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Belle Cora (Arabella Ryan)

Photograph of the Cora House in 1853

Belle Cora (1827? –1862), also known as Arabella Ryan, was a successful Madam of the Barbary Coast during the mid-nineteenth century.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] She stated that they should be in the general admission pit seats rather than the more expensive areas reserved for more respectable guests.[4] 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.[4] Richardson left swearing vengeance upon Charles Cora, and two days later the confrontation led to his death.[4]



Belle Cora
Born Arabella Ryan
Died 1862
Occupation Madam

Two portrayals of Belle Cora's childhood exist.[2] The first lists her as the daughter of a minister in Baltimore.[2] In this version, Cora becomes pregnant as a teen.[2] When her father finds out, he throws Cora out of the house, prompting her to move to New Orleans.[2] It is then supposed that the baby died and she met Charles Cora.[2] The alternate and more prominently upheld version depicts Belle Cora to be the daughter of Irish Catholic parents in Baltimore.[2] In this version, she and her sister work at a dress shop next to a Brothel.[5] Intrigued by the house, they become involved with the sex trade.[5] It is then supposed that Belle Cora ventured to Charleston, South Carolina.[2] During her time there, she became the mistress of a man who was later killed.[2] The death prompted her to move to New Orleans and in 1849 she met Charles Cora.[2] In December 1849, the couple moved to Sacramento, California.[2] While there, Belle helps fund Charles Cora's high stakes gambling.[2] After some time, the couple moved to Marysville, California where Belle Cora opened her first brothel.[2] It was called the New World gambling parlor and offered games like Poker, Roulette, Faro and Dice.[1] At 23, Belle Cora moved yet again and opened another brothel in Sonora, California.[2] In 1852, Belle set up her infamous parlor house on Washington street in San Francisco opposite the house of Ah Toy.[2] Reverend William Taylor recounts the parlor house as being furnished with redwood, velvet, silk, demask, beautiful paintings and playing pianforte, harp and melodeon.[6] Belle Cora hosted dinner parties with the mayor, Aldermen, judges and even members of the legislature.[2] After an immense legal battle and the lynching of her husband, Belle Cora continued to run her brothel.[2] 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.[2]

The MurderEdit

On November 17, 1855 between 6 and 7 o'clock, Charles Cora shot General Richardson in the breast causing almost instantaneous death.[7][8] The conflict first started after Belle Cora held a competing party (which had more guests) the same night as Mrs. Richardson.[1] 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.[4] 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.[7] Charles Cora was arrested and handed over to the City Marshall and later placed in County Jail.[7] 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.[9] Local San Francisco citizens fundraised a monument for Richardson in the Lone Mountain Cemetery and $15,000 for the eldest children of Richardson.[7]


The Hanging of Charles Cora

Samuel Brannan delivered a speech on justice and the enforcement of the law before the trial.[9] The actual trial took place on May 20 of 1855.[7] Belle Cora funded several attorneys to represent Charles Cora including Edward Dickinson Baker and James A. McDougall.[10] Belle Cora paid Edward Dickinson Baker $15,000 of his $30,000 retainer in gold and sent meals to Charles Cora while he was in jail.[2] In addition, she even went so far as trying to bribe the star witness Maria Knight to change her testimony.[11] The case was framed as one of self-defense case in which Richardson was alleged to have threatened Charles Cora with a knife.[8] However, the jury could not come to a decision which led to a second trial.[8] However, James Casey murdered the prominent newspaper editor James King of William sparking the Vigilance Committee to resurge and seize both Casey and Cora.[10] The committee sentence both of them to hang on Friday, May 23, at 12 o'clock.[7] For fear of escape, Charles Cora was led by 3,000 men and two field pieces.[7] Before the execution, Belle and Charles got married by Father Michael Acoltti. Charles said nothing as the noose was placed around his head.[8] 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.[12]

Political SignificanceEdit

Belle Cora's stirring up of social norms is alluded to in Karen Joy Fowler's novel Sister Noon.[13] During a shift towards "civilizing" society, Belle remained steadfast in maintaining her lucrative business which was seen as immoral.[11] In the book Arresting Dress the author Clare Sears opines that Cora inspires female financial agency and the use of sex for empowerment.[4] 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.[4] Charles and Belle Cora's remains lie at the Mission Dolores Cemetery.[8]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c "The Story of Belle Cora", The Belle Cora restaurant, accessed February 3, 2017
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Jensen, Vickie. Women Criminals: An Encyclopedia of People and Issues. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
  3. ^ Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: An Irreverent History of the City by the Golden Gate, First edition. Doubleday, 1964.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Arresting Dress | Duke University Press.” Accessed February 2, 2017.
  5. ^ a b “For Whom the Belle Toils - FoundSF.” Accessed February 3, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g “Eyewitness: San Francisco Committee of Vigilance - 1856.” Accessed February 26, 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d e Duke, Thomas Samuel. Celebrated Criminal Cases of America. James H. Barry Company, 1910.
  9. ^ a b Woolley, Lell Hawley. California, 1849-1913: Or, The Rambling Sketches and Experiences of Sixty-Four Years’ Residence in That State. De Witt & Snelling, 1913.
  10. ^ a b Farr, James. “Not Exactly a Hero: James Alexander McDougall in the United States Senate.” California History 65, no. 2 (1986): 104–13. doi:10.2307/25158368.
  11. ^ a b Levy, JoAnn. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
  12. ^ “Execution of Casey and Cora - San Francisco, 1856.” Accessed February 26, 2017. {{cite web |url= |title=Archived copy |accessdate=2012-08-19 |deadurl=yes |archiveurl= |archivedate=2012-05-10 |df= }}.
  13. ^ Fowler, Karen Joy. Sister Noon. Penguin, 2002.