Belle Cora

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Belle Cora
Representation of Cora
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died1862(1862-00-00) (aged 34–35)
Other namesArabella Ryan

Belle Cora (1827?[1][2]–February 18/19, 1862), also known as Arabella Ryan,[3] was a madam of the Barbary Coast of San Francisco during the mid-nineteenth century. She rose to public attention in 1855 when her lover, Charles Cora, killed U.S. Marshal William H. Richardson after they had a conflict at the theater. She died in 1862.

Early life[edit]

Two portrayals of Belle Cora's childhood exist.[1] The first lists her as the daughter of a minister in Baltimore who became pregnant as a teen.[1] Upon discovering this, Cora's father threw her out of the house, prompting Cora to move to New Orleans. There, her baby died and she met Charles Cora.[1] The alternate version, more prominently upheld, depicts Belle to be the daughter of Irish Catholic parents in Baltimore.[1] In this version, Cora and her sister worked at a dress shop next to a brothel.[citation needed] Intrigued by the house, they became involved with the sex trade.[citation needed] At some point, Cora ventured to Charleston, South Carolina. During her time there, she became the mistress of a man who was later killed.[1] His death prompted Cora to move to New Orleans where in 1849 she met Charles Cora.[1][4]


Photograph of the Cora House in 1853

In December 1849, the couple moved to Sacramento, California and, while there, Belle helped fund Charles's high-stakes gambling.[1] After some time, the couple moved to Marysville, California, and Belle opened her first brothel, called the New World.[5][6] gambling parlor and offered games like poker, roulette, faro, and dice.[citation needed] At 23, they moved yet again and she opened a brothel in Sonora, California.[1]

In 1852, Belle set up a parlor house on Washington street, in San Francisco, opposite the house of fellow madam, Ah Toy.[citation needed] Reverend William Taylor recounts the parlor house as being furnished with redwood, velvet, silk, demask, beautiful paintings and playing pianoforte, harp and melodeon.[7] Belle hosted dinner parties with aldermen, judges, the mayor, and even members of the legislature.[1] Even after an expensive legal battle and the lynching of her husband, Belle continued to run her brothel.[8]

Murder of Richardson and the aftermath[edit]

Belle Cora held a competing party (which had more guests) the same night as the wife of U.S. Marshal William H. Richardson, which is said to have begun a rivalry between the women.[9] The feud was further provoked one evening at the American Theatre.[10] Richardson's wife complained to the manager that the Coras were seated in the same balcony as she was, as she felt that area should be reserved for more respectable guests.[1][11][12][13][10] However, the manager refused to remove the couple, saying that they were regular customers of the first balcony.[10] William left swearing vengeance upon Charles.[10]

On November 17, 1855, between 6 and 7 o'clock,[citation needed] Charles Cora shot Marshal Richardson in the breast in front of Fox and O'Connor's store on Clay street between Leidesdorff and Montgomery Street.[14] He died instantaneously from the wound.[15][16][14] Charles Cora was arrested, handed over to the city marshal, and later placed in the county jail.[14]

Protests and lynch mobs erupted after the murder, so Mayor James Van Ness placed Charles under a higher security accommodation for his own safety.[17] Local citizens raised fund for a monument for Richardson in the Lone Mountain Cemetery and $15,000 for his children.[14][18]

Belle funded several attorneys to represent Charles Cora including Edward Dickinson Baker and James A. McDougall.[19] Belle paid Edward Dickinson Baker $15,000 of his $30,000 retainer in gold and sent meals to Charles Cora while he was in jail.[8] In addition, she even went so far as trying to bribe the star witness Maria Knight to change her testimony.[20] Alleging that Richardson had threatened Charles with a knife, the lawyers framed the case as one of self-defense.[15] On 1856 January 17, Charles's trial ended with hung jury.[21]

On May 15, 1856, the 2nd Committee of Vigilance was formed, and by May 17, the committee had gained 2500 members. The collected guns and began to conduct "army" drills.[citation needed] The following day, 3,000 armed members of the committee took Charles and James P. Casey.[22] On 1856 May 18, in Sacramento, Governor Johnson, in response,[18] appointed William Tecumseh Sherman as the Major-General commanding of the San Francisco division of the California State Militia.[citation needed] The related case of James Casey (who had shot newspaper editor James King of William in an assassination attempt) prompted the committee to aim a cannon at the jail and demand the release of Charles and Casey.[23][24][25][19][26][27]

The Hanging of Charles Cora

The 2nd Committee of Vigilance scheduled a new trial for 1856 May 20;[28][29] James King of William died the same day.[30] Samuel Brannan delivered a speech on justice and the enforcement of the law before the trial.[31] Both men were found guilty, and on 1856 May 22, the committee sentenced both to hang the following day at noon.[14][29] Before the execution, Belle and Charles got married by Father Michael Acoltti.[citation needed]

For fear of escape, 3,000 men and two field pieces led Charles to his execution,[14] at the committee's headquarters at 41 Sacramento Street in front of a crowd of 20,000.[citation needed] Charles said nothing as the noose was placed around his head.[citation needed] The cord was cut at twenty minutes past one o'clock, leaving Charles to drop six feet and hang for fifty five minutes before being turned over to the coroner.[32][33][34][29]

Death and legacy[edit]

Belle Cora died at 35, in 1862, of pneumonia. She was buried in the Calvary Cemetery next to her husband. In 1916, the San Francisco Bulletin published a serial on Cora by Pauline Jacobson and, as a result, Belle was disinterred and reburied with Charles beneath a common headstone at the Mission Dolores Cemetery.[35][36][37][12]

Karen Joy Fowler's alludes to Cora's influence on social norms in novel Sister Noon.[9][38] During a societal shift toward "civilizing" society, Belle had maintained her business, which had been seen as immoral.[1] In the book Arresting Dress, the author Clare Sears opines that Cora inspires female financial agency and the use of sex for empowerment.[10] In addition, Cora advocated against gender stereotypes, as demonstrated by her legal battle with the Vigilance Committee;[how?] ultimately she set the precedent to resist further legislation like that of sodomy laws in the 20th century.[10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Jensen 2012, p. 360.
  2. ^ Levy 2013, p. 150.
  3. ^ Levy 2013, p. 149.
  4. ^ Connatix (June 12, 2006). "Gambling in the Old West". HistoryNet. Historynet LLC. Retrieved February 11, 2020.
  5. ^ Levy 2013, p. 154.
  6. ^ Lunsford, Sarah (January 21, 2010). "Take a chance on a longshot". Calaveras Enterprise. Retrieved February 12, 2020.
  7. ^ Taylor, William (1858). California life illustrated. New York: Carlton & Porter. Retrieved February 12, 2020.
  8. ^ a b Jensen 2012, p. 361.
  9. ^ a b Ritvo, Harriet (1980). "Vision and Revision: Nineteenth-Century Women". The Threepenny Review (3): 11–12. ISSN 0275-1410. JSTOR 4382972.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Sears 2015.
  11. ^ Kamiya, Gary (February 20, 2015). "Cheating, violence in the cards at Gold Rush's gambling dens". Retrieved February 11, 2020.
  12. ^ a b Gentry, Curt (1964). "The Madams of San Francisco: An Irreverent History of the City by the Golden Gate". Doubleday – via Google Books.[ISBN missing]
  13. ^ Hurtado 1999, p. [page needed].
  14. ^ a b c d e f "Eyewitness: San Francisco Committee of Vigilance". 1856. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  15. ^ a b Duke 1910, p. 21.
  16. ^ Wilson, John L. "Stanford University School of Medicine and the Predecessor Schools: An Historical Perspective: Part II: E.S. Cooper in San Francisco. Chapter 11. The Vigilance Committee of 1856 – Medical History Center". Retrieved February 11, 2020.
  17. ^ Woolley 1913.
  18. ^ a b California in Time: The Fight over Slavery through the Civil War
  19. ^ a b Farr, J. (June 1, 1986). "Not Exactly a Hero: James Alexander McDougall in the United States Senate". California History. 65 (2): 104–113. doi:10.2307/25158368. JSTOR 25158368.
  20. ^ Levy 2013, p. 171.
  21. ^ "Gold Rush Chronology 1855–1856".
  22. ^ "California Historical Landmark #192: Site of Jenny Lind Theatre and San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco".
  23. ^ Duke 1910, pp. 21, 22.
  24. ^ Williamson 2012, p. [page needed].
  25. ^ Kamiya, Gary (July 26, 2014). "Demagogue editor fired up readers, revolutionaries". SFGate. Retrieved February 12, 2020.
  26. ^ "Hanging of Cora and Casey by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance".
  27. ^ Adams 2018, p. [page needed].
  28. ^ "Assassination of James King of William: Surrender of Jas. P. Casey and Charles Cora to the vigilance committee, on Sunday, May 18th, 1856" (Print). Library of Congress. San Francisco: Reynard Press, Inc. 1961. Retrieved February 11, 2020.
  29. ^ a b c "Execution of James P. Casey and Charles Cora, by the vigilance committee, of San Francisco, on Thursday, May 22d, 1856, from the windows of their rooms in Sacramento Street, between Front and Davis Streets". San Francisco: Reynard Press, Inc. 1961. LCCN 92508320. Retrieved December 6, 2021.
  30. ^ Duke 1910, p. 22.
  31. ^ Woolley 1913, p. 11.
  32. ^ "Execution of Casey and Cora – San Francisco, 1856". Archived from the original on May 10, 2012. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  33. ^ "Sex, Vigilantism, and San Francisco in 1856". Common-Place. 03 (4). July 1, 2003.
  34. ^ "The Sonoma County Journal from Petaluma, California". Petaluma, California. November 24, 1855. p. 2.
  35. ^ Duke 1910, p. 23.
  36. ^ Beyl, Ernest (September 2012). "A short history of bordellos in San Francisco, part 2". Marina Times. Retrieved February 11, 2020.
  37. ^ Jensen 2012, pp. 361–362.
  38. ^ Fowler 2002, p. [page needed].

Works cited[edit]

General references[edit]