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Chapter 13: Mary Ellen Pleasant
Selim Woodworth, William Ralston, Milton Latham
People are always talking about how wretched the journey to San Francisco was. Well, I traveled as a white woman, under a false name, using papers Jean and I had set up when we first got to New Orleans. I wasn’t chained in the hold of the ship, lying in my own dirt and piss and vomit, listening to my own people dying around me.
I had a first-class cabin. I was traveling not to hell, but to freedom. I kept to myself and took ginger and peppermint tea for the seasickness. It was fine.
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That first glimpse of the City was a sight to see: that immense circle of bay, the forests of masts from hundreds of abandoned ships, their whole crews having deserted for the gold fields and then the silver mines. And the dozens more ships enterprising residents had dragged up onto shore to make shops and saloons.
Then there was the sheer staggering wonder of the land. Those steep, steep hills and the opening in the cliffs called the Golden Gate, leading into the Bay, graced by Alcatraz and Angel Islands. The air itself was an astonishment, the clear air, the constant sea wind. After living all my life in the South, where the air itself dripped sweat, where you could lean into the wet of it, the clean dryness of this air was intoxicating.
It made your blood race. It made you feel anything was possible.
And maybe it was. It didn’t take me any time at all to get going here.
The principle thing at first was, I could cook. I’d cooked my way onto a lot of Southern plantations during my Railroad work there. It was the best position to be in to get our people out.
And not just any cooking. New Orleans cooking. The best in the world.
A good lot of these San Francisco businessmen came through New Orleans. A good lot of them were Southerners, and Northerners that did river business. Once a man gets a taste of Creole cooking, he never goes back.
There were other Creole things they got a taste for, too. Might be they saw some of that in me.
As soon as I stepped off the boat, I sold my services as a chef, right there on the dock. Five hundred dollars in gold per month, and that was just to start. And I was real clear: I don’t wash dishes and I don’t do laundry. Not for anyone, not ever.
Boarding houses bid for my spare hours and I started to cater at all the best. I had all the business I could handle, on my own terms.
All but one.
I still had to be white. I had to pass. I could still be taken by slavers any day, taken back to some hellhole. The Fugitive Slave Act meant slavers could go anywhere in the country, free state or not, and drag you back.
But I’d been passing for a long time. Two ways.
Long ago, I learned to speak white. White people somehow believe their ears over their eyes. When you can talk white, they think you’re white.
The other way was voudou. It was help from the Queen Seductress, Mistress Erzulie. She can glamor anyone, make people see her however she wants to be seen. Anyone who saw the dark in me, I told ’em I was part Spanish. Spanish, not Mexican, understand me? Ten years ago Mexicans owned the whole state of California. Now they had it just as bad as anyone colored.
I used Erzulie’s glamor, and when I looked people in the eye and said it, people nodded and it was so.
And I never acted like I had anything to hide. I figured, if that crazy man could pass as Emperor, I sure enough could pass as white. I got that right off about San Francisco. People wanted magic. They’d go along with the story.
You could be anything, if you said it like you believed it.
I just had to not get cocky.
So in San Francisco, I was Mrs. Ellen Smith, a married white woman here to cook. From almost the beginning, Jean was gone as a ship’s cook himself and that suited me fine. Give me an absent husband over a present one every damn time.
I also came with my own money. I told you my first husband James left me money. Thirty-five thousand is a fine stake.
Some folks say I killed him for it. I say, that’s between me and him. Just like what happened on our wedding night. Maybe I had call to kill him. Doesn’t mean I did.
I took that money and bought some laundries straight off, under different names. I said I don’t do laundry, and I don’t. Not with my own hands. But in those early days, if there was anything San Francisco needed more than cooking, it was washing. Between the mines, and the rivers of mud in the rainy season and the sand that blew in from the dunes in the dry, and the damn fleas, this city was dirtier than any I’d seen. It cost next to nothing to set up a laundry business and men paid twenty dollars in gold per dozen shirts. Instant money.
But I had plans much bigger than laundries.
Catering at boarding houses was already getting me the contacts. Like Mr. Milton Latham. Senator Latham. Governor of California Latham—even if it was the shortest governorship in history. He only served nine days before Broderick was killed in that godforsaken duel. Latham was appointed U.S senator right after.
He fell for my cooking straight away and hired me to cook for him, in-house.
Those days, there were only three places for a “good” family to live. There were the grand hotels: The Lick House, the International, the Occidental, the soon-to be opened Russ House. If you had a house, you wanted it to be in South Park, a California copy of London’s Berkeley Square: a central fenced garden lined with elegant townhouses. Or on Rincon Hill, with its breathtaking view of the Bay, those long wharfs and the forest of abandoned ships.
Latham was on Rincon Hill.
Just what I wanted, a place in a house like that. A man trusts you to cook for him, he’ll talk around you. Talk about anything. The ways he made his money. The business he invests in. The real estate he buys. The deals he’s planning. His politics—
Well, I’ll tell you all you need to know about Latham’s politics. He was a Secessionist.
And why would I work in a Secesh house?
To know what’s coming. And we all knew it was coming.
Latham and his wife Sophie were always entertaining for all the society people, and that connected me with—pretty much anyone I wanted to connect with.
Like Lieutenant Selim Woodworth.
He took a shine to my cooking, too.
And I took notes on him. Whole different kettle of fish from Latham. Descendant of an original colonist, politicians all over his family. Former commander in the US Navy, former Vigilance Committee president. Now a banker—always useful. Woodworth and his brother Frederick were early San Francisco pioneers and soon enough they were two of the wealthiest merchants in the City, through real estate and their Case Heiser commission firm. Selim also had a strange celebrity on account of him leading the Navy team that rescued the survivors of the star-crossed Donner-Reed party from their gruesome fate on the Sierra Summit. His graphic report had gripped a horrified public.
In the Navy Selim served in Africa, suppressing the slave trade, and as an abolitionist serving in the first California legislature he fought to keep slavery out of the state.
My kind of man.
Forty-five years old—and unmarried. Oh, I had plans for Selim Woodworth.
But there was someone even bigger right around the corner.
I’ve always had feelings, sometimes downright signs, and I always act on them. And I woke up the morning of that dinner party the Lathams were throwing and I knew it was going to be big.
I shopped in the market and spared no expense, buying the finest fruits, the choicest cuts of meat, the priciest wines. Flowers to decorate the table just so.
And when the guests arrived there was one I hadn’t been expecting.
Another banker. But much, much more than that. From almost the minute I stepped off the ship onto the dock, I’d heard it—you wanted anything done in San Francisco, it was Ralston you had to see.
Seeing him in person, you started to understand.
He was a looker, could’ve been a stage actor with that handsome face, neatly trimmed beard, the sparkle in his eyes. And he was a charmer, just natural charisma.
Ralston sailed to California at age twenty-five in 1851, took the Panama route. The tribulations of the passage convinced him there was big money to be made right there in Panama, by doing it better. Ralston had got his start managing steamboats on the Mississippi and Cincinnati. Now he and two banking partners purchased a Pacific steamer and went about setting up a transportation service for California-bound travelers on that dangerous leg of the journey.
Right away they signed up two hundred gold-seekers stranded in Panama. But the captain of the ship died of cholera the very morning the ship was to depart. Ralston never missed a beat. He declared himself captain and set sail.
That’s the kind of man he was.
For three years he ran that transport business, and made himself a stake. Then he moved to San Francisco and proceeded to invest in everything that came his way.
He went into the banking business with a group of established San Francisco businessmen. He bought stakes in gold and silver mines. He took lead roles in local civic and political organizations, including the notorious Committee of Vigilance, which imposed order by hanging in those chaotic early days. He took directorships in a number of the city’s leading corporations: Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, Board of the Steamship Company. Along the way he married the niece and ward of a big investor, William Fry, and moved into a grand house in South Park.
When he walked in I knew—it was Ralston I was cooking for that night.
The champagne was flowing, and I kept the courses coming. She-crab soup and oysters, shrimp and grits so buttery a stray spark would set them ablaze. Glazed duck and pork roast. Everything looked juicy and ripe and near to bursting.
I laid that table till it was groaning, and so were the guests.
When dinner was finished, Ralston found me in the hallway. He had that dazed, sated look men get after good loving or a good meal, and he gave me a little bow.
“Mrs. Smith, is it? That is the best dinner I’ve had since I clerked on the Mississippi.”
And I knew I had him.
He shot me a glance that was like being read cover to cover by a scholar. “I’d heard of your cooking. I must admit I thought the talk must be exaggerated. I beg your pardon for my lack of faith.”
“I do love the chance to win over a Doubting Thomas,” I replied demurely.
It was bold, but you could say just about anything to white people if you threw in a Bible reference.
Ralston raised his eyebrows. “I’m not going to let Latham keep you to himself, either.”
“I’m a free agent, Mr. Ralston.”
“I’m delighted to hear it.”
Then his eyes went faraway and he said something that turned the conversation into something I hadn’t expected. “This city… it draws all the best of everything, from every corner of the world. I’m pleased to have you in it, Mrs. Smith.”
As if it was his city, and I was getting the official greeting.
But there was nothing like arrogance in the words. There was nothing but love, and pride.
And I decided right then and there. If anyone could be anything in San Francisco, I was going to own it, too. Every bit as much as Ralston.
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