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The Voodoo Queen of San Francisco
by Tom Crawford
San Francisco is famous worldwide for its Golden Gate Bridge, trolley cars, and drag queens. But not too long ago, a different kind of queen sauntered up those treacherous 90 degree hills; none other than the famous Voodoo Queen of San Francisco, Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Born into slavery near Augusta, Georgia in 1814, Mary Ellen had a difficult and unfortunate start in life. As a child, she witnessed the cruel torture and murder of her mother that left her as a young orphan. Although it is unknown exactly how Mary Ellen escaped from slavery, she managed to escape to New Orleans and was later sent to live as an indentured servant with a liberal Quaker family in Nantucket, Massachusetts.Through her time spent with the Quaker family, Mary Ellen learned the skills and wit necessary to be successful on her own. With their help, she began a small business in Boston, where she later met her first husband, James Smith.
James Smith was heavily involved in helping slaves escape their captors and Mary Ellen soon, too, became fully involved in this work. Though she admired him greatly, James Smith was cruel to Mary Ellen and treated her badly up until his death sometime around 1844. His symptoms were later discovered to be those of poisoning and although many were suspicious of Mary Ellen, charges were never brought against her.
As Mary Ellen continued her work helping slaves escape to their freedom, her life became increasingly dangerous. In 1850, she was forced to flee to New Orleans and go into hiding. It was there that she met the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau.
Marie Laveau had devised an ingenious system of gaining inside knowledge and secrets about the powerful New Orleans elite. She used that knowledge as blackmail to gain wealth, power, and influence. Over a short period of time, Marie Laveau rose to the height of New Orleans’s power structure and began to use her status and influence to aid colored and enslaved people. Mary Ellen took care to learn Marie Laveau’s methods, knowing that they might one day be useful to her.
In 1852, Mary Ellen decided to flee one final time, escaping to the foggy streets of San Francisco. Because she lacked her Freedom Papers, she used her fair complexion to her advantage and lived as a white person. Using the techniques she learned from Marie Laveau, she too gained the secrets of San Francisco’s wealthy and elite. She knew so many of San Francisco’s darkest secrets that even the San Francisco News wrote that, “Folks took care not to snub her. You never knew when she would find out something about you.” Under the guise of “voodoo magic”, she became feared by many and was soon able to leverage this fear to gain freedom, rights, and privileges for many of San Francisco’s colored residents.
During her years in San Francisco, she lived in a mansion that quickly became known as “The House of Mystery” because of the wild, secretive parties that were rumored to have been held there. It was a grand old mansion at the corner of Bush and Octavia Street, bordered by a grove of six eucalyptus trees that Mary Ellen planted herself.
While the title of “Voodoo Queen” helped her climb to the upper ranks of San Francisco’s elite and amass a fortune that peaked at $30,000,000, this title would also be her downfall. After getting involved in a disastrous lawsuit against Senator William Sharon, she soon became the object of gossip and suspicion. Her good name was ruined and her title of “Voodoo Queen” brought on connotations of shame and disgrace. Those who once regarded her with respect began spreading horrible rumors about her. According to the San Francisco News, “People said she was a blackmailer, a procuress, a thief, a horsewhipper of children.”
After losing her status and power, Mary Ellen’s fortune quickly began to disappear. She spent the final years of her life nearly penniless, wandering outside the house she once owned and sitting under the six eucalyptus trees she planted when she first came to San Francisco.
Today, many believe that the spirit of Mary Ellen still wanders the corner of Bush and Octavia Street, often appearing between those great eucalyptus trees. Some say that they hear her screaming or see a glimpse of her figure walking between the trees. Others say they feel a sudden sensation of pouring rain or what feels like someone spitting on them. It is also widely believed that if you make a specific wish on that corner, it will surely come true.
Regardless of whether or not these accounts of Mary Ellen’s hauntings are actually true, it is certain that her spirit will always be an important part of San Francisco. While many tried to ruin the good name of Mary Ellen Pleasant, her extraordinary dedication to the freedom of slaves and to the equal rights of all humans will always be remembered as her greatest legacy. Although Mary Ellen may not have been a true “Voodoo” Queen, it is without question that she will always be the original Queen of San Francisco and the true Mother of Civil Rights in California.