Pleasant, Mary Ellen

Pleasant, Mary Ellen

Also known as:

Mammy Pleasant

The origins of Mary Ellen Pleasant (circa 1814– 4 January 1904) are mysterious and contradictory. She may have been born a slave on an Augusta, Georgia, plantation. She may have been born in Philadelphia. She claimed to be the daughter of an enslaved Vodou priestess, possibly originally from Haiti and the son of the governor of Virginia. She was a fair-skinned black woman who passed as white when she wished.

By the 1820s, Mary Ellen Pleasant was living with and working for a Quaker family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, who introduced her to abolitionism. With her first husband, she became actively involved in the Underground Railroad, rescuing the enslaved and bringing them to freedom and safety. When her husband died, he left her a fortune. She helped finance her friend John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Her work rescuing slaves earned her a reputation: slavers put a price on her head. During this time she studied with Marie Laveau, New Orleans Voodoo Queen, also active in rescuing people from slavery. (The spelling “Voodoo” distinguishes the unique traditions of New Orleans from those of Haitian Vodou).

Mary Ellen Pleasant escaped to San Francisco in 1852. On board the ship, she met Thomas Bell, Scottish-born director of the Bank of California, with whom she would have a thirty-year business and, many presume personal relationship.

In San Francisco, Mary Ellen emerged as a philanthropist and entrepreneur. She ran restaurants and a boarding house and allegedly a bordello, although this may be an attempt at defamation. She evoked powerful reactions, as she still does. People consider Mary Ellen Pleasant a heroine or a wicked, scandalous woman. She was accused of being a poisoner, procuress, and blackmailer. Her reputation as a Voodoo priestess terrified some. In death, some consider her a powerful spirit who grants wishes. Others consider her a creepy ghost.

Mary Ellen Pleasant is called the Mother of Civil Rights in California. She sued a San Francisco streetcar company for denying service to African-Americans and won.

Mary Ellen Pleasant hated being called Mammy Pleasant. If you must call her something, call her Mistress, Madame, or Ms. She remains among San Francisco’s most famous ghosts. She haunts the corner of Bush and Octavia, where her mansion known as the House of Mystery once stood. Allegedly, if you make a polite request at this corner and if she is in a good mood, your request will come true.


Mary Ellen Pleasant allegedly takes corporeal form to walk beneath her trees at night. Unexpected appearances of a crow may indicate her presence.

Creature: Crow, her messenger



Date: The anniversary of her death. Her birthday is thought to be 19 August, but the year is unknown.

Sacred site:

The site of the House of Mystery, her mansion in San Francisco. Mary Ellen planted rows of eucalyptus trees with her own hands. Some still survive. She allegedly likes to stroll beneath them

See Also:

Agousou; Laveau, Marie


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.