The story of Charles and Belle Cora is a tale of prostitution, gambling, drunkenness and murder. But most of all, it is a love story.
One hundred sixty years ago, Belle’s brothel stood on the corner of Grant and Waverly streets (then called Dupont and Pike streets) in the area now known as Chinatown. She had arrived in California in 1849 from New Orleans with her gambler partner, the dashing Charles Cora. They traveled through the gold rush towns amassing a fortune with their respective talents and settled in San Francisco. There, Belle built the most elegant brothel in The City with the most beautiful women, the highest prices and the most prominent clients.
If Belle’s occupation was unseemly, she fulfilled a community need, gave honest value and made generous charitable contributions. Charles’ occupation, gambling, was a favorite activity in early San Francisco. They were a leading couple in San Francisco’s early gold rush days.
But times were changing, as The City became more established and families began to arrive. Respectability, middle-class morality and the second vigilantes committee were about to descend on San Francisco like a giant wet blanket.
In November 1855, Belle and Charles attended a performance at the American Theatre on Sansome Street and were seated in the expensive first balcony seats. Seated behind them were the new United States Marshal, William Richardson, and his wife. When Richardson learned the Coras were in the same section as “decent people,” he demanded that they be removed. When the manager refused, the Richardsons angrily left the theater.
Two days later, a drunken Richardson confronted and threatened Charles Cora in the downtown streets. A mutual friend calmed the situation, but two hours later, they met again in front of the Blue Wing saloon on Montgomery Street. Cora and Richardson walked down Clay Street to Leidesdorff Street. Angry words were heard, a shot rang out and Richardson fell dead.
The killing of a U.S. marshal ignited a call for vigilante justice. In the midst of the lynch mob atmosphere, defense eyewitnesses were afraid to testify. Belle paid $30,000 to hire Colonel D.D. Baker, San Francisco’s foremost lawyer, to defend Cora. Baker managed to get a hung jury, and Cora was remanded to the Broadway County Jail to await retrial.
The Cora-Richardson confrontation was the first instance of a conflict between two competing visions of The City: Is San Francisco a fun-loving open town or is it a law-abiding respectable town? The conflict continues to this day.
At this time, James King of William founded the crusading Daily Bulletin, which attempted to drive gambling and prostitution from The City. This letter excerpt, from a subscriber who was outraged that brothels existed on a major city thoroughfare, captures the sentiments of his supporters”
“Mr. Editor — Since you began a warfare on this class many houses of the “low women” have been closed up and vacated, but there are two or three beasts that, with brazen faced garments dripped in blood, have continued to squat with open doors and windows, upon this great artery of the city. … Do not allow these festering sores any cessation of pain, until they are driven into the dark lanes of our city. … that young men should nightly spend their evenings, like dogs, smelling out all these vile excrescences, peeping through the cracks and crevices of doors, windows and blinds in the full face of ladies and gentlemen going and returning from church. Oh the horror of it!”
As Cora awaited his retrial, and Belle pursued her business interests, the passion of the crowd began to cool. It appeared as if Cora might face a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, for what appeared to be an even gunfight.
Then fate, in the form of county supervisor James Casey, intervened. Casey was outraged his criminal past in New York had been revealed by the Daily Bulletin. On May 14, 1856, Casey fatally shot King on Montgomery Street near Pacific. That shot also sealed Cora’s fate. The vigilance committee immediately reconvened, seized Casey and Cora from county jail, and took them to vigilance headquarters on Sacramento Street. They were quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to immediate execution.
When Belle heard about the verdict she rushed to Vigilante headquarters on Sacramento street and demanded to be married to Cora. At 12:30 Charles and Belle were wed. In less than an hour Charles was dead. He was buried in Mission Dolores.
Charles Cora’s death wasn’t enough for some of the respectable women. They demanded that Belle Cora be driven out of The City. But Belle remained. She dressed in deep mourning, lived simply and donated generously to charities and worthy causes.
Belle longed to be buried next to Charles, but was told there was no room for her. So she moved Charles to a double plot in Calvary Cemetery in Colma. When she died of pneumonia in 1862 at the age of 35, she was buried next to him. And that’s how it remained for the next 50 years.
With the passage of time, the story of Belle and Charles took on more glow. In a series of articles written in 1914, Belle’s virtues were shown to far outweigh her vices. A successful public campaign brought the lovers back to San Francisco.
If you go to Mission Dolores today, in a quiet corner in the famed cemetery, you will see the final resting place of Charles and Belle Cora, San Francisco’s first star-crossed lovers.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.