,” says Sacramento writer and performer Susheel Bibbs, who has studied Pleasant’s story for decades. Pleasant wrote three autobiographies -- but each one contradicts the other on basic facts, such as the year of her birth.

We do know that she was born in Georgia, and was raised in Nantucket, Massachusetts, “in indenture,” says Bibbs. There on the East Coast, the young Pleasant became a crucial figure in the civil rights fight, secretly teaming up with abolitionists and rescuing escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Her double life actually including presenting as a white woman when she could.

“She was very used to being covert,” Bibbs says.

The death of her first husband left her rich, and she arrived in San Francisco in 1852 -- still passing as white. She invested this sizable fortune in property by establishing boardinghouses and laundries: services that a town full of prospectors relied on.

Sacramento writer and performer Susheel Bibbs (Carly Severn / KQED)

In these spaces, she learned the private secrets of powerful men, and used them as another kind of currency, to rise in society. While wealthy white people of San Francisco knew her as the white boardinghouse proprietress, the city's growing black community knew her real identity.

To them, she was known as “The Black City Hall,” who brought the Underground Railroad to the West and helped black people find employment. And almost a century before Rosa Parks, Pleasant challenged San Francisco’s segregated transit system in court, winning black people the right to ride the streetcars.

“My cause,” Pleasant wrote in one of her memoirs, “was the cause of freedom and equality for myself and for my people. And I'd rather be a corpse than a coward.”

Mary Ellen Pleasant pictured in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1899 (Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle)

After the Civil War, over a decade after she arrived in the city, Pleasant finally checked the box that said “Black” on the census of 1865. While this undoubtedly caused a stir, Pleasant continued to move in wealthy white circles.

But by the 1880s, the wild, mud-caked San Francisco that Mary Ellen Pleasant the capitalist had carved her way into had itself transformed into a “very much more overtly racist” city, says Bibbs.

Across the nation, emancipated slaves became a convenient scapegoat for the economy’s woes -- and as a wealthy, older black woman, Pleasant now inspired suspicion, even fear. The press coined a racist nickname: “Mammy Pleasant.”

Whispers grew that she had some otherworldly hold over the wealthy white people she was close to -- especially when Pleasant became entangled in the scandalous 1883 trial of Nevada Sen. William Sharon, accused of seducing and then abandoning a young woman.

“It was like the O.J. Simpson trial” in notoriety, says Bibbs.

The crowd listens to Christian Cagigal telling the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt tour (Anne Wernikoff / KQED)

Lawyers for Sharon claimed that Pleasant, as the young woman's friend, had used dark forces to manipulate her into entrapping the senator. And rather than rejecting the rumors, she defied them -- encouraged them. She carried a voodoo doll in court, claiming she would use it to bring about his death. Wild thing is, he soon did die during the trial.

Pleasant’s status as a “voodoo queen” grew, cementing her reputation as a quasi-mystical figure in San Francisco. To the public, voodoo meant blood magic and malevolent intent.

To Mary Ellen Pleasant, however, the real voodoo -- vodoun, or vodun -- was actually her religion from her ancestral homeland of Haiti, says Bibbs.

Scandal followed scandal. When her business partner, a Scotsman named Thomas Bell, was found dead in Pleasant's mansion in 1899, his widow collaborated on a full-page smear piece in the San Francisco Chronicle with the headline “The Queen of the Voodoos.”

The "Queen of the Voodoos" article about Mary Ellen Pleasant in the San Francisco Chronicle (Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle )

The press had used the language of the supernatural to describe her for years -- but now, they made her into a flat-out monster, accusing her of witchcraft and heavily implying she murdered Bell.

It’s telling who gets a legend -- and who gets a ghost story. Mary Ellen Pleasant was demonized in her own lifetime. Yet in a system so loaded against a black woman in the public eye, playing with rumor, as she did, was perhaps the only way to play the game -- even if it was ultimately her undoing.

She died in 1904, in her 90s, and her obituary in the San Francisco Examiner was titled: “Mammy Pleasant Will Work Weird Spells No More.”

How we’re remembered depends on who’s telling your story.  And with such varying accounts, “one could not tell who she was," says Bibbs. "Was she the … mother of civil rights, or was she a murderess?”

The San Francisco Ghost Hunt concludes in Room 407 -- rumored to be haunted -- of the Hotel Majestic in Pacific Heights (Anne Wernikoff / KQED)

Or as Christian Cagigal put it in closing on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, under those eucalyptus trees she’s said to haunt: “When there's three versions of your life story. We don't know what to do with your life story…. And we forget your story.”

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He keeps Mary Ellen Pleasant on his ghost hunt, he says, “so we might start to remember.”

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