William Cox was having lunch at home when he heard the whistle of his train. “Toot, toot,” it blew as the locomotive left Sebastopol bound for Santa Rosa.

  NB to Gentle Reader: Yes, I am quite aware the whistle of a steam locomotive in 1900 did not sound anything like “toot, toot,” but I am quoting here directly from the Press Democrat coverage which otherwise is a darn good piece to read, so let’s cut the paper some slack on this.

As William was the train’s engineer and he was clearly not aboard it, he assumed Eugene, who kept the engine stoked with wood, had received an urgent order from the California Northwestern railway station in Santa Rosa to bring the train there.

But Eugene Ellison was not in the cab either. The man with his hand on the throttle was Will Thompson, who everybody called “Brick.” He was 31 years old and had never driven a train before. He was also insane.

“Toot, toot,” Brick sounded the whistle at every crossing, just as William always did. Section hands doing track maintenance near Llano Road were having lunch as well. They didn’t look up when engine No. 11 passed by and just assumed Engineer Cox had received an urgent order from the California Northwestern railway station in Santa Rosa to bring the train there.

Witnesses later said Brick was pushing the train up to 50MPH, which was faster than it had ever gone before. He made the trip to Santa Rosa in twenty minutes, and it only took that long because he had to stop near Fulton Road to wait for the steam gauge to come up to pressure after shoving in more wood.

This next bit is fun because the PD almost never printed dialogue in those days, and here we learn our ancestors spoke fluent Victorian-era slang.

A boy on his bicycle rode up to Santa Rosa Station Agent Joe McMullen and said, “Say, Joe, No. 11 is coming in.”

“What’s the josh?” McMullen asked the boy. “Straight goods,” the kid replied. “Here she comes.”

McMullen watched in astonishment as the steam engine pulled into the south end of the railroad yard and a strange man popped out of the cab. “Who brought over the engine?” He asked Brick, apparently thinking Cox or some other trained engineer must be in hiding.

“I did,” answered Brick before strutting away down Fourth Street, “and don’t you let her go.”

Apprised of the unusual hijacking, the sheriff and city marshal were also flummoxed and likely wondered if there was more to the story than it seemed – after all, people don’t take off with trains. A posse was formed, which meant at the time that they spread the word to be on the lookout. From the PD: “Needless to say, the news of the occurrence caused no little stir in this city and ‘the man who stole the engine’ was pretty forcibly talked of.”

Meanwhile, Brick was enjoying a repast at the Chicago saloon on Fourth Street. When he stepped out of the bar Deputy Sheriff Tombs (yes, his real name) arrested him. Brick pulled a carpenter’s hammer from his pocket and tried to whack the officer in the head, but City Marshal Holmes stopped the assault by grabbing his raised arm.

That afternoon a Press Democrat reporter spoke to Brick at the jail. He paced in his cell, ranted about the deputy touching him without a warrant, and insisted he bought the train fourteen years ago. “When [the president of the railroad] knows of it, it will be all right.”

He was examined by the lunacy commission – an agency we certainly should revive, particularly in election years – and sent to the asylum near Ukiah for a time. It’s noteworthy that his father requested his commitment, possibly as a legal maneuver to avoid Brick being sent to prison for stealing the train and/or trying to hammer a deputy.

Details later emerged that Brick’s joyride almost ended in disaster. As he stepped off the train in Santa Rosa he left the throttle open, and, as the PD noted, “When the locomotive arrived here the water was nearly exhausted. Had the man run the engine much further it is very probable that he and it would have been blown to fragments.”

It also came out that he was a “dope” addict at the time, which in his case meant opium. After his release from the asylum he remained in the Ukiah area, where he worked at a livery stable and reportedly began using drugs again. There in 1905 he attacked the owner with a razor and fled to Sacramento, where he shot a policeman in the leg.

Brick was spotted in Santa Rosa a few days later – his family lived in the area – before he returned to Sacramento. There he accidentally shot himself in the hip and died of sepsis.

The only obituary to be found was in the Santa Rosa Republican, and read in part: “He was 36 years of age and was considered somewhat demented, which fact brought him into prominence several times as the principal in a number of escapades.”

California Northwestern Railroad engine #11 at the second Santa Rosa train depot, probably c. 1890. Another photo of this particular engine and details about it can be found here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library. Title image colorized using Hotpot.
California Northwestern Railroad engine #11 at the second Santa Rosa train depot, probably c. 1890. Another photo of this particular engine and details about it can be found here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library. Title image colorized using Hotpot.



A Sebastopol Engine on a Flying Trip
While the Engineer Dined Another Took His Place Unasked
“Brick” Thompson’s Escapade on Monday — When Arrested Tries To Assault the Officer – A Charge of Insanity

It is rather an uncommon thing for a man to be able to “steal” a railway locomotive and run it as he desires, especially without harm resulting to himself or some one else, or even to the engine. Yet Will Thompson, or as he is familiarly known, “Brick” Thompson, did this Monday afternoon.

Fate was certainly with him when he coolly stepped into the cab of the locomotive used on the Sebastopol branch of the California Northwestern railway, pulled the lever and opened the throttle and started, monarch of all he surveyed down the track to Santa Rosa. At the first crossing he gave the accustomed “toot, toot,” just as Engineer Cox, the regular hand at the throttle, does. By the way, Mr. Cox was in the act of complimenting his wife on the excellent lunch she had provided for him, when he heard the warning whistle of “No. 11” as she sped down the track. He thought, however, that a hasty call must have come from Santa Rosa for the engine and that Fireman Ellison had “taken her over.” When he and others learned what had really happened their astonishment can readily be imagined.

Acting Engineer Thompson made “No. 11” break several records until he was well out of Sebastopol and when crossings were reached the warning whistle rang out as usual. When near the Llano school house he slowed down for a short distance. The section men, who wore eating their lunch near the LaFranchi place, paid no particular attention to the oncoming locomotive, thinking that Engineer Cox had been summoned to make a special trip. But somehow or other Thompson in the cab paid particular notice of them for he sped “No. 11” at such a terrific rate that they could not see who was in the cab. Once or twice after this the self-constituted engineer slowed down a little and started up again just to see what the engine could do. When Santa Rosa was reached steam began to give out so that his perilous ride had to end.

Mervyn Donahue rode on his wheel hurriedly to the depot. Espying Station Agent Joe McMullen, he accosted him thus;

“Say, Joe, No. 11 is coming in.”

“What’s the josh” inquired the station agent.

“Straight goods,” replied the other, “Here she comes.”

Station Agent McMullen so far recovered his astonishment to be able to ask the strange engineer as he drew up near the depot, “Who brought over the engine?”

“I did, and don’t you let her go,” Thompson replied then walked hurriedly away up town. The marshal’s office and sheriff’s office were instantly apprized of the unheard-of theft of a locomotive and in a twinkling a posse had started to round the man up.

Just as Thompson stepped out of the Chicago saloon on Fourth street near the corner of that street and Exchange avenue, Deputy Sheriff Tombs placed him under arrest. The man ran his hand into his pocket and quick as a flash produced a carpenter’s hammer, swung it aloft and it was about to descend on Mr. Tombs’ cranium when City Marshal Holmes held the uplifted hand in a firm grasp and prevented any damage. Tho man was then taken to the city hall.

Engineer James Donahue was on his way up town just about the time when the engine arrived at the depot. It is true that he was dressed in his Sunday best, but he climbed into the cab and ran the engine back to Sebastopol in time to bring in the afternoon train.

Needless to say, the news of the occurrence caused no little stir in this city and “the man who stole the engine” was pretty forcibly talked of. Such a person had never been heard of in these parts before.

A Press Democrat reporter saw Thompson later in the afternoon at the county jail.

When asked why he took the engine he replied: “I own the engine. I bought it a number of years ago. When Foster (meaning the railroad president) knows of it, it will be all right.”

He then made some strange remarks about having the officers arrested for touching him without a warrant. While he was speaking he moved about all the time, walking hither and thither about his cell. His conduct was such that those present at the interview were led to believe that probably the hand of an insane person held the throttle on that run from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa. The man’s own father, who is a respected citizen of Santa Rosa, says that his son is insane. He was very much grieved when he signed his name to a complaint alleging that he was insane. He told Judge Brown Monday afternoon that up to a month or so ago “Brick” used opium freely. All of a sudden he stopped taking the drug and it is supposed that this resulted in his mind becoming affected. At one time he also used considerable morphine and was under the care of a physician.

That Thompson’s wild ride ended as luckily as it did is a matter for congratulation. When the locomotive arrived here the water was nearly exhausted. Had the man run the engine much further it is very probable that he and it would have been blown to fragments. From a legal standpoint the mere running away with the engine would probably mean prosecution for malicious mischief or trespass. When asked Monday evening whether the man would undergo an examination on the insanity charge District Attorney Webber said that he could not state yet. He may be charged with assault with a deadly weapon for his attempt to hammer Mr. Tombs.

– Press Democrat, February 21 1900

Mad Man Takes a Spin on the Sebastopol Locomotive.
Opened the Throttle and Sent Old No. 11 Across the Valley at a Rapid Rate.

It is only once in a life-time that we hear of the theft of a railway locomotive, and such an occurrence has a natural tendency to stir up a little interest and excitement. For the first time in the history of the California Northwestern Railway one of the Company’s engines was stolen last Monday.

Shortly after twelve o’clock a man about thirty years of age walked into Sebastopol from the direction of Freestone. Near the cemetery, about a mile west of town, he met William Mather, to whom he stated that he was going to make a speedy trip from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa and that only twenty minutes would be consumed in the seven-mile cross-country run. It cannot be denied that the stranger executed his boast according to schedule. He walked down to the depot, boarded the engine which had been left standing near Julliard’s winery, opened the throttle and was soon heading toward Santa Rosa at a mighty clip. Station agent Harvey was in the depot building at the time and the train hands were at home enjoying the noon-day meal. When the locomotive passed over the laguna trestle the noise was distinctly heard up town. Most people thought the train men were going over to Santa Rosa to do some switching before making the regular afternoon run. Engineer Cox, fireman Ellison and conductor Corbaley realized that something was wrong and after holding a brief consultation they decided to wire a “lost, strayed or stolen” message to Agent McMullen at Santa Rosa. In the mean time old No. 11 was speeding over the steel rails at a pace she had never struck before. At every crossing the man in the cab opened the whistle valve to give warning of his approach. People who saw the iron horse crossing the valley say that the trip was made at a fifty-mile rate of speed. Between the Llano school house and Wright’s crossing the steam supply became exhausted and the locomotive came to a stand still. With the familiarity of a veteran fireman the stranger at the throttle applied the brakes, filled the furnace with wood and waited until the steam gauge indicated that the trip could be continued. Then he set the machinery in motion again and a few minutes later the engine and its passenger made a flying entrance into the railway yard at the County Seat. There was a large and appreciative audience at the station to witness the arrival of the lightning special. The locomotive was stopped in front of the depot and the would-be engineer left the cab and walked up town. He carried a large hammer and not one of the spectators seemed inclined to molest the privileged character as he sauntered up Fourth street. Before many hours had passed the entire force of Santa Rosa’s official dignitaries struck the trail of the locomotive excursionist and he was located in the Chicago saloon on Fourth street. The officers experienced considerable difficulty in landing their man in the county jail.

When asked why he took the iron horse without permission, the adventurer stated that he purchased the engine fourteen years ago and had a perfect right to run it as often and as fast as circumstances necessitated.

The man who created such a sensation in railway and police circles is William Thompson, son of a Santa Rosa carpenter. He has been working for some time past on Sam Allen’s farm on Pleasant Hill. It is said that for years the young man has been addicted to the opium habit and he is a mental wreck. The general opinion is that he is insane and he will be examined by the lunacy commissioners. The engine was brought back to Sebastopol Monday afternoon in time for the regular 2:50 trip. No damage was done by the extra run.


Thompson was examined by two physicians and they reported that his mind is temporarily deranged.

– Sebastopol Times, February 21 1900

Examined for Insanity

William Thompson, whose sensational ride from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa aboard “No. 11” Tuesday caused such a sensation, was examined yesterday upon a charge of insanity, preferred by his father. The examination took place in the county jail, Drs. J. W. Jesse and S. S. Bogle acting as commissioners. After subjecting the prisoner to a rigid questioning, it was decided to postpone the decision for a few days as it is thought his present condition is but temporary.

– Press Democrat, February 24 1900

“Brick” Thompson Who Stole the Sebastopol Engine Five Years Ago Shoots Policeman

R. M. Thompson familiarly known as “Brick” Thompson who according to the dispatches from Sacramento shot Officer Bert Callahan in the thigh last night after he had run amuck is well known in Santa Rosa and in this vicinity.

About five years ago Thompson boarded the engine of the Sebastopol branch of the California Northwestern at Sebastopol and ran it over to the county seat. He knew nothing of the mechanism of the locomotive but managed to start it and once started it kept going until the steam gave out. This happened at the south end of the railroad yards in this city and when the locomotive came to a standstill Thompson alighted without shutting off the throttle. After he stepped from the engine employees of the company who investigated the unexpected entry of the engine into the railroad yards caught him and detained him until he could be placed under arrest.

Thompson was believed to be insane and the freak of stealing the engine was characterized as the result of a disordered mind caused by using “dope” He was sent to the hospital at Ukiah and afterward was discharged as cured.

At Ukiah he made a vicious and unwarranted attack on Henry Smith proprietor of a livery stable there where he was employed and attempted to carve Smith with a razor. This was the result of his craze from using dope. Smith entered the barn and without a word of warning or any provocation Thompson jumped at him with an uplifted razor. That Smith escaped instant death is regarded as miraculous as he was unprepared for the onslaught.

Thompson passed through this city a couple of days ago and was recognized by Oscar Smyth at the local depot. After the episode of stealing the engine Thompson dropped from sight here by reason of his incarceration in the asylum. He was not heard from again until his attempt on the life of Smith at that place. His latest escapade will probably result in his being incarcerated again.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 10, 1905

Will Go to a State Hospital

Contrary to the faintest hope, about half-past 4 o’clock yesterday morning, William Thompson, who took morphine the previous evening to end his life, began to revive, and continued to improve. His mind, weak at the time he took what nearly proved a fatal dose, was worse yesterday, and last evening two of the lunacy commissioners held a consultation. Probably today or tomorrow Mr. Thompson will be removed to the state hospital at Napa.

– Press Democrat, March 11 1899

Read More



More deaths from the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake have been found, although these victims died far away at an asylum.

Before getting into that, some bookkeeping is in order. The unofficial death toll for that disaster now stands at 82, with 85 being a reasonable bet. Although the full count can never be known, it’s still likely to fall in the 100-120 range.

This new total of 82 represents two asylum discoveries and an upgrade of three victims to “certain” status. A full list is available as a PDF or a spreadsheet, and a single-page 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake fact sheet can also be downloaded.

Briefly: The upgrades are thanks to clearing up confusion dating back to the time of the disaster. There were four death certificates for “unknown” persons and the monument over the earthquake victim’s mass grave specifies “FOUR PERSONS UNKNOWN.” Rural Cemetery Archivist Sandy Frary uncovered the original death certificate for unknown #1 and found it was for three unknown persons, not a single individual. The monument also lists the unknown as “NOS. 1-4-6-7” which implied seven burials, so this now synchs up with a newspaper story at the time describing a coroner’s inquest of seven unknowns. All this is hashed out in greater detail in a previous article, “WHO LIES BENEATH?” which has been slightly updated to include the new confirmations.

Sandy Frary also came across an obituary I had overlooked. From the Press Democrat, August 13, 1907:

Mrs. L. W. Stebbins, who died in Ukiah, was buried here Monday from the Christian Church, the Rev. Peter Colvin conducting the services. Mrs. Stebbins’ death was directly due to the great disaster of last year. Her awful experiences in those April days racked and wrecked her mind and body. Her reason failed, and she was taken to the state hospital for treatment, but steadily declined in health…

(RIGHT: Smoke and downed lines on Fourth street in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, one of only two photographs believed to have been taken that day. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Emma Stebbins, a 40 year-old housewife who lived on Ripley street, had died at the Mendocino State Hospital at Talmage, near Ukiah. She had been there almost exactly a year, her mind gone because of “earthquake of [April] 18th and death of father,” according to her commitment record. She spent her days staring into space and answering questions incoherently. Then she stopped eating and died.

The Mendocino hospital was the only place in the North Bay for regular people who lost their wits; the asylum in Napa was then used for the criminally insane, and Eldridge (Glen Ellen) was mostly for those deemed “feeble-minded” – for more background on these mental hospitals, read “THE ASYLUMS NEXT DOOR“. Those admitted to Mendocino were usually alcoholics/drug addicts who cleaned up and went home or those with senile dementia who died there. In the wake of the great 1906 earthquake, there was a surge of people whose cause of mental illness was deemed to be the disaster.

Between the April 18 quake and the end of 1906, fifteen people from Sonoma county were sent to that hospital, almost half of them for reasons apparently linked to the quake. Of those six whose sanity was shaken by the shaking earth, three died. Besides Emma Stebbins, Jacob H. Schlotterback of Santa Rosa was sent there (cause: “earthquake of April 18, 1906”) and was dead in less than a month. Like Emma, he refused to eat. Emma and Jacob count as Santa Rosa earthquake victims #81 and 82. Here we’re only collecting names of people whose deaths were attributed to being caught in Santa Rosa’s disaster, but another local who later died at the asylum was William Newcom/Newcome of Healdsburg, committed because of the “shock of earthquake.” Should it be determined he was in Santa Rosa that morning he’ll be added to the list.

Not everyone with earthquake madness went to the asylum. America Thomas died at home about ten weeks later from “general disability following general neurosis caused by shock” according to her death certificate, and Elwin Hutchinson, a 15 year-old schoolboy who died at the end of 1906, suffered from “partial paralysis and nervous prostration” (Hutchinson’s death certificate did not specify the earthquake, so he is among the three unconfirmed disaster victims). Nor did everyone with serious mental problems die; Hattie Runyon’s family kept her breakdown secret for two years.

But there was a Santa Rosan who died during the quake at an asylum: 26 year-old Annie Leete, who was working as a waitress at Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara. Agnews was the other general population asylum in the area – the South Bay equivalent of the Mendocino hospital.

The tragedy of what happened there is probably the last great untold story of the 1906 earthquake; the destruction at Agnews was worse than either San Francisco or Santa Rosa by comparison, with over ten percent of staff and patients killed (11 employees plus 107 of 1,075 inmates).

Los Angeles Herald, April 19, 1906. Note the misinformation about Santa Rosa

Helen Warwick, a writer for the Oakland Tribune who was in quake-ravaged San Francisco just a few days before, wrote “never, in all my life, had I dreamed or imagine anything so totally and absolutely demolished as the Agnew Asylum.” The roof of the administration building pancaked, all five stories of it. Some brick walls fell exposing the infirmaries and some floors collapsed.

It’s impossible to imagine the terror the mental patients must have experienced being captives in their locked rooms as the world seemed to collapse around them. They were lucky no fire broke out and immensely fortunate that hospital superintendent Dr. Leonard Stocking kept a level head. After digging himself out of the debris he freed the inmates without hesitation, mobilizing about forty men into a search-and-rescue operation. Given that the hospital would have been short-handed to supervise over a thousand unconfined patients even in the best of conditions, it was a courageous action.

Dr. Stocking later wrote a report where he claimed “very few wandered away,” but that was putting the best face on it. The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “Scores of the demented escaped from the boundaries of the institution and are wandering, many half clad, about the surrounding country.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported “200 inmates of the asylum escaped and are roaming over the countryside,” although most newspapers were printing 40-50 had escaped.

Rumors of all sorts flourished in the following days. Governor Pardee had a staff to refute wild stories appearing in East Coast press that San Francisco had been hit by a massive tsunami and that thousands were dying of plague. Also circulating was the claim that the superintendent of State hospitals had ordered the shooting of a hundred patients at Agnews to prevent them from escaping.

(RIGHT: Agnews State Hospital in Santa Clara before the 1906 earthquake)

For months, papers were describing deranged people arrested around the state as being allegedly Agnews escapees. A man in Los Angeles who attacked a woman at the train station and tried to drag her away; a guy “in a demented condition” found near Fremont; someone in San Francisco who threatened his mother and others with a pistol.

Fortunately, few from the “ward of the desperately insane” seemed to have escaped. Their housing was on the top floor of one of the buildings most damaged, and seven died. Deputies from the Santa Clara Sheriff were quickly on the scene and followed by other officers – by remarkable good luck there was a state sheriff convention underway in San Jose. The most violent 99 patients were sent to the Central Valley asylum in Stockton by train, according to a wire service story, “crowded into two [rail] cars and were raving and yelling. Many of them attempted to jump from the cars and the attendants had great difficulty in restraining them.”

Volunteer doctors and nurses also poured into the grounds of the wrecked hospital, where medical care was provided under the trees to the approx. 180 patients injured. By nightfall a tent city had arisen. Dr. Stocking’s report described it in glowing terms: “..so comfortable and contented are they that many, both employees and patients, ask to be allowed to camp all summer.” But reporter Helen Warwick painted a different picture: “Some were chatting rationally enough, wandering about from one place to another, others stood and gazed, wild-eyed and dumb–an awful rigidity in face and figure arguing desperate insanity. Some were strapped to benches; some threw their hands in the air and grappled with some imaginary foe, while one woman shrieked and screamed, that the walls were falling, falling, and cowered to the ground begging the others to keep them off.”

Read More



It’s hard to imagine a worst curse: May you be remembered through the words of a lunatic who hated you.

(RIGHT: Mary Ellen Pleasant photographed by the San Francisco Chronicle, 1899)

Our story so far: Mary Ellen Pleasant – AKA “Mammy” Pleasant, although she never replied to anyone using that racist nickname – was an African-American woman of historic importance before the Civil War and during San Francisco’s Gilded Age. Almost everything we know about her is filtered through the views of Teresa Bell, who lived with her nearly every day for at least thirty years and kept a diary. In the 1950s her diary was used to write a popular fictionalized biography, “Mammy Pleasant,” and today, almost all that can be found about Mary Ellen Pleasant – both online and in print – flows from that book with its wild stories of Pleasant running a bordello, practicing witchcraft, blackmailing, murdering and doing every other kind of evil deed imaginable from her spooky “House of Mystery.”

Ignoring the novelization’s invented dialogue and tacky purple prose, the credibility of the book rests on the accuracy of the diary and its author’s truthfulness. But here are two important facts not revealed in “Mammy Pleasant:” In 1899 Teresa Bell abruptly turned against Pleasant and did everything she could to destroy her old friend’s reputation, even after Pleasant died in 1904. Also important was this: Teresa Bell was barking mad.

(By the way: If you haven’t read part one of this series, “Seeking Mammy Pleasant,” some of the rest may be hard to follow.)

Bell was the wealthy widow of one of the Comstock Lode “bonanza kings” and spent the last thirty years of her life as a semi-recluse at her Beltane Ranch, halfway between Kenwood and Glen Ellen. Her days as a San Francisco socialite were long past; when she was mentioned in the papers it was usually because she was in court either being sued by creditors of her long-dead husband or fighting her grown children who were demanding greater access to daddy’s bank accounts. After she died in 1922, however, her name was on Bay Area front pages for weeks.

With her estate worth an expected $1,000,000, she left a will dividing it between the state, San Francisco orphanages and retirement homes, with the remainder going to “cousins if any are living” – a vague bequest made further difficult because she had claimed at various times to be from different families. Predictably, many “long-lost cousins” came out of the woodwork to claim a share of the fortune.1

To her five surviving children she left five dollars each, along with the denial she was the mother of any of them. It was surprising that she disavowed the entire family, but over the years as the children took her to court over inheritance issues, her first act of defense was to claim the plaintiff was no relation whatsoever. As needed by the particular suit, she swore under oath she was the mother of five, four, two, one and none of them. She insisted oldest son Fred, the first to take her to court, was just some foundling her husband took in before her marriage – but towards the end of her life, Teresa told a visitor he was her only child by blood.2 Courts heard from elderly priests clutching baptismal records and from so many people who claimed to be present at the actual birth of a particular heir there must have been a stand of bleachers in the Bell bedroom to accomodate them all.

The children sued to have the will thrown out on basis of Teresa Bell having an unsound mind. Naturally, they insisted it wasn’t about the money at all but rather keeping the family intact.

Newspapers had a field day when the court hearings revealed Teresa was addicted to a potent cocktail of opium and alcohol and suffered wild hallucinations. She believed she could fly and had “gazed from space into the face of her murdered mother.” She could draw electricity from the earth and light candles with the tip of her finger. A neighbor told the court she enjoyed “pounding the piano and shrieking at the top of her voice in no known tune.” A ranch worker testified she could have a violent temper and best avoided when she was “drinking paregoric and carrying a nine-inch dagger whenever she went about the ranch.” Another fellow said he was hired to prospect on the ranch for platinum, gold and diamonds which she insisted were on the property.

Bigotry was another recurring theme in her madness. The Chronicle reported testimony she thought “Italians” had rustled about 10,000 cows from her ranch (which would have been so many they would have had no room to move) and “she had often floated over New York city; that she had looked down from such serial excursions and had been attracted by the gleaming white eyeballs of negroes…” Her personal racism is significant because right after Teresa split with Mary Ellen in 1899, there was a particularly vicious court speech by Bell’s attorney attacking Pleasant as a “Black Mammy of the South…robbing and plundering” her employer.

San Francisco was titillated by the revelations that came out over six weeks of testimony (or at least, it delighted newspaper headline editors, who exhausted every possible combination of words such as, “Eccentric” “Heiress” “Insane” and “Delusions”). A surprisingly large amount of press coverage was presented as illustrated features, rehashing life in San Francisco’s Gilded Age and the Bell family’s connection with the mysterious and sinister Mammy Pleasant.

But San Franciscans were unaware that ten years earlier in 1913, the Santa Rosa newspapers had reported an incident at Beltane ranch which exposed Teresa Bell’s madness. The Press Democrat reported John Ritzman, a local carpenter, said Teresa once attacked him with a club and he had been warned to take along a gun when asking for his pay, as “she carried either a revolver or a dagger.” She refused to pay him the $100 (about three months’ work at the time) and ordered him to go away, threatening to beat him again. Ritzman admitted to pulling his gun and firing before her son-in-law intervened. The tale had an unusual twist in Ritzman’s wife being a former acquaintance of Teresa’s, although she was now in a sanatarium because Teresa had gotten her hooked on drugs and liquor.

It seemed the Santa Rosa papers didn’t know quite what to make of this business. Like Rudolph Spreckels and Thomas Kearns, she was mostly unknown in Sonoma county beyond the borders of her Valley of the Moon estate, so the local papers described her only in terms of money and class – “a wealthy San Francisco woman” and “a prominent resident of the valley.” The first story in the Santa Rosa Republican presumed Ritzman (who they misnamed, “Richmond”) had to be the crazy one: “He repeats constantly, even now, that he is sorry he did not kill Mrs. Bell…it is thought that he may be mentally unbalanced.”

When the case came before the court, Ritzman received a suspended sentence and two years’ probation. “The shot, it is said, was fired after considerable provocation,” the Press Democrat commented with no further detail, again probably deferring to her status. No matter what the court heard about the exact nature of the provocation, the episode had all the hallmarks of the stories which would come out in the fight over the will.

Even though the 1923 coroner’s jury didn’t hear about that story, it didn’t take them long to decide that Teresa Bell was of unsound mind when she wrote her will back in 1910. As a result, all the money went to the children.

(RIGHT: Teresa Bell and Mary Ellen Pleasant as drawn by a courtroom artist for the San Francisco Chronicle, 1897)

Normally our story would end there, with all the players dead and soon to be forgotten – but this is no ordinary tale. Just a few months after the will was settled, a new stage play began performances in San Francisco: “The Cat and the Canary” was a murder mystery set in an old dark house with a mysterious servant named Mammy Pleasant. The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle remarked, “Mammy Pleasant dominates the play, for one is never sure just what she may do at any moment. She seems capable of murder or witchcraft or some other horrible deed.” Now Mary Ellen’s reputation was being trashed anew for the entertainment of the bathtub gin generation. The play was made into a hit movie a few years later and several other film adaptations followed.

Those biographies written in the 1950s – which again, are the basis of almost everything repeated about Mary Ellen Pleasant today – are better viewed as novels about the backstory of the spooky Mammy Pleasant character in “The Cat and the Canary.” Which really is no surprise because they used the same primary source material: The mad, hateful ravings of Teresa Bell after she broke with Pleasant in 1899. But a playwright is not held to the same rigor as someone who claims to be a biographer such as Helen Holdredge, who had the further advantage of owning Teresa’s diaries which offered proof positive she was insane. Yet Holdredge embraced every crazy allegation in the diary as holy writ while ignoring parts which revealed she was out of her mind from drug abuse or mental illness or both. Critics of Holdredge further point out she covered up or whitewashed episodes which reflected poorly upon Teresa, including the nature of her ties to the odious James E. Brown Jr. and Bayard Saville, discussed further below.3

Ultimately every serious discussion of Mary Ellen Pleasant wanders off into a resentful rant against Helen Holdredge, and justly so. Her books were immensely popular even though she flunked as a truthful biographer, a factual historian and even as a competent writer. Want an example? Unpeel this sentence: “The rooms of the Octavia street house now contained something malevolent; the endless mirroring of the walls and the prisms hanging from the rock crystal chandeliers no longer reflected the lights and colors of the spectrum. Instead, they caught and held the dark and evil reflection of unspeakable things.” Golly.

To those literary and objective sins I’ll add another: It’s unforgivable that Holdredge also screwed up the climax of the story. Besides the death of Thomas Bell, the most significant event in the lives of Mary Ellen or Teresa since they met in the 1870s was their abrupt and emotional separation. Holdredge devotes less than four pages to the events, and much of that is made-up dialogue.

In that version, Teresa was confronted by a farmhand from the Schell ranch in the Sonoma Valley who demanded his wages, telling a surprised Teresa that Mary Ellen had always paid workers on that ranch.4 The women began to quarrel over that, followed by arguments over who owned pieces of furniture. It went on for days. Teresa ordered her evicted from Beltane ranch and the San Francisco mansion. Ironically, Mary Ellen actually owned both properties but could not admit it – she had just claimed to be insolvent in court and if she showed proof of ownership, creditors could not only seize the properties (see part one) but she could also go to jail for perjury. Mary Ellen Pleasant was in a catch-22, or, as Holdredge wrote in her perfectly awful prose, “Like the blue goose flying over the Louisiana swamplands, she had exposed herself to Teresa, crouched hidden behind a blind.”

As to what really compelled Teresa to completely break with Mary Ellen, Holdredge vaguely suggests in the months prior to the April, 1899 breakup her resentments were growing as she was feeling more self confident. Teresa wrote it was a “blessing” to learn some old business foes of her late husband had died, “a release from years of doubt and pain.” She was angered to discover Mary Ellen was allowing an impoverished widow to live on another of the Glen Ellen properties. She felt newly empowered by having done her own shopping for the first time in ten years (!) and having recently stolen from Mary Ellen some papers she felt rightfully belonged to her. Never, of course, did Holdredge mention Teresa’s insanity or drug addiction as a possible contributing factor.

Clearly something was seriously wrong with Teresa. Published excerpts of her diaries show her feelings shifted from a childlike devotion (Oct. 1898: “Outside of Mammy the world is empty to me” to blind hatred of the “she-devil” (May 1899: “Mary E. Pleasant has been my evil genius since the first day I saw her…a demon from first to last”). An armchair psychologist might diagnose this as someone with borderline personality disorder “splitting” – emotionally flipping from viewing someone as completely good to completely bad. That may be true although there was another crucial factor: Teresa’s hateful feelings were being fed by a man named Bayard Saville.

Speculate all you like about the nature of the relationships between Thomas Bell, Teresa and Mary Ellen Pleasant – and goddess knows people have been doing lots of lurid speculating for nearly 150 years – but this is a fact: Teresa thought Bayard Saville was the love of her life.

Saville appeared on the scene in 1894, less than two years after the death of Teresa’s husband. He was aristocratic (old Boston family) and charming and handsome and rich and ten years younger and looking for a wife. Of course, he was actually a con man.

(RIGHT: Bayard Saville mug shot, 1896)

Teresa waxed poetic in her diary about his visits to Beltane ranch, where they hiked and rode horses and did whatever she recorded with an “X” in the diary. “Went riding with Saville–X X X X,” was one entry. “These X X X are to remember something I never wish to forget.” Soon she named him manager of the ranch and soon after that they told the family they were engaged.

Pleasant or her lawyers discovered he was recently released from San Quentin where he served three years for passing rubber checks and forgery. Eldest son Fred rushed to Glen Ellen and confronted Saville, threatening to shoot his mother’s lover. It was partly because of their affair that Fred later tried to have his mother declared incompetent and removed as guardian of the younger children.

True to form, before they could be married Bayard forged Teresa’s signature on two checks, for $75 and $600 (more than an average annual income) and tried to pass them at the local drugstore. When arrested, the Call newspaper reported, “Mrs. Bell would not appear against him, as she was not only in love with him, but dared not make him her enemy.” In 1896 he began serving a fourteen year sentence in San Quentin.5

The next year Saville gave the San Francisco Chronicle a jailhouse interview where he complained Mary Ellen set him up, then lied to Teresa about paying his defense lawyers. He vowed revenge: “In my safe in the deposit vaults I have over a hundred documents concerning Mammy’s manipulations with the Bell and Schell estates, and when the right moment comes I intend to have no mercy on her.”

Saville’s determination to destroy the relationship between Mary Ellen and Teresa is shown in his letters smuggled out of prison where “he told his lover she was doomed if she didn’t get rid of [Mary Ellen],” according to what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. found among the Holdredge papers at the San Francisco Library. Saville’s threat of blasting out a cache of incriminating documents is mirrored in an odd thing Teresa said in her big fight with Mary Ellen – that she had cataloged Mary Ellen’s wrongdoings and mailed the proof to the Bancroft Library at UC/Berkeley (not true).

Nor was Saville alone in poisoning Teresa’s addled mind. She was in regular contact with writer James E. Brown Jr., a yellow journalist who would later burglarize Pleasant’s home with Teresa’s approval. It was Brown who convinced her Mary Ellen had killed her husband to stop him from changing his will. (Teresa famously later wrote in her diary that Pleasant not only pushed him over the railing but “put her finger in the hole in the top of his head and pulled out the protruding brains,” which would have been quite a feat considering his skull was unbroken.)

Although there was no byline, we know from Teresa’s diaries that Brown was the author of the “Queen of the Voodoos,” a feature in the Sunday Chronicle, July 9, 1899, which was about six weeks after the big quarrel and breakup. That she was named as “Mary Ellen” once and “Mammy” 49 times is about the least offensive thing about the article, which casts her as a sorceress, master manipulator and probably the least likable character since Simon Legree. No good deed is mentioned, even the smallest act of charity; the article is a matter-of-fact rehash of old gossip and awful rumors about her consumate evilness, including her “trapping” poor Saville. It probably goes without saying that many of the lies made their way into the Holdredge novelization.

“Queen of the Voodoos” was naked libel, but Mary Ellen was in no position to sue the Chronicle – she was claiming to be insolvent at the time, remember – so the article was left unchallenged. The bemused reader likely thought it to be an objective profile; after all, it carried the misleading subhed, “Remarkable Career of Mammy Pleasant and Her Wonderful Influence Over Men and Women.” Few were still around who remembered most of the events described in the article.

And that’s how Mary Ellen’s actual history came to be erased. While there had been ongoing newspaper items over the years concerning the creditor lawsuits and the earlier Sharon-Hill court fight, by 1899 she was half forgotten. An entire generation and more had passed since her glory days in the Gilded Age, when her team of horses famously raced through San Francisco streets carrying the proud black woman. All her enemies had to do was NOT remind people how she had utterly demolished race and gender stereotypes, building a fortune in the process. Without that, her narrative invited suspicion: How could a woman of her era – particularly an African-American woman – become so wealthy by legitimate means? Brown, Teresa and others were ready with stories to tell you.

Mary Ellen Pleasant died January 11, 1904 at the home of a married couple. The obituaries were mostly kind, insomuch as they often mentioned her association with abolitionist John Brown as well as supposed voodoo rites. Popular descriptors were “weird,” “mysterious” and “strange.” She left several wills, including one which named only the Bell children. Six years later it was decided everything went to the couple who nursed her, including Beltane ranch, now reduced to just 114 acres. That didn’t sit well with Teresa, who kept Mary Ellen’s estate in court until her own death in 1922.

When she wasn’t appearing in a courtroom, Teresa Bell spent most of her last thirty years at the ranch outside of Glen Ellen. After being dependent upon Mary Ellen for most of her life, forcing away her old friend and mother-figure was the most Pyrrhic of victories; as she was usually estranged from all of her children she was left with only a blind servant for companionship. Despite her foolishness and the troubles she caused so many, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Teresa when you imagine her there in the Valley of the Moon as decades crept by, always alone except for the voices she heard on the winds and the mad visions she saw as she flew.

1 Teresa Bell was born in 1846 or 1847 near Auburn, New York. Two women who said they were her birth sisters told the probate jury she was born Marie Clingan and taken in by a family named Harris when she was about four, following the Clingans being sent to the poor farm. Supporting this interpretation is the 1855 New York state census which shows 9 year-old Teresa Harris in the Harris household, but not there in the 1850 federal census. But the coroner’s grand jury also heard testimony she sometimes flipped the story, claiming she was born a Harris and adopted by the Clingans. “Whether she really believed herself a Harris or tried to make the world believe it, no one knows,” the Chronicle reported. An article in an Auburn newspaper (reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, Jan. 20 1881) confirms she was born a Clingan but also lived at two other homes besides the Harris family. She returned to visit Auburn at least twice, in 1872 with her first husband John Percy and in 1881 with her five year-old son.

2 A profile from an Auburn, NY newspaper (reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, Jan. 20 1881) stated she had “two children, and one more by adoption” with the adopted child being Fred, the eldest.

3 “The Mystery of Mary Ellen Pleasant,” Lerone Bennett Jr., published as a two-part article in Ebony magazine in 1979 and reprinted in 1993. A noted scholar and author of several books on African-American history, Bennett did original research in the Mary Ellen Pleasant document collection donated to the San Francisco Public Library by Helen Holdredge. His articles contain many details not mentioned in other research on Pleasant such as the condition of the Teresa Bell diaries, where “several pages and parts of pages have been cut out with a razor blade or some other sharp instrument.” 

4 As per usual, it is difficult to determine if there was any truth to what Helen Holdredge wrote about this episode. According to her book (“Mammy Pleasant”, pp. 224-227) Lucy Beebee was Mary Ellen Pleasant’s last protégée and among the Sonoma Valley properties purchased by Mary Ellen in 1891 was a ranch given to Fred Schell, Lucy’s brother-in-law. As a farmer Schell was such an abject failure, Holdredge continued, his wife “did not know whether she would have a pot of beans from one day to the next” and Pleasant was secretly paying his farmworkers. In truth, Lucy appears to be Fred’s cousin, as his mother’s maiden name was Beebee. The Schell family was well-established in the area by Fred’s father since before the Civil War with the Schellville railway station and crossroads village named after them. After several years of office work, Fred returned to farm on “the old homstead” in 1896, according to the Honoria Tuomey county history. In 1899 – the same year that Schell farmworker supposedly demanded his wages from Teresa – Fred established the successful Schellville Hatchery which shipped eggs and chicks all over the west.

5 Saville was released from prison in 1911. It is unknown if he again contacted Teresa in person. He lived in Santa Cruz and died in Venice, California in 1914.

Oil was found on Southern California property Teresa Bell inherited from her husband, and in 1905 she became a millionaire in her own right


John Ritzman, who has been employed on the old Mammy Pleasant ranch, near Glen Ellen, by Mrs. Teresa Bell, relative of Mammy’s, and a wealthy San Francisco woman, told District Attorney Clarence F. Lea yesterday afternoon that when he fired twice upon Mrs. Bell with a revolver on the ranch on Monday afternoon he did so because she had attacked him with a club and because prior to the near tragedy he had been warned to take a revolver with him when he went to demand of the woman a payment of his wages, as “she carried either a revolver or a dagger.” She refused to pay him the $100 she owed him in wages, he said, and when he asked her for it, he said, she called him bad names and demanded that he leave the ranch forthwith, threatened him with a club, he admitted that he fired twice at her but did not hit her. He might have fired again but his desire was cut short when John Lavere, another employee of the face hit him over the head with a water pitcher and floored him. Then the desire left him and the next thing he knew Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan had him in custody. Deputy Ryan brought Ritzman to the county jail yesterday morning and he will be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Ritzman’s wife is mentally unbalanced and in his interview with the District Attorney, Ritzman claimed yesterday that Mrs. Bell was responsible for his wife’s condition, as she had furnished her with liquor and drugs.

Mrs. Bell will tell her version of the attack upon her by Ritzman when the case is heard in court. Ritzman has five children.

– Press Democrat, September 3, 1913


Sonoma Woman Fired at by Man

John Richmond, a resident of Sonoma valley, was arrested Monday afternoon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan and brought to this city Tuesday, where he was lodged in the county jail on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

Ryan states that Richmond fired twice at Mrs. Fred Bell, a prominent resident of the valley for whom he was working. Richmond was standing within a few feet of Mrs. Bell when he shot and her escape is considered miraculous. Richmond was about to fire again when another man rushed up from behind him and hit him over the head with a crockery water pitcher, knocking him unconscious.

Richmond admits the shooting and states that Mrs. Bell had been quarreling with him for several days. He is a carpenter and Mrs. Bell charged him with slighting his work and loafing on the job. He says that he lost his temper and determined to get even. He repeats constantly, even now, that he is sorry he did not kill Mrs. Bell. Richmond is a property owner in the Valley and has a wife and five children. He will be given a thorough examination, as it is thought that he may be mentally unbalanced.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1913


Man Who Shot Twice at Mrs. Bell Will Be Tried for Attempted Murder

Mrs. Teresa Bell, a wealthy San Francisco woman who owns a ranch near Glen Ellen, took the stand in Justice Latimer’s court here yesterday and told of the narrow escape she had when John Ritzman took two shots at her with a revolver on her ranch one day last week.  Ritzman’s preliminary examination on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to murder Mrs. Bell was held yesterday and Ritzman was bound over i n a bond of $3,000 for trial in the Superior court. District Attorney Clarence F. Lea prosecuted.

Mrs. Bell testified that Ritzman became very angry when she criticized the work he was doing in the erection of a building for her. He used strong language tolde her, she said, and when she walked away he followed her. Once she picked up a stick to protect herself. Ritzman continued his abuse and ran to his carpenter’s apron and pulled out a revolver and shot at her. But for the fact that the revolver caught in the apron, Mrs. Bell, testified, the bullet might have found a mark in her anatomy. Ritzman raised the weapon to fire again, but her son-in-law. J. Rullmith, struck Ritzman over the head with a water pitcher and the shot went wild. The son-in-law of Mrs. Bell was called as a witness.

Ritzman had very little to say. Of course he could not give the bail bond and had to return to jail. He claims that he acted in Self-defense and that he had been warned by another man to look out for Mrs. Bell. He claims his words with Mrs. Bell started when he asked her for wages. The question of wages was not brought out at the examination yesterday.

– Press Democrat, September 13, 1913


Aged John Ritzman Pleads Guilty and Sentenced is Suspended by Judge Seawell

John Reitzman, the aged carpenter, who took a shot at Mrs. Teresa Bell, a well known San Francisco and Sonoma Valley woman, on her ranch near Glen Ellen some time since, was allowed to go on probation after he had pleaded guilty in Judge Seawell’s department of the Superior court on Saturday. Sentence was suspended for two years and in the meantime Reitzman will report to Probation Officer John P. Plover.

The case was deemed one in which clemency could be extended. The shot, it is said, was fired after considerable provocation. Reitzman has had a great deal of trouble, his wife is in a sanitarium and he had a number of children who are dependent upon him. Ritzman was represented by Attorney Roy Vitousek. It is not likely that he will get into trouble again. Mr. Plover will assist him in straightening out his difficulties.

– Press Democrat, November 16, 1913


Read More