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June 21, 2024 9 mins

Belle Cora went from minister’s daughter, to prostitute, to San Francisco’s richest madam, to wife of a man hung for the murder of someone who insulted her—all that before her death at 34.  

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Now this is an unbelievable story. A minister's daughter, Bell Cora,
was pregnant at seventeen, then a gold rush prostitute aka
a soil dove, then, with the support of her gambler boyfriend,
one of the most successful and richest madams in San Francisco,
and finally tied to two notorious murders. All that before

(00:21):
her death at just thirty four. I'm Patty Steele, making
a fortune and losing your life in the sex trade.
That's next on the backstory. A backstory is back. Belle
Cora was born in Baltimore in eighteen thirty two or
perhaps eighteen twenty eight, it's not very clear. She was

(00:42):
the child of a minister and his wife. Bell was
a beauty with long, dark hair, pale skin, hazel eyes,
and a voluptuous body, and she wanted adventure. At sixteen,
she fell in love with an older man, and by
seventeen she was pregnant. Her boyfriend decided no thanks, and
he abandoned her. So imagine being a pregnant teenager in

(01:05):
the eighteen forties with a strict minister for a dad.
Not easy. Belle wanted to keep her baby, and she
decided the only thing she could do was run away
and head south, landing first in Charleston, South Carolina. There
she got involved with kind of a sketchy guy who
was killed in a dispute pretty soon after she met him,
so within a few months of her arrival in Charleston,

(01:28):
she took off for New Orleans. She gave birth to
her baby, but the baby died, leaving her devastated and
very alone. Belle had few options until a well known
New Orleans madam took her in. She fed her, clothed her,
and no surprise, eventually offered her work in her brothel.
Belle accepted, and within a few months she was earning

(01:50):
more than any woman in New Orleans. And that's where
she met Charles Cora. He was a well known professional
gambler and was immediately obsessed with Bell and the two
became an item. Now it's eighteen forty nine, and when
news of the California gold rush reached New Orleans, Charles

(02:11):
wanted in and the couple headed west. They basically began
touring the gold boom towns and started making a fortune.
He is a gambler in bell as a soiled dove
by eighteen fifty they'd opened a successful business north of
San Francisco called the New World Gambling Parlor. It was
a huge success, and they quickly opened another one due

(02:33):
east of San Francisco, again a huge success. Now flush
with cash, in eighteen fifty two, they decided to try
to conquer San Francisco itself. They opened their third business,
called the Cora House, and it was super lavish. People
said there was nothing to rival it on the West Coast. Customers,

(02:53):
including many of the city's big shots, were treated like royalty,
enjoying the best champagne and or d'uvs, along with their
choice of the city's absolutely most beautiful women. By eighteen
fifty three, Bell was San Francisco's number one madam, charging
the highest prices in the business and attracting powerful men
from across the US. She was called the most well

(03:16):
dressed woman in San Francisco, but it didn't last long.
During the height of the gold Rush, gambling and prostitution
were all a really big part of the San Francisco
social scene and its business culture too. There were very
few women in the city in those days. Mostly men
had arrived who were without family, and they were looking
to make a fortune, so prostitution was a very popular

(03:38):
business in that period. Just in one eight square block
area there were more than one hundred brothels operating. But
by eighteen fifty five, gold fever had pretty much petered out,
and in came the moralists, mostly arriving from the East Coast.
The first laws against gambling and prostitution had just been passed,

(04:00):
and there was increasing pressure on city officials to shut
down the gambling joints in the brothels. And then came
the beginning of the end of the story. One evening,
Belle and Charles hosted a gala event at Cora House. However,
it was on the same night as a party thrown
by US Marshall William Richardson and his wife. Well, as

(04:20):
you can imagine, the Richardsons had way fewer male guests
than did Belle and Charles. Missus Richardson was outraged that
a party thrown at a fancy gambling and prostitution venue
would compete with her party. Not long after, when the
couples were seated in the same balcony at the theater
with the most expensive seats in the house, the Marshal

(04:41):
tried to have the chorus thrown out, but the theater
manager refused, saying they were their wealthiest customers and they
weren't going to get rid of them. Words were exchanged
and Richardson apparently insulted Bell, and that started a bitter
feud between the two men. Two days later, Richardson approached
Cora in front of of a saloon and the two
walked toward the waterfront. They started to argue, and Charles

(05:05):
Kurra then shot the marshal in the head with one
of the two derringers he always carried with him, killing him.
He maintained the other guy had a gun. Other people
not so sure. He was quickly arrested, and Bell immediately
hired the most expensive lawyer in San Francisco to defend him.
Where it is. She even tried to bribe several witnesses

(05:26):
as well as a jury member in one case, even
had her henchmen threatened a female witness with a dagger.
It was the big his story in San Francisco, and
after a nasty trial ended in a hung jury, the
public finally was actually favoring a lesser charge of manslaughter.
But then there was another murder, this time of a

(05:47):
newspaperman who had attacked both Bell and her husband, as
well as a corrupt city council member. Well, the councilman
shot and killed the newspaperman. Now folks went nuts. Things
were just out of enough with the corruption, enough with
the gamblers and harlots, they screamed, said one paper. The
harlot who instigated the murder of Richardson and others of

(06:10):
her kind are allowed to visit the theaters and seat
themselves side by side with the wives and daughters of
our citizens. Because only the men were citizens, a group
called the Committee of Vigilance was born. Six thousand armed
citizens independent of city Hall and the police, decided to
fight what they thought was the rampant crime and corruption

(06:32):
going on in San Francisco. On May eighteenth of eighteen
fifty six, over two thousand of them descended on the jailhouse,
demanding the sheriff hand over both Cora and the councilmen
for a people's trial. The sheriff refused, but then changed
his mind when a loaded cannon was pointed at the
jailhouse doors. Amazing, how that can change her mind. Two

(06:54):
days later there was a people's trial and both men
were convicted and sentenced to hang. Belle was allowed to
stay in Cora's cell and married him there, and just
two hours later he was hung with thousands of people watching.
The execution of Charles Cora really marked the true end

(07:17):
of the Gold Rush. The days of out in the
open gambling and prostitution wild partying was replaced by law
and order. Belle secluded herself in her bedroom for a
month after the execution, and depending on the story you believe,
she either then sold cora house and lived quiet life,
or most probably she turned to opium and chloroform and

(07:40):
continued to run her brothel for another six years. Records
are unclear, but either way, when Belle was just in
her early thirties, she died from pneumonia caused by the
habitual abuse of chloroform. Belle Cora, in California's most notorious
woman and richest sex worker, the woman who was central
to the formation of the largest vigilante movement in US history,

(08:04):
was dead before she was thirty five years old. Hope
you're enjoying the backstory with Patty Steele. Follow or subscribe

(08:25):
for free to get new episodes delivered automatically, and feel
free to dm me if you have a story you'd
like me to cover. On Facebook, It's Patty Steele and
on Instagram Real Patty Steele. I'm Patty Steele. The Backstories
a production of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks, the Elvis Durand Group,
and Steel Trap Productions. Our producer is Doug Fraser. Our

(08:48):
writer Jake Kushner. We have new episodes every Tuesday and Friday.
Feel free to reach out to me with comments and
even story suggestions on Instagram at Real Patty Steele and
on Facebook at pattime. Thanks for listening to the Backstory
with Patty Steele, the pieces of history you didn't know
you needed to know.
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