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Wild Women Wednesday: Belle Cora

LIFE & LOVE

Wild Women Wednesday: Belle Cora

Bessie Colvin

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 countertops.  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.  

Madame Belle Ryan, a voluptuous creature with dark hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion, sauntered down the stairs surveying the guests that had gathered.  Men scrambled for a place at the tables, their gold dust and gold nuggets had been exchanged for the chips they tossed onto the green felt – bets for the lucky cards in their hands.

Charles Cora, a handsome brute of a man with black hair and a thick, healthy trimmed mustache caught Belle’s eye.  He was very nicely dressed.  From the Bowler hat on top of his head to the polished, black boots on his feet, he exuded style and confidence.  Charles was seated at a table in the corner of the room dealing a hand of poker to four men around him.  The pile of chips in front of Charles was proof that he’d had a successful evening.  He turned to look at Belle and gave her an approving nod.  She smiled back at him then noticed a handful of Cavalry soldiers standing just inside the saloon.  Charles spotted the men too and motioned slightly for Belle to go over to them.  She winked and proceeded obligingly.

The wide-eyed troops admired the beautiful Belle as she strode their way.  “Why don’t you come on in and join the fun.  Have a drink, sit in on a game or two?” she purred invitingly.  “We aren’t much for gambling, ma’am,” one of the young soldiers shared.  “We just got our pay and thought we’d stop in for one shot of whisky and then be on our way.”

Belle slowly approached the uniform clad man and stopped uncomfortably close to his face.  The soldier breathed in her perfume then glanced away, shyly.  “But it’s so early,” she said smiling.  “Have a drink, play a hand of faro and then we’ll dance,” she persuaded.  

“I guess we can stick around for a little while,” the enchanted young man offered.  

Belle escorted the troops to the bar and had the bartender serve them a glass of whisky.  “That ones on the house,” she assured them.  She then locked arms with a pair of the soldiers and ushered them to the faro table.  They obediently sat down and Charles tipped his hat at the new players.  “I’ll be back in a bit for my dance,” Belle whispered in their ears.

As Belle walked away the bartender served another round of drinks to the soldiers and Charles started dealing the cards.  By the time Belle returned to the table the troops had lost their entire wages.  They took a turn with her on the dance floor then lumbered out of the establishment, dazed and disappointed.     

Occasionally, Belle Cora was the one that dealt the cards, but her main contribution to the gambling industry was luring players to the game and building their confidence.  Belle and her partner, Charles Cora, made hundreds of thousands of dollars off unsuspecting marks who believe they were better than the professional gamblers luring them to the tables.  

Belle Ryan Cora was born in Baltimore in 1832 and her parents named her Clara Belle.  Her father was the minister of a small parish and the home life she had with her doting mother and young sister, Anna was idyllic.  At 17 she fell in love with a distinguished older gentleman and became pregnant.  After learning the news, the child’s father abandoned them.  Desperate and ashamed, Belle fled to New Orleans to have her child.  The baby died shortly after being born and Belle was despondent and alone.  While wandering the streets of New Orleans contemplating her life, she met a kindly woman who took pity on her situation and offered to help.  

Belle recognized the woman as a known madam in the city.  She was fully aware of the kind of assistance being presented, but she felt her options were limited.  After accompanying the woman to her parlor house, being fed and provided a new wardrobe, Belle accepted her offer of work.  In a matter of only a few months she was earning more than any other woman in the city.  

When Charles Cora, a well-known New Orleans gambler spotted Belle he was instantly smitten.  She was equally taken with him.  The two began spending time together and in a few weeks were inseparable.       

Once the news of the California gold rush reached Charles, he decided to try his luck in a place rich with glittering finds.  With Belle by his side the two boarded a steamship bound for San Francisco.  Charles and Belle weren’t the only ones with a dubious past making the trip.  The vessel contained more than 40 gamblers and ladies of the evening.  Personalities clashed during the voyage.  The scruples of such motley passengers were questionable or nonexistent.  When they weren’t cheating one another at a game of poker of faro, they were conning law abiding travelers out of their possessions or blatantly stealing from others.  

Charles was one of two thieves who got caught trying to take writer Edward L. Williams’s purse filled with money.  On December 11, 1849, Williams recorded the incident in his journal.  “I was hanging in a hammock near the bow, alongside a row of bunks,” he wrote.  “Not long after falling asleep I was awakened by a volley of curses and a loud “Get out of here!”  There followed more “coarse and vile oaths” and the threat:  “If you don’t get out, I will cut you down.  You are keeping the air from me!”  I didn’t move.  One of them I recognized as Charles Cora, removed a large knife from his pocket.  Just then, on the other side of his hammock I saw a pistol gleaming in the moonlight and the man holding it said, “You attempt to cut the boy down for his purse before me and I will blow a hole through you, you infernal blackleg Southerner.  I know you, you used to run a gambling game at New Orleans and you robbed everybody.  Get away from that boy!”

The confrontation between Charles and the competing robber intensified as the voyage continued.  Angry over the thwarted attempt to steal a bankroll to gamble with, Charles and his cohorts took to bullying the passengers.  He caused so much trouble the ship’s captain had him and his partners in crime placed in irons.  

Belle and Charles arrived in San Francisco on December 28, 1849.  The gambling team then boarded a stage for Sacramento.  The river city was the location for some of the territories biggest poker games.  The price to sit in on the game was $20 thousand.  Belle put up the money and Charles played.  He won a sizeable amount in one hand, but his luck quickly changed and he lost it all.  Belle fronted him an additional $60 thousand to stay in the game, but he was unable to turn things around.  He then solemnly vowed he would never again play with a woman’s money.  

The lovers left Sacramento and made the rounds at the various mining camps in the foothills.  They set up games at make shift saloons and Belle lured perspective gamblers in for Charles to fleece.  Once they had made up the losses they incurred in Sacramento they moved on to Marysville and opened a gambling den called The New World.  

There were no limits on the bets taken at the tables at the New World.  One prospector recalled that “Charles Cora himself laid down a bet of $10 thousand in one hand of 5 card draw.  He won his bet too.”

Once the gaming house was established and earning a profit, Belle sought to expand the enterprise.  In April 1851, she traveled to Sonora.  The booming mining town had a population of 5 thousand people and was in desperate need of additional entertainment.  Using the name Arabelle Ryan, the confidence woman and madam purchased a house of ill repute.  She called the combination brothel and gambling den the Sonora Club.  (A confidence woman is someone who gains a person’s trust in order to entice them into a game of chance.)  

The business was a profitable venture.  Charles followed after his paramour and dealt cards for her.  By the end of 1851, Belle and Charles had earned more than $126 thousand from their combined businesses in Sonora and Marysville.  The gamblers used their substantial holdings to move their trade to San Francisco.  

Although Charles and Belle were not married she took on his last name when they relocated to the city by the bay.  The pair operated out of a two story wooden building that had two entrances.  Belle decorated the combination bordello and casino with the finest furnishings and accoutrements.  When the Coras opened the doors to the business on November 17, 1852, patrons reported that “it rivaled the finest residences in the city.”  Customers included politicians, entrepreneurs and other gambling professionals.  They were treated to free champagne and hors d’oeuvres, the most beautiful women in the trade, and liberal tables with a new deck of cards or dice each night.  

A description of the Cora House included in a manuscript written in 1855 by historian Frank Soule, provides the best look inside Belle’s establishment.  “In the fall of 1855, Belle and Charles hosted a party designed to attract high rollers to the den,” Soule noted.  “The evening the couple selected for their soirée fell on the same night Mrs. William Richardson was having a get together.  

Mrs. Richardson and her husband, a U.S. Marshal, were unhappy with the lack of male attendants at their event.  When they learned that their invited guests chose to go to Belle’s place, the marshal and his wife were furious.”

The previous year antigambling laws had been passed by California representatives and all such establishments were to have been shut down.  Charles Cora could no longer practice his profession legally.  The Richardson’s suspected the party at Belle’s place had actually been a private game in which Charles was the dealer.  Mrs. Richardson and the marshal vowed to monitor the activities at the Cora House and catch the pair in the act of breaking the law.  When Charles learned of the Richardsons’ plan he informed Belle.  A bitter feud between the couples erupted.  

On November 5, 1855, the Coras and the Richardsons attended a play at the American Theatre.  The two couples were placed in balcony seats in close proximity of the other.  When the Richardsons learned that the Coras were at the same performance the marshal demanded the theatre management throw the “low moral fiber duo” out.  When the manager refused, the Richardsons left.

Over the next week, Charles and the marshal exchanged insults and derogatory remarks.  Whenever their paths crossed tensions escalated into threats.  

Finally the two met on the streets to settle things once and for all.  The gambler shot Marshal Richardson in the head with a derringer, killing him instantly.

Charles was arrested and thrown in jail.  Many of the towns- people who admired the marshal were outraged and demanded that Cora be hanged immediately.  Belle rushed to her common-law husband’s aid and hired two high-powered attorneys to represent him.  The cost of their combined retainer was $45 thousand.  

While Belle fought to prove that Charles acted in self-defense, a vigilante committee was being organized.  Leaders of the group planned to overtake the jail and exact their own justice.  Initial attempts to break into the facility and remove Charles were thwarted.  He was arraigned on December 1, 1855, and the trial was set for early January.   Belle was not content with merely purchasing good counsel, and she turned her attention to the witnesses who claimed to have seen Charles brutally gun down the unarmed marshal.  Belle met with an eye witness to the shooting and offered her money to change her story.  When that didn’t work she threatened to kill her.  Neither approach convinced the witness to redact her accusation and she was allowed to go on her way unharmed.  

Charles trial began on January 3, 1856.  Shortly after a jury was selected, Belle attempted to bribe a select few of them.  Her efforts were fruitless.  No one would agree to side with the unpopular couple.  The court was made aware of Belle’s behavior, but decided against any legal action.

The trial was lengthy and the prosecution played up the “devious” characteristics of Charles and Belle, referring to the pair as “shady gamblers with sinfulness in their lives.”  The defense argued that their morals weren’t on trial and that whatever “sinfulness there was in Belle’s life, it was far outweighed by her fidelity to her man.”

The jury deliberated for 41 hours after having received the case.  They returned having failed to reach a verdict.  While Charles awaited a second trial the public at large grew more and more incensed a the outcome.  Believing that Charles would get away with murder, the vigilante committee stormed the jail and escorted him to a secret area to be hung.  A blindfolded Belle was brought to the location of the execution.  The tearful madams asked if one of the clergymen there would marry her and Charles.  Minutes before Charles was put to death the two were legally wed.   

Heartbroken and inconsolable, Belle Cora retreated to her bedroom at the gambling den and remained tucked away in the house for more than a month.  

Belle emerged a changed woman.  She sold the business and moved to a small house with only a few servants as company.  She used her considerable financial holdings to support local charities and help children obtain a higher education.  She died in San Francisco on February 17, 1862, having given away the bulk of her fortune.  She was 30 years-old.   

 

 

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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