THAT TERRIBLE MAN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT

As the presidential election approaches, the Santa Rosa paper is relentlessly attacking the Republican candidate. Readers are told he lies about his past to impress voters and he won’t listen to others because he foolishly believes he’s always right. His own party wants nothing to do with him. His proposals are simplistic as well as unworkable and unconstitutional (a document he’s obviously never read) and he will destroy the country if he gets within a mile of the White House. Plus, he looks funny.

The newspaper is the Sonoma Democrat. The Republican is Abraham Lincoln. The year is 1860.

The Sonoma Democrat was the direct ancestor of the Press Democrat and before, during and after the Civil War was relentlessly pro-Confederate. Most of Sonoma County shared those sentiments to some degree – this was the only place in the state which did not vote for Lincoln either time. But editor Thomas L. Thompson shaped the Santa Rosa newspaper into the sort of rag that might have been published in the Deep South at that time, not only pro-slavery but astonishingly racist. Now that the Democrat is online we can search it and find there were at least 330 uses of the “n-word” between 1857 and 1886. To squeeze that many hateful slurs into a four-page weekly reveals Thompson to be an awful person and probably a little crazy. There’s no question he was certifiably nuts when he committed suicide in 1898; the coroner’s jury ruled he was “mentally deranged” after ranting that the Odd Fellows’ Lodge was out to get him.

(RIGHT: Abraham Lincoln May 20, 1860, two days after winning the Republican party nomination)

In the run-up to the election, sample items from the paper transcribed below show Thompson fed his readers a steady diet of anti-Lincoln, anti-abolitionist bile. To make sense of some of these articles it’s important to know this was an odd four-way election with both Northern and Southern Democrats in the running. Besides Lincoln, the official Democratic Party candidate was Stephen A. Douglas, who thought he could somehow forge a grand compromise to keep the United States patched together; Southern Democrat Breckinridge, who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right; and third-party candidate Bell, who wanted to appease the South by ignoring the slavery issue altogether.

The Sonoma Democrat introduced readers to Lincoln that summer with ad hominem attacks. Lincoln had “neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye” and lied about being a rail-splitter in his youth, as people in that part of Illinois made their fences from pieces of wood picked up in swamps (having grown up near there, I can attest there are no prairie swamps). During his service in the Black Hawk war, the paper claimed he forgot to untether his horse and fell with the animal when he tried to ride away; believing his horse had been brought down by an ambush, “Old Abe” tried to surrender to the non-existant Indians.

Sonoma county readers were told that some delegates at the Republican convention were “mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln.” Items reprinted from like-minded journals insisted he was a dead weight on the ballot and could not possibly win – although his inevitable loss in New York state would cause chaos, as the outcome would then be decided by the House of Representatives (he won New York by nearly eight points).

But more than anything else, Thompson kept hammering that Lincoln was a “Black Republican.” In Thompson’s argot, this was the worst thing he could call someone because it meant they believed African-Americans were human beings with legal rights. Whatever lip service Thompson and his ilk gave to state’s rights and the constitutionality of slave-holding, its rotten core was always racist hatred.

On election day Lincoln got 1,236 votes in Sonoma county, behind Breckinridge’s 1,466. Petaluma was the only town Lincoln won, with 375 voting for him. Santa Rosa cast 91 ballots for Lincoln and 205 for Breckinridge.

Thompson hunkered down in the final weeks of 1860, bitterly spinning a story of gloom and doom. Stock markets were in a “panic” and banks in two southern states were expecting to be closed. The “free negroes, their aiders and abettors” were plotting to avenge John Brown’s death with help from the Republicans. There was a recurrent theme in the dispatches from the pro-southern papers that the South was keeping a steady keel while the North was falling apart. Charleston supposedly would not allow steerage passengers on steamboats coming from the North to disembark unless there was a guarantee they would not become vagrants.

Thompson also launched a trope that the North was trying to nullify the Constitution and forcing the Southern states to secede against their wishes. Failing to return runaway slaves was nothing short of treason, according to Thompson, who hoped that Congress would mete out punishment “if the present disunion cloud should blow over.” There is the Confederacy mindset neatly summed: 1) we’re the victims; 2) we have the only true understanding of the Constitution; 3) we will never, ever, compromise on slavery. For these reasons and more, one dispatch from Alabama concluded: “Revolution is inevitable.”

 

 

DOUGLAS AND LINCOLN. — The men are entirely dissimilar. Douglas is a thick set, finely built man, with an air of self confidence. Lincoln is a tall (six feet four), lank man, awkward, apparently diffident, and when not speaking has neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 21, 1860

 

News from the Atlantic states.

The Overland stage with the St. Louis mails of the 21st ult. arrived at San Francisco on Monday last. On Friday, the 18th May, the Chicago Convention nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, for President, on the third ballot, and Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine, for Vice President, on the second ballot. The nomination of Lincoln struck the Republicans of the Middle and Eastern States cold. A forced enthusiasm, however, was got up in some cities…The New Yorkers are as mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln. They say they can’t begin to carry New York with Lincoln, and the dead weight of their abominable Legislature added. Bets are made that Lincoln will lose N. Y. by 20,000…

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1860

…Abe Lincoln has declared, that if he were in the halls of Congress, and the question of the abolition of slavery were to come up, ho would vote for it in spite of the Dred Scott decision. In other words he declared that the highest Tribunal of the land was no authority for him, that he would disregard all principles of law, justice and order, and would by the mere force of physical superiority compel nearly one half of the states of this Confederacy to change their social and domestic institutions, at the beck and nod of a tyranous majority; and this is the candidate of the party who with emulous ostentation denounce the South as disunionists and traitors. This is the party who daily shout and swagger about union and nationality, who complaining of intolerance on the part of the South, deny to her all toleration, all equality, all justice, all rights under the Constitution, and insult her with threats of coercion if she dares resist their sovereign will…

– Sonoma Democrat editorial, July 12 1860

The Pittsburg Post says: An old citizen who traveled in Illinois thirty years ago, and was especially familiar with the district of country where Abe Lincoln resided, says that Abe never split a rail in his life. In those days, he says, the people never thought of such a thing as splitting rails. They went into the swamps and cut hoop-poles and saplings for fences, and used them, round, as nature made them.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

At the time of the Black Hawk war, ‘Abe’ enlisted. The company numbered about eight mounted men. They started off in fine spirits to engage in the deadly fray. Arriving at a point on the prairies, about two hundred miles from the Indian lines, the party bivouacked for the night, picketed their horses, and slept on their arms…During the night, the sentinel, whoso mental caliber was in no measure proportioned to his patriotism, imagined he saw the Indians! and immediately discharged his old fusee. The camp was aroused in an instant, and each sprang to his saddle. ‘Old Abe’ shot out in the darkness on his charger like lightning, until the ropes ‘hove taut,’ when over he went, horse and himself, headlong! Thinking himself caught in an Indian ambush, he gathered up, mounted, putting spurs to his horse, took the opposite shute, but soon brought up as before, horse and rider tumbling headlong. ‘Old Abe’ got up, thinking he was surrounded! and shouted, ‘Gentlemen Indians! I surrender without a word. I have not a word to offer. All I want is quarter!’ There ‘Old Abe’s” first campaign ended!’

– Sonoma Democrat, September 13 1860

The conservative and Union loving men of the North are making every effort to defeat Lincoln. All parties concede that should Lincoln lose New York his defeat inevitable.

[..]

By reference to our Eastern news today, it will be seen that there has been a complete fusion between all the elements of opposition to the Black Republicans in New York-—the vote of that State to be cast for Douglas, Breckinridge or Bell, as they shall receive the highest popular vote. This will undoubtedly throw the election into the House of Representatives, and secures beyond question the defeat of Lincoln.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 27 1860

…On one side stands Lincoln, proclaiming the social, moral and political superiority of the North over the South, and calling upon men to enter into an “irrepressibly conflict” for the complete and entire destruction of the Southern States. On the other hand we have Breckinridge proclaiming the equality of the States, the harmony of commerce and industry, the sacred and constitutional right of self-government.–N.Y. Herald.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1860

REPUBLICAN MEETING.– Hand-bills have been staring us in the face upon every corner for the last week, announcing that James Churchman, Esquire, of Nevada, would address the irrepressibles of this place yesterday. Well, the eventful evening arrived and so repaired to the Court House expecting to hear the Democracy entirely demolished. We found assembled exactly seven Republicans, most of whom were from abroad; there may have been as many as twelve, since there were three or four persons there whom we did not know. There were besides these some fifteen or twenty snuff-colored gentlemen, and about seventy-five Breckinridge and Bell men. The irrepressible gentleman had already commenced when we arrived, so that we did not hear the first part of his harangue. We listened to him, however, about three quarters of an hour, and we must say, we heard the most pithless, pointless batch of misrepresentations we have ever listened to. Mr, Churchman’s address is pleasing, and his manner well calculated to attract tho attention of a promiscuous assemblage; but he did not make a single point during the time we listened to him, that deserves the space it would take to refute it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 18 1860

KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, that Abraham Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico and declared it unnecessary and unjust.

Keep it before the people, that the Republicans are in favor of placing negroes on an equality with the whites, and in many of the free States sanction amalgamation.

Keep it before the people, that in Massachusetts the Republicans proscribed foreign-born citizens and attempted to deprive them of the right of suffrage, and would have succeeded had the Democrats not opposed it.

Keep it before the people, that in the same State negroes were elected delegates to conventions and assisted in nominating Republican candidates for Congress.

Keep it before the people, that the infidel Garrison, a leading Black Republican, unblushingly declares, that the Constitution of the United Slates “it a covenant with death and an agreement with hell!”

Keep it before the the people, that this same Republican leader Garrison, blasphemously asserts, that if “God had the power to abolish slavery and would not, he wae a very great scoundrel!”

– Sonoma Democrat, November 1 1860

The contest is over, and from the partial returns so far received, it is doubtful if the State has not gone againat us. In this County the Democracy have scarcely deserved anything else. At a time when every element of opposition was combining against them, when every energy was needed to secure success, they have remained passive and indifferent until they have actually allowed the election to go by default…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1860

San Francisco, Nov. 13th, 1860. Editors Sonoma County Democrat: The great battle is over, and although it has resulted in partial defeat, let not Democrats be disheartened, but rather let them organize and prepare themselves better for the next struggle, when the now prevailing party will have been “played out,” as were their immediate successors. Although six days have passed since the election, little is yet known of the result. According to latest accounts Lincoln is about 1100 ahead, but this seems doubtful, as it is strongly suspected that the despatches are not much to be relied on, having been gotten up more for betting purposes than for the diffusion of reliable statistical information. The news from the East will be sent with the greatest despatch by the Pony, and will be received here the fore part of next week. The telegraphing facilities of the Eastern States will be tested to their utmost, but it is generally expected that the general result will be known by that time. How annoying it is that the knowledge of a great event must be kept from us for days when a few hundred miles of telegraphic wire would put us in immediate possession of the all-desired information.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1860

The news by the Pony confirms the unwelcome intelligence of Lincoln’s election as the next President of the United States. At the same time it brings the news of movements in several of the Southern States, which indicate a fixed determination on their part to remain no longer in the Union. Their perfect and sovereign right to secede, if they desire to do so, must be conceded from the very nature and formation of our government. There are but two means by which any Union of States can be maintained or preserved; one is a community of interests, the other a preponderance of force. The former is the only means which was ever contemplated, in the formation of our Constitution, for the very objects of its formation, viz: “To establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty,” utterly preclude the idea of using force for its preservation, for this use of force would at once defeat every object for which the Union was formed. If these States, therefore, in their sovereign capacity, see proper to secede from the Union, there is no power under the Constitution to prevent them; and any attempt to coerce them would be as unconstitutional as it would be unholy, unjust and futile. This movement may be one pregnant with mighty consequences. There has never been a period in the history of our government when there was so much necessity for wise, deliberate and cautious procedure, and it is well that the people should weigh and consider the causes which have led to these untoward results, and prepare to meet the mighty events which loom up so portentiously in the future, for, as has been well said, it is for them to decide what course they will sustain the administration in pursuing toward those states which may secede.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 29 1860

The excitement in the South continues, accompanied with general depression in the markets and trade, amounting to a panic. There has been a general decline in stocks at New York, and a great increase in rates of exchange at Chicago. There is a tightness at St. Louis, and perfect derangement in monetary affairs South. The South Carolina and Georgia Legislatures have prepared for a suspension of their banks. No suspensions have yet taken place. The Mayor of Charleston has notified the agents of Northern steamers that he would not permit the landing of steerage passengers, unless the companies guaranteed their maintenance, if they became vagrants. Merchants have now goods on hand, but no new orders will be given to the North, except such as are indispensable.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 6 1860

Negro Lincoln Clubs. — We copy the following advertisement from the Pittsburg Dispatch, of October 16th, an influential Black Republican organ: “Colored Men of Pittsburg and Vicinity!–You are requested to meet and form yourselves into Wide Awake Clubs immediately, for the purpose of farthering the interest of the friend of the human race, Abraham Lincoln. Already New York has spoken in favor of universal suffrage. And if colored men would have their rights, they should move for the success of their friends. John Brown, the hero of Harper’s Ferry, is yet to be avenged.”

Is it strange that the South should bo excited und alarmed in the face of such proceedings, sanctioned and encouraged by the Black Republicans of the free States? Does not prudence dictate that they should be prepared to meet and repel a second John Brown raid? Do not the free negroes, their aiders and abettors, contemplate a second foray into the Southern States? Do the negroes not hope to avenge the death of John Brown, and have they not reason to anticipate assistance and protection from the Republicans?

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1860

WHO ARE THE DISUNIONISTS?– The New York Herald, of the 10th ult., says: We publish below an account of the Northern Slates which prohibit their officials and citizens from aiding in the execution of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, and which by their action, have boldly nullified the Constitution of the United States…It will be seen from the above that the Northern States are nearly all in a position of practical disunion–that is, they have refused to sustain the constitution which their fathers adopted.

LEGISLATING FOR TREASON.–If the present disunion cloud should blow over, as all lovers of their country sincerely trust that it may, we hope Congress will make a point of re-enacting, at an early day, some law defining treason, and providing sufficient means for its prevention or punishment…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1860

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1902pleasant

SEEKING MAMMY PLEASANT

Quiz time: Name the most prominent African-American ever to live in Sonoma county. Name the wealthiest woman in 19th century San Francisco. Name the person your grandparents and great-grandparents believed was actually practicing black magic. All three are Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant.

(RIGHT: Detail of a 1902 portrait of Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant at age 87)

Remarkably little  about her is known with certainty. She was born sometime between 1814 and 1817. She may have been a slave (or not). She refused to answer to the racist nickname, “Mammy” and the portrait most often used is not even a photograph of her at all, but Queen Emma of Hawaii. All that’s really certain is that she always carried herself with poise and was light-skinned, able to pass as white whenever she wanted – or then again, maybe her face was darker but had “European” features. But you can bet she was likely far smarter than anyone else she ever met.

An incident that happened at Glen Ellen in 1913 was originally planned to be retold here as part of the previous item about our ancestor’s readiness, just a century ago, to pull out their guns and blast away at each other. But as I prepared to write it up, it became clear that this shooting could be of interest to scholars as it reveals previously unknown details related to her story, and the canon of published work on Pleasant is so puny that even small bits may help.

Nearly all that’s available about her – both in print and online – is a thin weave of myths, canards and twice-told bits which fall apart with the slightest tug of fact checking. On the Internet this thumbnail bio offers a pretty good capsule view of her life. Further research is found in The Making of “Mammy Pleasant” which is available at the Sonoma County library (the introduction is particularly worth reading).

But most of what is still commonly said about her comes from novelizations of her life and times written by Helen Holdredge, who turned out a handful of history-based potboilers in the 1950s. Sources are rarely mentioned in “Mammy Pleasant” and “Mammy Pleasant’s Partner,” making it impossible for the reader to know how much was simply made up. The author sensationalized the story without restraint, always seeking to reveal malevolent motivations behind Pleasant’s every deed. And often staining those pages is Holdredge’s racism; not content to simply mention a newspaper at the time once called Pleasant “queen of the voodoos,” Holdredge spun out a three page yarn of the supposed ritual which gave her “absolute control over the Negroes.” Thanks to the availability today of digitized newspapers and other sources we can debunk some of the claims in her books but gaps will always remain, in part because Holdredge possibly destroyed some primary source material before donating her collection to the San Francisco Library.

This is not the place to attempt a full profile of Mary Ellen Pleasant, but here are some biographical highlights:

*
INSTANT ENTREPRENUER   When Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in 1852 California there were over nine men to every woman. Demand was high for domestic service skills; her first job here was cooking for $500/month (over $24,000/mo today). She followed by operating laundries and boardinghouses which catered to the richest men in town, presumably giving her the opportunity to pick up investment tips.
 
*
FREEDOM FIGHTER   Mary Ellen established the western terminus of the underground railroad and was as important an activist in the movement as Harriet Tubman, aiding hundreds of slaves to find transport to new lives in Canada and the West. She was an avid supporter of John Brown and involved with financing Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. He was carrying a note from her when he was captured, which is the Believe-it-or-Not! connection between her and Santa Rosa’s Comstock family; Harvey B. Hurd was in the leadership of another group supporting John Brown and Hurd had provided the famed abolitionist with his own clothes to replace Brown’s tattered suit. While it’s unknown if Hurd and Pleasant met (and it is quite possible since they were only 300 miles apart during 1859 when she was in Ontario), her note was found in a pocket which once belonged to Hilliard Comstock’s grandfather.
 
*
FINANCIAL WIZARD   Back in post-Civil War San Francisco, Mary Ellen Pleasant resumed her investments with mining and real estate deals, building one of the great fortunes in San Francisco during the Gilded Age. She did not conceal her wealth, riding through the streets in a carriage attended by a coachman and footman dressed in top hats and white breeches. In 1877 she designed and had built a mansion on a lot covering two city blocks (see photos below). It was said to cost $100,000 and she spared no expense in decorating; tapestries, gold bronze chandeliers and a clock over seven feet high were some of the features that left visitors gasping.
 
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HUMANIST, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST   Even Pleasant’s critics would concede she used her wealth and influence to great good. She marshalled a constant stream of protégées, both black and white, towards good jobs and good marriages while finding homes for unwanted babies. In the late 1860s she successfully sued the streetcar companies in San Francisco so African-Americans would be allowed to ride the trolleys.
 
*
“MAMMY” IS BORN   Pleasant was a key player in a scandalous legal battle that dragged through most of the 1880s with papers nationally reporting every dramatic moment in the courtrooms, including an incident where someone pulled a Bowie knife on a Supreme Court justice at a hearing. At issue was whether socialite Sarah Hill was indeed married to Senator William Sharon, one of the wealthiest men in America, who claimed she was just his West Coast mistress. Pleasant’s connection with the woman isn’t clear, but Mary Ellen paid her legal fees, testified several times and attended every court appearance, sitting next to Hill. Pleasant’s reputation was collateral damage as the well-connected senator sought to smear Hill in the press. Accusations flew she was a prostitute and Pleasant was the whorehouse madam, and it was whispered “Mammy” had bewitched the senator with a love potion. The trials and demeaning press coverage set the stage for her downfall a few years later, when she would face some of the same judges in her own lawsuits.

Central to our story is the long and complex relationship between Mary Ellen and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Bell. Before he met Pleasant, Thomas was already wealthy as part of the 1860s “Bank Crowd” in San Francisco, the insiders controlling nearly everything connected with Comstock Lode mining. In the 1870s he partnered with Pleasant and their mutual fortunes skyrocketed further still. He moved into her mansion which presumably raised some eyebrows, although a few years earlier he had been staying with another (male) partner from the Bank Crowd. Whether or not Thomas and Mary Ellen shared an intimate relationship is completely speculative.

Thomas’ wife, Teresa, is almost as much a riddle as Mary Ellen Pleasant. Most of her backstory comes from the unreliable Helen Holdredge, whose books claim she was another young protégée, groomed to be Bell’s mistress and nanny to his adopted children. (Another part of the Holdredge story that makes no sense is that Mary Ellen supposedly tricked him into believing he had to adopt them because they were his kids from prostitutes and mistresses.) After Teresa and Thomas married, all of them were living together in the 30-room manse where the fiction was Pleasant was employed as housekeeper. Altogether there were six children, but it’s unclear how many were born to the couple or were adopted.

Family life shifted to Sonoma county after Pleasant bought 985 acres near Glen Ellen in 1891. Included was one of the finest vineyards in California and a two-story ranch house, which she remodeled and probably expanded. She named the place Beltane Ranch, which survives today with the home turned into a bed-and-breakfast. (Sadly, the inn’s website includes only a few words about her and includes the usual dubious facts; for more information see this  history of the Beltane Ranch.) As usual, she made a savvy investment. Train service through the Valley of the Moon from the Tiburon ferry had just started the year before, and would soon transform the area into a favorite getaway for San Francisco elites, with the likes of sugar magnate Rudolph Spreckels raising polo ponies nearby.

The Bells and Pleasant played at being country squires but it only lasted about a year. The exact start of Mary Ellen’s downfall can be dated to October 16, 1892, when Thomas Bell died after falling over a railing in their San Francisco mansion.

Mary Ellen and Teresa continued their same roles, Teresa primarily at Beltane and Mary E. in the city. They co-parented the children and Pleasant continued handling all financial matters, even to the point of clothes shopping for Teresa.

They would also spend the next ten years in courtrooms fighting Thomas’ creditors, Pleasant’s creditors and finally each other. And except for the occasional sojourn to the courthouse in Santa Rosa, most of the legal battles were decided in San Francisco in front of Judge Coffey, who also presided over the endless William Sharon case.

Thomas and Mary Ellen’s investments were deeply entangled and became even more twisted after his death. For example, Mary Ellen apparently tried to hide assets by giving Teresa the deed to half of Beltane in 1894 but five years later, creditors convinced a judge to declare Pleasant the sole owner of the ranch. An old unrecorded deed conveying the San Francisco mansion to Pleasant had to be wrestled from Teresa’s grasp. Both were taking out mortgages on properties they may or may not have owned. It was an epic mess, impossible to straighten out today because the probate records for Thomas’ estate were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Matters were made worse when 23 year-old eldest son Fred Bell petitioned the court in 1897 to have his mother removed as guardian of the children, claiming Teresa was an abusive alcoholic and being manipulated by the “Voudon woman.” He lobbed escalating charges at Pleasant in following months: She had stolen jewelry, embezzled thousands from the estate and ultimately hinted she had murdered his father, although he hedged by adding that while he was in the house at the time, he was too drunk to say for sure.

The crisis came in the spring of 1899. A petty quarrel at Beltane Ranch between Mary Ellen and Teresa escalated into thermonuclear war. Police were called.  Mary Ellen – somewhere past 85 years old at the time – locked herself in her room as Teresa, sprightly at age 51 or 52, struggled to push in the door. You kids.

Mary Ellen packed her trunks and left Beltane, never to return. Shortly after returning to the San Francisco mansion she found police at the door with an eviction notice from Teresa – a curious twist since at that time Pleasant was the owner of record of both the mansion and Beltane. She moved out of there, too.

Pleasant spent most of her final years at a small house in what is now South San Francisco. She died impoverished in 1904 at the home of a couple who buried her in their family’s cemetery plot in Napa.

Even after Mary Ellen Pleasant’s death the lawsuits continued. Her probate wasn’t closed for six years, when it was decided (by Judge Coffey, again) she left Beltane to the couple who nursed her at the end. That spurred new suits which went on for much of the 1910s. A little tin box of Pleasant’s was found in a safe deposit vault, and in 1912 Teresa and a small army of lawyers crowded together over a courtroom table as it was unlocked. Instead of the jewels Teresa expected, there was only “a bunch of faded papers,” according to the Chronicle, including personal letters and some old deeds. Naturally, Teresa tried to claim they belonged to her.

From published snippets of Teresa’s diaries it is shown she had a burning hatred of Mary Ellen from 1899 onward. But why? Surely she still wasn’t nursing a grudge over the squabble at the ranch concerning which one of them owned an armchair. It certainly went beyond a kind of Monopoly game competition of who had claim to the most houses or even any particular place. No, she wanted to see “Mammy” Pleasant utterly destroyed; her hatred was visceral, and I believe it was driven by a single person: Bayard Saville.

 

 

 

Two views of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s mansion at the southwest corner of Bush and Octavia in San Francisco. At top is a 1926 photograph of the southern face showing the original home designed by Pleasant following the Second Empire/Mansard style. Below is a 1925 photo of the building adjoining it on the northwest side, giving the residence an overall count of thirty rooms. An early photo does not show the addition on the north side, so that building, constructed in the Italian Renaissance style popular around the Civil War, was moved there at some time after Pleasant’s home was built in 1877. The sprawling mansion was called the “House of Mystery” and “House of Secrets” by the press. Both photos courtesy of UC/Berkeley, Bancroft Library. CLICK or TAP to enlarge

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1908chinatown

WHEN THE POSSE RAIDED CHINATOWN

All was quiet that midsummer evening in 1912 Santa Rosa, except for two dozen guys trashing the Chinese neighborhood on Second street.

The men were not thugs from a San Francisco Chinese crime gang, although just a few months earlier the community here worried that a Tong war underway in the city would escalate and draw “highbinder” assassins to Santa Rosa. Nor was the havoc caused by a mob of local drunks looking for trouble. Descending on Second street that night was an official posse of lawmen and sworn citizens conducting the first opium raid in Santa Rosa.

(RIGHT: 1908 Sanborn map section showing Santa Rosa’s Chinatown highlighted in blue)

A lengthy account of the raid appeared in the Press Democrat (transcribed below) and offers a glimpse of the small Chinatown near the intersection of Second and D streets, rare because it was never mentioned in the local newspapers except for occasional calls for it to be torn down and replaced with a park, hospital or something Burbank-related.

The excuse for terrorizing the community and ransacking their homes was the new law outlawing opium use in California – apparently the first time personal possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia was criminalized in U. S. history. The law was passed in 1909 and appealed up to the state Supreme Court, where it was upheld in 1911. Shortly after that Chinatown raids began in larger cities across the state. The posse raid in Santa Rosa was coordinated to start jointly with raids in Sebastopol and Petaluma Chinatowns.

Even though opium possession was only a misdemeanor subject to a $100 fine the posse gave no quarter in their quest, frisking the residents and tearing into everything they found. From the Press Democrat account, “Some half dozen places were entered, doors were locked and the Chinese occupants quickly herded into one room, and then the search began. Boxes, drawers, sacks, tins, paper packages, clothing, beds, and in short everything was overhauled and a thorough search made. Doors that were locked and for which keys were not delivered up at once, were burst open. So were trunks and boxes…pretty much of a litter remained after the officers had done their work.”

The incident also revealed no improvement in anti-Chinese bigotry; the PD article ran through all its old racial epithets – “Celestials” being the kindest of them – but the most loathsome comment in the paper was this: “They all gave some kind of a name. There were Chows, Gows, Ons, Gees, Sams, Harrys and goodness knows what else. For all the officers knew some of those names may have been aliases, too. No one cared particularly anyway. The names all sounded alike.”

The reporter further added his/her pissy little judgements of their lifestyle: They “do not smoke very good tobacco,” smells in some bottles “were not over-appetizing” and “the lard in preparing the evening meal had not been of the freshest variety.” In fact, many in the posse may have been there just to snoop and later snark about the quality of Chinese lard or such; while the party included every active and retired cop in town, other members had no apparent reason to be involved, including State Senator Herb Slater, undertaker Frank Welti and 20 year-olds Arley Gard and Ernest Clay.

In truth, the purpose of the whole business – from the federal import ban also enacted in 1909 down to the raids after 1911 – was meant to harass the Chinese community. The import ban only affected the smoking form of opium favored by Chinese – the opium-based “nerve tonics” predominantly used by whites were still legal.

Smuggling the four-ounce cans over from China proved easy; in her oral history with Gaye LeBaron, Song Wong Bourbeau (born 1909 in Santa Rosa) recalled “they ship them over just like you would ship a dozen eggs.” All the ban accomplished was to quickly drive up the price tenfold; by 1912 a night’s smoke cost around seven dollars, roughly half a working man’s weekly wage and a couple of years later it would double again (MORE). To his credit, former U.S. Congressman from Santa Rosa Duncan McKinlay proposed to tax opium at $5 per pound, believing it was impossible to stop the smuggling trade.

Nor did the Santa Rosa police care about opium smoking before the new law made arrests so lucrative – although they did intervene when white youth were found using the drug, as shown in an example here. And while Santa Rosa had raided Chinatown before, then it was for gambling; in 1910 a series of raids busted Chinese men for playing stud poker (a charge which must have caused guffaws at card tables in saloons and fraternal clubs around town). But those fines brought in less that $250, while in that single opium posse raid the city cleared over $1,000. So it’s no surprise that another posse hit the Santa Rosa opium dens in May 1913, this time making more arrests. Likewise in that search they gave “seven places on Second street…a most thorough overhauling.” Because breaking stuff up is just something a posse has to do, as everyone knows.

 HIGHBINDER SCARE IN SANTA ROSA CHINATOWN LAST NIGHT

Santa Rosa’s Chinatown on Second street between Main and D streets was pretty badly scared Wednesday night. Talk of “Highbinder” was in the air, following the receiving of a telephone message from “My flen in Napa” by Wong Mow, one of the local Chinese merchants.

The word was passed around like wildfire. Chinese pickets were stationed here and there on the lookout app along the block in front of the Mongolian quartets, and Chief of Police Boyes was notified. The Chief instructed the patrolmen on the meats to make frequent visits during the night to Chinatown.

The message received by Wong Mow about half past 7 o’clock word that a party of Chinese highbinders from the warring companies in San Francisco were headed for Santa Rosa and were of the number who shot and killed a man in Marysville. The news was sufficient to put Chinatown all on the lookout.

At one o’clock this morning a Press Democrat representative visited Chinatown. The “lookouts” were still on duty. They were crouching down in the darkness of the shadow of buildings ready to sound an alarm…

…There are many San Francisco Chinese taking refuge here at the present time. A dozen queueless ones arrived here Wednesday night. They have been drifting in for a week…

– Press Democrat, March 21, 1912
STILL IN FEAR OF HIGHBINDERS
Celestials in Local Chinatown Perturbed Over News of Tong Slayings in Other Places

The excitement in Santa Rosa’s Chinatown following the highbinder murders in other cities was increased when the news of the slaying was told there yesterday, and last night the “lookouts” were still on duty. The local Celestials fear that the bad men may visit here.

The casual passerby along the block on Second street occupied by the Chinese quarters last night would not have noticed anything out of the ordinary except for the lookouts crouching in the dark shadow of some building. But the advent of a reporter or policeman known to some of the Chinese merchants was sufficient to draw a crowd of Chinese eager to learn if any news of the approach of the highbinders was forthcoming…

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1912
QUONG SING PROUD MAN ON SATURDAY

Quong Sing, the local merchant, was a happy man on Saturday, when he paraded at the head of the New Cathay Boys’ Band from San Francisco. This band is composed of thirty-seven young Chinese who rendered some splendid selections during their march through the streets. These lads have only been playing five months, but they handle their instruments and their music like seasoned veterans. In the band are two lads of eight and nine years, who play the alto horns. Quong Sing is proud of the new China and the boys who were here on Saturday. He was instrumental in bringing the band to this city.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 4, 1912
POSSES RAID CHINATOWN AND SEVEN ARRESTS MADE
Raids Also Made in Petaluma and Sebastopol
More Arrests in Petaluma and Sebastopol–Opium and Yen She Found and a Number of Outfits on Wednesday Night

There was considerable excitement, quiet excitement at that, in Santa Rosa’s Chinatown Wednesday night. The same can be said of the Chinatown of Sebastopol and that at Petaluma, for in all three places raids were made for opium, yen she and smoking outfits. In all three places both drugs, a number of pipes, hoy toys and other contrabrand articles were unearthed. Five Chinamen, a Chinese woman, and a white man were arrested and landed in jail by the officers, and their cases will come up for hearing in Justice Atchinson’s court. One man was arrested in Sebastopol, and shortly before twelve o’clock he joined the motley crew behind the bars. Four arrests were made in Petaluma.

The raid in Santa Rosa’s Chinatown, located on Second street, between Main and D streets, was headed by Chief of Police John M. Boyes and the officers of the department and of the Justice court, and special deputies aided by Chief Inspector Fred A. Sutherland of the State Board of Pharmacy of California. Sheriff Jack Smith and his posse, had charge of Sebastopol, and Deputy Sheriff Rasmussen and Chief of Police Ed Husler in Petaluma. Deputy Inspector W. T. White of the State Board aided in Sebastopol and Deputy A. J. McDonald of the State Board aided in Petaluma.

For some time the officers and the chief inspectors of the State Board have been aware of presence of the drug and its use in the Chinese quarters in the places named. The inspectors have obtained evidence, and not long since Chief Inspector Sutherland bought a dollars’ worth at one of the places raided on Second street. Consequently the raid was planned for Wednesday night at half past nine o’clock in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Petaluma.

On Second street in this city at the word of command given by sign by Chief Boyes, the posse that had previous divided up entered the Chinese quarters very quietly, no one knowing what was about to transpire. Some half dozen places were entered, doors were locked and the Chinese occupants quickly herded into one room, and then the search began. Boxes, drawers, sacks, tins, paper packages, clothing, beds, and in short everything was overhauled and a thorough search made. Doors that were locked and for which keys were not delivered up at once, were burst open. So were trunks and boxes. A number of packages of Yen She, some tins of opium, pipes and smoking outfits and other accessories in the smoking of the weed were discovered by the various posses and were carefully piled up, and later this evidence was taken to the police station.

Then the Chinamen were each given a “frisk,” or a search, and taken. At times, this was quite amusing, most of the Celestials taking the bantering in good part. Their language, too, had there been an interpreter present, might have savored of the profane. If it did not then, it will when they come to pack those boxes again and clean house, for pretty much of a litter remained after the officers had done their work. They all gave some kind of a name. There were Chows, Gows,Ons, Gees, Sams, Harrys and goodness knows what else. For all the officers knew some of those names may have been aliases, too. No one cared particularly anyway. The names all sounded alike.

Prior to entering the places the officers had provided themselves with search warrants, but none of the Chinese thought to ask for them, anyway. These warrants were procured so that everything might be legally done. It was after midnight before the raid ended here, the search occurring considerable time. Some of the scents discovered in the places during the overhauling of some of the ancient receptacles were not over-appetizing. More than one of the posse pressed into service can testify to that. Those “Chinks,” some of them at any rate, do not smoke very good tobacco, either; and the lard in preparing the evening meal had not been of the freshest variety.

Another thing revealed during the search of several of the Second street “joints,” was that the Chinese evidently do not put much faith in banks. A surprising lot of money was unearthed, and left of course. There were stacks of twenties, tens and fives in gold, as well as silver. The money will be put in another safe place by the Chinese today.

Attorney Rolfe L. Thompson will prosecute the offenders, representing the State Board. He was on hand at the raid Wednesday night, and at the police station when the prisoners were brought in.

Tried a Getaway

The white man, captured on a charge of having sold morphine, lives in this city, and has been a frequent habitant of the Chinese quarters. A warrant was in the pocket of Chief Boyes for his arrest, when he suddenly stepped into the very place where the Chief was assisting in the search. Police Officer George Matthews grabbed and handcuffed him. Later he tried a getaway but was captured by Attorney Thompson and Elmer Mobley, and was taken to the jail and locked up by Matthews.

The Santa Rosa posse was composed of Chief of Police Boyes, [21 other men named].

The Sebastopol Raid

As stated Sheriff Smith headed the raid at Sebastopol, and it was conducted along similar lines to the other places. Some Yen She and an opium outfit was taken from the place of Gong Gee. There was no excitement, and but a few Chinese were found at home. The idea prevailed there as here that in some manner the Chinese had got a “tip” as to what was about to happen. In Sheriff Smith’s posse were [22 other men named].

Raid in Petaluma

Chief Hussler of Petaluma was assisted in the raid there by [5 other men named]. The net result of their work was the arrest of four Chinese and the capture of a considerable quantity of contraband materials and smoking outfits. Three of the Chinese were locked up and one released on $200 cash bail.

– Press Democrat, August 1, 1912
CHINESE PAY $450 FINES
Result of Rain on Opium Dens Wednesday

Ten Chinamen appeared before Justice Atchinson Thursday, charged with having illicit drugs in their possession. This is the catch of the raids in Petaluma, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, made on Wednesday night by the State Board of Health Inspectors.

The first to appear was Lou Yet of Sebastopol. He entered a plea of guilty and was promutly [sic] fined $100 by Justice Atchinson. The next were four Chinamen from Petaluma. They were considerably incensed over having to be tried here. They chattered and harangued for some time, but were unable to furnish the bail, and three of them were returned to jail to await developments. The other was dismissed. Attorney Gil P. Hall of Petaluma appeared for him on behalf of George P. McNear, explaining that he was only a cook and had just entered the place for a chat.

The five arrested here were promptly arraigned. They had little to say, but appeared to be very distressed. Sam Wo Lung was fined $200 on two charges. Wong Quong was fined $100 and Dock Yen $50 and fifty days in jail. Two others were dismissed for lack of evidence. One was a man and the other a woman. Harry Tong was returned to jail until such time as he could raise the money to pay his fine of $100.

Clint Rickliff, Ed Gautier and Earl Bumbaugh, the three white men captured in the raid on the Chinamen, are to be tried by Justice Atchinson also. These men are all known to be fiends and it is possible they will be sent to some asylum for treatment.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 1, 1912
THREE LONE CHINAMEN REMAIN NOW

There are three lone Chinamen in the county jail at the present time as the left-overs from the recent opium rains in the county. All the other defendants have had their cases disposed of and something over $1,000 has been paid in fines. One of the Chinamen will serve 200 days in jail and the two others are in for one hundred days each. They will have to go a long time without their smokes.

– Press Democrat, August 8, 1912
OPIUM SMOKER IS CAPTURED
Officers Gard and Ragain Arrest Sam Wo Lung While Engaged in Enjoyable Smoke

Officers Gard and Ragain made a very clever capture of an opium smoker and his entire outfit, including the yen shee, which he was heating on his needle preparatory to taking a smoke at 2 o’clock Thursday morning.

The victim of the raid was Sam Wo Lung, who was recently acquitted of having opium in his possession when captured in the last raid conducted under the direction of the State Board of Health. He is considered one of the leaders here and his capture with the goods on him is considered quite a victory for the officers.

When searched at the police station it was found that Sam Wo Lung was well provided with ready cash and he put up $100 cash bond with proper grace and returned to his place, 620 Second street, minus his pipe and outfit. A charge will be placed against him under the State law in Justice Atchinson’s court.

– Press Democrat, October 16, 1912
CHINESE GAMBLERS CAUGHT IN A RAID
Police Visit Doon Kee’s Place Thursday Morning and Capture Six Visitors Playing American Game With the Stakes

Police Officers N. G. Yeager, A. G. Miller and G. W. Matthews made a raid on Doon Kee’s place on Second street this morning about 2 o’clock and arrested nine Chinese found in the room. Six of the number were engaged in playing Studhorse porker [sic] and were greatly surprised at the interruption.

Officer Matthews was the first to reach the table and secured the cards and stakes, while Officer Miller secured the Chinese money being used for chips. All in the room were taken to police headquarters. Several denied they were playing, but none would say who the players were, so all were informed tht they would have to put up a cash deposit of $10 each to secure their liberty.

Doon Kee arrived on the scene, and after some parleying, secured the name of those who were not playing and they were immediately released while $10 cash bail was put up for each of the other six by Doon Kee.

The six charged with gambling were Ah Wong, Ah Ching, Ah Sing, Wong Kim, Sam Kee and Moon Kee.

– Press Democrat, December 1, 1910
ARREST CHINESE FOR GAMBLING
Officers Make Third Raid Early Tuesday Morning and Gather in Fifteen Orientals

In their third raid upon the Chinese gamblers the police shortly after 2 o’clock this morning arresting 14 inmates of Doon Kee’s gambling house. Last Thursday morning at about the same hour 12 Chinese were arrested and later six were fined $10 each for gambling.

Three of the same men were caught this morning and in their case $20 cash bail was demanded, while the other 11 were allowed their release upon $10 cash bail. A woman will also be charged with being in the place, making a total of $180 bail pending their hearing.

– Press Democrat, December 6, 1910
CHINESE CONTRIBUTE TO THE DISTRICT FAIR

Charlie Quong Sing, the pioneer Chinese merchant of Santa Rosa, whose smile and “Nice day, eh?” and “Anything new?” (the latter when he meets a newspaperman) have become regular salutations of everyday life in Santa Rosa, called at the Chamber of Commerce rooms on Wednesday and handed in a donation of two dollars and a half for the district fair.

He counseled Director Walter Price to tell Mr. Dunbar and the committee to call around at the place on Second street a day or two before the fair starts and he will go around with them among “the boys” and they will contribute more money to help the fair along.

– Press Democrat, August 7, 1913

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