Belle Ryan, Marysville Madame and Business Woman

Marysville 1850-

A new city was emerging near the forks of the Yuba and Feather River. Gold mining was booming and the township of Marysville was the perfect spot for those tired miners to stop off for a drink or to find company for the night. Saloons were popping up on any corner of empty space imaginable. As we've told you in stories before this one, Marysville was built on some dangerous terms. There was plenty of blood, sweat, and tears shed to build what we know today.
Born Arabella Ryan, later known as "Belle Ryan" Cora

The Gold Rush brought a slough of interesting characters to our area. No doubt some of the shadiest, the most dangerous and, even the most successful and charming. This brings us to 1850, while the bustle of business men and rugged miners worked, and even clashed with one another to create this successful township that still stands today, 167 years later.

The 1800s were no doubt, unkind times to women. Among the rough was one jewel, a madame by the name of Belle Ryan, whom many called "The Angel". As explained by the "Belle Cora" website-
"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."
The "Belle Cora" continues, "Arabella Ryan was born in 1832 to 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."
Despite her popularity and beauty, nothing more than the sketch above and detailed descriptions exist to tell us what Bella looked like.

Flash forward to Marysville 1849; Belle and her love interest Charles arrived in Marysville 1849, just in time to reap the benefits of the success of Marysville's booming gold industry. On one of these corners emerged the New World Saloon opened by Charles and Belle Cora.
Charles Cora
" A grand saloon in which gamblers could choose from poker, roulette, faro or dice, the New World was a success - The New World gambling parlor in Marysville, California in 1851 was filled with prospectors and sojourners eager to lay their money down on a game of chance. Patrons could choose from a variety of amusements which included roulette, dice, faro and poker. The New World was a grand and ornate saloon. An elaborate bar lined an entire wall and brass mountings accentuated the gleaming counter tops. Imposing mirrors clung to all sides of the enormous entryway and paintings of nude women relaxed in beauty prostrate, loomed over the patrons from the walls above." - Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West By Chris Enss

While Charles and Belle's stay in Marysville was short, no doubt their business had an impact on the the city.  Saloons began to pop up everywhere in effort to keep up with the demands of thirsty miners. In 1852 the two decided to move their business to San Francisco.

Cora House, San Francisco, 1853
"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 change was coming. Just as thousands flocked to San Francisco for it's booming business, laws were being passed to clamp down on gambling and prostitution. Hundreds of brothels were counted in the area. The rush from the initial Gold Rush was winding down by 1855.The first laws aiming to regulate gambling and prostitution were passed just the year before. Times began to become a little more desperate to keep up with the way of life many business owners had grown used to.

Change was coming and Belle's life was about to spiral out of control. 

According to the "Belle Cora"

"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 Cora's 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 San Francisco Argus, 1855
“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.”
Daily Alta California, Volume 7, Number 67, 8 March 1856 -
"TORN DOWN - The Marysville Express says that the wooden building formerly known as the "New World" has been razed to the ground to give room, as we are informed, to an immense pile of brick and mortar. The lot belongs to Belle Cora; whose name many have become familiar since the arrest of Cora for the murder of Richardson."

"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."

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 11, Number 1609, 22 May 1856
"The woman, Belle Cora, was down on Commercial street yesterday, manifesting considerable anxiety as to what was to be done with the prisoners. She did not apply for admission."
Poor Belle.

I could tell the rest of Belle's Story, but the "Belle Cora", describes it so well I will just let them finish the story....
"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."

Belle died at the age of 30. But in her short life, she accomplished much.

Additional interesting news stories on Belle Ryan Cora:

Daily Alta California, Volume 9, Number 148, 16 September 1857
"AT Belle Cora's.—Last night, ont cf the police cmeers, having a warrut to arrest a man, went into Belle Cora's house, on Fife street, believing the man whom he was in search of to be there. After he entered the house. Belle ordered him out, he Informed her of his business; she went to the door and called the police. ■ The officer who is stationed on that beat came and put the first officer out by main fcrce; he broke away and came back; when he entered the house a second tune, he was surrounded by a crowd of tht women who reside in the house, and ane of them broke a champagne bottle over his head, inflicting! severe wound; after which he was again put ont by the officer."


Belle Cora
The Life and Hard Times of Belle Ryan
 Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West By Chris Enss
The Gambler and the Madam