"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 26, 2014

Hell's Bells

Thomas Bell

Many families are a little peculiar. Some are downright dysfunctional. A few are simply nuts.

And then, my friends, there was the Bell family of San Francisco.

Their story opens in the Gold Rush days of the City By the Bay. A man named Thomas Bell was one of the lucky few to strike it rich out West. In 1879, he married a pretty young orphan of decidedly murky background named Teresa Percy. He promised his wife $50,000 for each child she bore him. Teresa brought into the marriage an African-American woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was indisputably the most interesting figure in our saga. Pleasant was an entrepreneur who had made her own fortune through the stock market and a string of boarding houses--although some sources claim her most lucrative business ventures were blackmail and pimping. (To be fair, these accusations may have been based on nothing more than a baffled resentment and envy over the success of an independent black woman.) Pleasant was Thomas' former business partner, and, perhaps, lover. She had introduced him to her "protegee" Teresa, and may even have arranged their marriage.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

The newlyweds moved into a grand 30-room mansion Pleasant designed for them. On the surface, all seemed well. Thomas and Teresa led essentially separate lives, and seemed equally content with the arrangement. Thomas, a founder of the Bank of California, was the "Quicksilver King of the West," one of the wealthiest figures in the financial world. Teresa obligingly presented her husband with six children, and happily banked her 300,000 sweet ones. However, the really powerful member of the household was Mary Pleasant. She raised the young Bell children, ran Teresa's life for her, (even to the point of choosing her clothes and her friends,) hired and fired the servants, handled all the household finances, and generally directed all matters Bell with such efficient ruthlessness that she was said to be a voodoo priestess. As Pleasant herself enigmatically commented years later, "Mr. Bell...knew what I was there for, and I knew what I was there for."

The Bell mansion

Pleasant had been an active figure in the abolitionist movement, giving financial support to John Brown and assisting in the Underground Railroad. She was instrumental in challenging many of California's Jim Crow laws, most notably when she successfully sued the San Francisco streetcars into allowing blacks to ride. On a less sublime plane, it was said she also made tidy sums by finding attractive wives for rich men--and finding homes for the illegitimate children of these same men and women. She found jobs for former slaves in households all over San Francisco. In return, the servants fed her all manner of gossip and private information about their employers. This communication network gave her a formidable power base in the city.

Then, in 1892, a mysterious tragedy struck the family: Thomas Bell was found one evening at the bottom of a dark stairway in back of his mansion, stone dead from a broken neck. Pleasant was in the house at the time, but Teresa was away at the family's desert ranch. How did he die? Did he fall, or, as many whispered, was he pushed? Some believed it was indeed murder, and that the de facto head of the household, Pleasant, was responsible. Whatever the truth may have been, the death of the Bell patriarch was ruled an accident. (Curiously, four years later the eldest Bell son, Frederick, fell down another stairway in the house in what were rumored to be suspicious circumstances. He suffered serious head injuries and several broken bones, but survived.)

In 1897 this "Family of Mystery," as the contemporary journalists liked to call them, made headlines again when Frederick Bell and one of his sisters, Martha, went to court to oust their mother from the guardianship of her children, and to force her to give them their shares of Thomas' estate. Frederick declared that she was mentally incompetent and completely under the domination of the now eighty-three year old Pleasant, who was, he claimed, his father's murderer.

Teresa made quite an appearance on the witness stand. When asked how many children she had, she answered, "Four." When the startled judge asked her, "What about the other children; aren't Frederick Bell and Martha Teresa yours?"

"No," Mrs. Bell calmly replied. "I first saw these two as babies at Mr. Bell's Sutter Street residence. I have always brought them up as my children, but they are not mine."

The court, unsurprisingly, adjourned in great confusion.

Although Frederick produced his father's will, naming all six children as his heirs, along with papers showing that over $100,000 of Bell family money had passed into Pleasant's hands--only to disappear, never to be seen again--he lost his case.

Teresa and Pleasant became increasingly at odds over the disposition of Bell family property--disputes that were probably exacerbated by Mrs. Bell's increasing mental instability--and in 1899, Teresa threw her long-time manager out of the house. "She disposed of some of my jewels without asking my advice," Teresa explained rather lamely. (Other accounts state that Pleasant enraged Teresa when she had Mrs. Bell's young lover sent to jail for embezzlement.) Pleasant, once a powerful "capitalist," (to use her own proud designation,) was now alone. Her fortune had been greatly diminished through various battles with creditors and lawyers, not to mention her tangled, opaque financial dealings with the Bells and other partners. Mary Ellen Pleasant--a remarkable person, no matter which stories about her one cares to believe--quietly died in 1904 at the age of ninety. Although it was widely believed she was destitute, it was later discovered that she still owned tens of thousands of dollars worth of real estate and $150,000 in jewelry.

The bad blood between Teresa and Frederick continued to escalate. Since Thomas Bell's death, his estate had lessened in value, (the loss of Mary Pleasant's financial acumen probably did not help matters,) and mother and son squabbled over every last remaining penny.

Both Frederick and his wife Elizabeth had become severe alcoholics, and in 1912, Elizabeth checked herself into a sanatorium to dry out. When Teresa heard of this, she called the hospital's superintendent to inform him that the younger Mrs. Bell was being poisoned by her husband. Elizabeth died in the sanatorium several months later.

Elizabeth's death caused new legal flurries for the Bells. She had died intestate, and Frederick's siblings went to court against him over possession of land he had given his wife. Frederick declared that Elizabeth had given the property back to him before her death, but his sisters argued that the couple had been estranged, and they were the rightful owners of the land. Teresa, predictably, revived her murder charges against Frederick, triggering a police investigation that eventually ruled Elizabeth had died from complications of dipsomania. Frederick's sisters eventually dropped their claims to the property. Frederick remarried in 1917, and lived in seclusion until 1929, when his second wife died of pneumonia after they had been out drinking. It was said that he remained in the house with the dead woman for several days, believing she was merely "sleeping off" the effects of their spree. After becoming a widower for the second time, Frederick moved into an Old People's Home, where he died in 1934.

The next Great Bell Scandal was in 1922, after Teresa died and her will was read--a last testament that surely deserves an honored place in the annals of The Weird. It opened with some verses of her own composition:

"Perhaps in some one great heroic act
The soul its own redemption will attract,
And thus from sin and shame swiftly
Made fit and ready to meet the Eternal eye.
To live until all is dead within us but ambition and that to live and mock us."

Her "great heroic act" was, as her lawyer put it, giving "the Bell children a roast and a good kick." She cut off all her children with a legacy of only $5 each. Why? Because, she explained from beyond the grave, not one of them was a Bell at all. Her will declared that the Bell progeny were all ringers--"foundlings" obtained by Pleasant so she and Teresa could get Thomas' "bonus money." Whenever Thomas was away on long business trips, she would conveniently "give birth."

The Bell children, as can be imagined, did not take this well. They all ran off screaming for the lawyers, and the result was a great deal of juicy litigation airing all the assorted Bell dirty laundry. Finally, a San Francisco jury decided that Teresa must have been insane when she wrote the will--they probably felt the alternative was just too much for them to contemplate--and the document was overturned.

The Bell progeny then had to fight off various legal challenges filed by odd characters who suddenly emerged claiming they were "long-lost" blood relations of Teresa, and thus they, rather than these "phony" Bell children, were her rightful heirs. In the end, though, the Bell brood all got their share of the estate, and one can't say they didn't earn it.

With that last lurid flourish, the surviving Bells dropped quietly and no doubt gratefully into obscurity. San Francisco was a saner place without them, but surely also much duller.

3 comments:

  1. That is a bizarre and fascinating story. Excellent find.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow. I don't quite know what to say about all that. One of the weirdest families I've ever come across - they need an opera written about them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. San Francisco seems to have more than its share of interesting things happen.

    ReplyDelete

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