The Story of Belle Cora
Born Arabella Ryan in 1832, Belle Cora was the daughter of a Baltimore minister and a doting mother. By all accounts she had a happy, if unremarkable childhood. At 17, she fell in love with an older man and became pregnant with his child. He abandoned her upon hearing the news, and Belle fled to New Orleans in shame, determined to have the baby. Shortly after its birth the baby died, leaving Belle devastated and alone. It was during this time that she met and was taken in by a well-known New Orleans madam, who fed her, clothed her and eventually offered Belle work in her brothel (or parlor house, in the parlance of the time). Aimless and without prospects, she accepted.
Dark-haired, fairly complected and voluptuous, Belle had remarkable hazel eyes, and was instantly popular with the madam’s clients. Within a few months, she was earning more than any woman in New Orleans. Soon after starting work at the parlor house, Belle met Charles Cora: a well-known professional gambler and clotheshorse, Cora was immediately taken with Belle, and before long before the two were an item. When news of California’s Gold Rush reached New Orleans, Cora was intrigued, and they soon decamped for San Francisco via steamship.
By the time Charles and Belle arrived in California at the end of 1849, the Gold Rush was in full swing. They began by touring the boom towns across gold country, and quickly built a fortune plying their respective trades. Pooling their funds, they opened their first venue, the New World gambling parlor, in Marysville in 1850. A grand saloon in which gamblers could choose from poker, roulette, faro or dice, the New World was a success, and they quickly opened another house in Sonora. Flush with the proceeds, in 1852 the two decided to move their business to San Francisco. On November 17, 1852, they opened their third parlor house, on Washington Street in what is now Chinatown. Lavish and opulent, the Cora House had no rival anywhere on the West Coast, and was said to be as fine as any residence in San Francisco. Customers, many of the city’s most prominent citizens among them, were treated like visiting royalty, enjoying the finest champagne and hors d‘oeuvres along with their choice of the city’s most beautiful women. By 1853, Belle was San Francisco’s leading madam, commanding the highest prices in the business and attracting luminaries from across the country. She was also celebrated as the most well-dressed woman in San Francisco; with the dashing Charles at her side, Belle Cora was the picture of success.
But there was change in the wind. During the height of the Gold Rush, gambling and prostitution were part and parcel of San Francisco business. A survey conducted at the time determined that there were 100 brothels operating just within the eight square blocks bounded by Broadway, Clay, Kearney, and Stockton Streets. But by 1855, gold fever had come and gone. There was a rising tide of moralism in the city, fed by the steady influx from the East Coast. At the beginning of the Rush, there were very few women in San Francisco; truth be told, most of them were prostitutes of one order or another. Their scarcity meant that they were held in high esteem, and spared the stigma that generally comes with the world’s oldest profession. That was changing, however; the first laws against gambling and prostitution had been passed just the year before, and as people continued to flock to San Francisco, there was increasing pressure on city officials to clamp down on vice.
When Charles and Belle Cora hosted a gala event at Cora House on the same night as a party thrown by U.S. Marshal William Richardson and his wife, they set off a chain of events that would change the city, and end with the death of both men.
Alerted by her lack of male guests, Mrs. Richardson was outraged that a party thrown at a known house of gambling and prostitution would compete with her event. When the two couples later had the misfortune to be seated in the same balcony at the theater (the most expensive seats in the house), the marshal tried, unsuccessfully, to have the Coras thrown out. Words were exchanged, and Richardson reportedly insulted Belle, igniting a bitter feud between the men. Accounts differ, but two days later, Richardson accosted Cora in front of the Blue Wing Saloon on Montgomery Street, just yards away from where the Transamerica Pyramid stands today. The two men walked toward the waterfront to the corner of Liedesdorff Street, and after a heated exchange Charles Cora shot the marshal in the head with a derringer, killing him.
Cora was quickly arrested, and a defiant Belle promptly hired the most expensive attorney in San Francisco to defend him. After a contentious and highly publicized trial ended in a hung jury (Belle allegedly tried to bribe more than one juror), public sentiment seemed to be favoring a lesser charge of manslaughter. Then the other shoe dropped. In retribution for publishing an editorial exposing Casey’s criminal past in New York, City Supervisor James Casey killed popular newspaperman and muckraker James King of William, less than a block from the site of Richardson’s shooting. The second crime was the tipping point for the city’s outrage, and the city’s second Committee of Vigilance was born.
“The harlot who instigated the murder of Richardson [and] others of her kind….are allowed to visit the theaters and seat themselves side by side with the wives and daughters of our citizens.”
–The San Francisco Argus, 1855
An ad hoc force of armed citizens formed independently of City Hall and the police in response to rampant crime and corruption, the Committee of Vigilance eventually claimed over 6,000 armed members. Like the first committee of its kind, formed in 1851, it proclaimed a three month mandate to rout out crime and corruption in San Francisco, conducting its own trials, arrests and lawsuits. On May 18th, over 2,000 committee men descended on the jailhouse on Broadway, demanding the release of both Cora and Casey for a “people’s trial.” The sheriff refused, but reversed his position when a loaded cannon was pointed at the locked jail doors. The men stood trial by committee; in fairness, they did receive a defense, and got the chance to speak for themselves. In the end, both were convicted and sentenced to hang.
On May 22nd, the day the sentence was to be carried out, Belle arrived at the committee’s holding cells and convinced the committee leaders to allow her to stay with Charles for what remained of his life. The two were married there, and Belle officially took Charles Cora’s name for the first time – less than two hours before he was to hang. Meanwhile, the committee had summoned a militia of over 3,000 members to secure the execution site at Fort Gunnybags, their headquarters on Sacramento Street just off of Battery. A reported 8,000 spectators lined the streets for blocks in every direction. Casey pled his innocence in a long, anguished speech; Charles Cora remained silent throughout the proceedings. At 1:21 pm, just as the bells were rung for James King of William’s funeral, the two were hung side-by-side from the second story windows of Fort Gunnybags.
In a way, the execution of Charles Cora marked the true end of the Gold Rush. The days of wide-open, tolerated gambling and prostitution in San Francisco were coming to a close, and the forces of law and order had begun taming the Barbary Coast and the city at large.
After her husband’s death, a heartbroken Belle confined herself to the bedroom quarters at Cora House, and wasn’t seen in public for over a month. When she emerged, she had undergone a profound change. She promptly sold Cora House, and began diverting her substantial fortune to charitable causes; one of San Francisco’s earliest female philanthropists, she took a particular interest in children‘s education. Belle Cora died in San Francisco on February 17, 1862. She was 30 years old.
In 1916, a series of articles on the Coras were published in the San Francisco Bulletin. Following their publication, Belle Cora’s body was disinterred from her grave at Calvary Cemetery in Colma and laid to rest beside her beloved husband Charles at the cemetery at Mission Dolores. Reunited, the star-crossed lovers remain there to this day, their graves marked with a shared headstone.
This is the first in a series of articles examining the fascinating people and places that make up the rich history of North Beach and The Barbary Coast.
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