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Favorite S.F. Ghost Story About Mammy

Negress Held Mysterious Power Over Wealthy Family
Mammy Pleasant is San Francisco’s favorite ghost story.

For 25 years during the past [nineteenth] century she tyrannized the somber and inscrutable Bell mansion, with its fringe of eucalyptus, at 1661 Octavia-st. What old-timer does not remember the lean, erect, shrewd-eyed Negress with her old black straw bonnet, gold hoop earrings, spotless kerchief fastened with a winking moss-agate brooch, moving among the stalls of the old Sutter-st market? Mammy, who was reputed the wickedest woman in San Francisco, who figured in every important lawsuit for nearly half a century, but who lied so cunningly that the most astute lawyer never tripped her.

Mary Ellen Pleasant had an uncanny way of chancing upon gossipers and professed to the skeletons in the closets of every high-ranking family in the city. Folks took care not to snub her. You never knew when she would find out something about you.

Turned Down $50,000

The history of Mammy Pleasant and her hold on Thomas and Teresa Bell will perhaps always be shrouded in secrecy. For although she had been offered $50,000 tell what she knew after the death of Mr. Bell and her grim rift with Teresa Bell over a property settlement in 1899, loyalty was one of Mammy’s virtues.

People said she was a blackmailer, a procuress, a thief, a horsewhipper of children—who was also capable of generosity and infinite gentleness—and that she had been a New Orleans slave whose master had freed her for “certain reasons.”

photograph of sarah althea hill sharonShe had hypnotic powers over women and brewed love philters which she sold to wealthy damsels. Among the latter was Sarah Althea Hill. She helped Sarah Althea bury Senator Sharon’s coat and waistcoat in a cemetery one dark night—assuring Sarah Althea that this procedure would revive the sulking senator’s dead love for her.

In League With Butler?

It was common legend that Mammy was in league with Blind Bill, the Bell butler. When Thomas Bell died from a fall over the banisters of his own house and his son Fred was the victim of a mysterious assault in the house, tongues clacked unrestrainedly.

Before he died, Tom S. Burns, who was Teresa Bell’s old notary public, swore he knew Mammy had killed Thomas Bell by giving him drugged port wine and pushing him over the banister. Little wonder when mammy died in 1904 at the age of 89, and Teresa Bell sold the “House of Mystery,” which subsequently became a select boarding house, that folks labeled the place haunted.

Today the Green Eye Hospital stands on the site and the last evidence of the Bell mansion has vanished before the hosts of progress.

The San Francisco News
October 14, 1935

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