Belle Cora (Arabella Ryan)
Belle Cora (1827? –1862), also known as Arabella Ryan, was a successful Madam of the Barbary Coast during the mid-nineteenth century. She rose to public attention in 1855 when her lover, Charles Cora, killed US Marshall William H. Richardson. The fight between Charles and Richardson started at the American Theatre. Richardson's wife complained that Belle Cora, a well-known parlor house owner, and Charles Cora, a frequent gambler were seated in the same balcony as her. She stated that they should be in the general admission pit seats rather than the more expensive areas reserved for more respectable guests. As a result, Richardson went to ask the manager of the theatre to remove the couple, but the manager refused saying that they were regular customers of the first balcony. Richardson left swearing vengeance upon Charles Cora, and two days later the confrontation led to his death.
Two portrayals of Belle Cora's childhood exist. The first, lists her as the daughter of a minister in Baltimore. In this version, Cora becomes pregnant as a teen. When her father finds out, he throws Cora out of the house, prompting her to move to New Orleans. It is then supposed that the baby died and she met Charles Cora. The alternate and more prominently upheld version depicts Belle Cora to be the daughter of Irish Catholic parents in Baltimore. In this version, she and her sister work at a dress shop next to a Brothel. Intrigued by the house, they become involved with the sex trade. It is then supposed that Belle Cora ventured to Charleston, South Carolina. During her time there, she became the mistress of a man who was later killed. The death prompted her to move to New Orleans and in 1849 she met Charles Cora. In December 1849, the couple moved to Sacramento, California. While there, Belle helps fund Charles Cora's high stakes gambling. After some time, the couple moved to Marysville, California where Belle Cora opened her first brothel. It was called the New World gambling parlor and offered games like Poker, Roulette, Faro and Dice. At 23, Belle Cora moved yet again and opened another brothel in Sonora, California. In1852, Belle set up her infamous parlor house on Washington street in San Francisco opposite the house of Ah Toy. Reverend William Taylor recounts the parlor house as being furnished with redwood, velvet, silk, demask, beautiful paintings and playing pianforte, harp and melodeon. Belle Cora hosted dinner parties with the mayor, Aldermen, judges and even members of the legislature. After an immense legal battle and the lynching of her husband, Belle Cora continued to run her brothel. In 1862, she died of pneumonia at 35 years old; she was buried in the Calvary cemetery next to her husband, but later moved to the Mission Dolores Cemetery.
On November 17, 1855 between 6 and 7 o'clock, Charles Cora shot General Richardson in the breast causing almost instantaneous death. The conflict first started after Belle Cora held a competing party (which had more guests) the same night as Mrs. Richardson. The feud was further provoked after Belle and Charles Cora were in the same balcony seats as Mr. Richardson and his wife at the American Theatre. A few days later, General Richardson was murdered in front of Fox and O'connor's store on Clay street right between Leidesdorff and Montgomery Street. Charles Cora was arrested and handed over to the City Marshall and later placed in County Jail. Immense protest and lynch mobs erupted after the murder so Mayor James Van Ness placed Charles under a higher security accommodation for his own safety. Local San Francisco citizens fundraised a monument for Richardson in the Lone Mountain Cemetery and $15,000 for the eldest children of Richardson.
Samuel Brannan delivered a speech on justice and the enforcement of the law before the trial. The actual trial took place on May 20 of 1855. Belle Cora funded several attorneys to represent Charles Cora including Edward Dickinson Baker and James A. McDougall. Belle Cora payed Edward Dickinson Baker $15,000 of his $30,000 retainer in gold and sent meals to Charles Cora while he was in jail. In addition, she even went so far as trying to bribe the star witness Maria Knight to change her testimony. The case was framed as one of self-defense case in which Richardson was alleged to have threatened Charles Cora with a knife. However, the jury could not come to a decision which led to a second trial. However, James Casey murdered the prominent newspaper editor James King of William sparking the Vigilance Committee to resurge and seize both Casey and Cora. The committee sentence both of them to hang on Friday, May 23, at 12 o'clock. For fear of escape, Charles Cora was led by 3,000 men and two field pieces. Before the execution, Belle and Charles got married by Father Michael Acoltti. Charles said nothing as the noose was placed around his head. The cord was cut at twenty minutes past one o'clock leaving Cora to drop 6 feet and hang for fifty five minutes before being turned over to the coroner.
Belle Cora's stirring up of social norms is alluded to in Karen Joy Fowler's novel Sister Noon. During a shift towards "civilizing" society, Belle remained steadfast in maintaining her lucrative business which was seen as immoral. In the book Arresting Dress the author Clare Sears opines that Cora inspires female financial agency and the use of sex for empowerment. In addition, she was an advocate fighting against gender stereotypes as exampled by her legal battle with the Vigilance Committee; ultimately she set the precedent to resist further legislation like that of 20th century Sodomy laws. Charles and Belle Cora's remains lie at the Mission Dolores Cemetery.
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