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Saturday Nov. 19, 1855, between 5 and 6 o'clock, the community was startled by the report that General Richardson, United States Marshal, had been shot dead by a gambler. The shooting occurred on the south side of Clay street, about midway between Montgomery and Leidesdorff streets. The fatal shot was fired from a deringer pistol by Charles Cora. Cora was a gambler, yet he did not look the character. He was a low-sized, well-formed man; dressed in genteel manner, without display of jewelry or loudness; was reserved and quiet in his demeanor; and his manners and conversation were those of a refined gentleman. I first saw him at the Blue Wing, a popular rendezvous for politicians, on Montgomery street, east side, between Clay and Commercial streets, and my impression then was that he was a lawyer or a well-to-do merchant. General Richardson was a morose and at times a very disagreeable man. He was of low stature, thick set, dark complexion, black hair, and usually wore a bull-dog look. He was known by his intimate friends to be a dangerous man as a foe, and he always went armed with a pair of deringers. The Thursday night prior to the shooting General Richardson and Col. Jo. C. McKibben, afterwards member of Congress, were at the Blue Wing in company. After midnight Richardson went out for a moment on the sidewalk. A man passed him, made a jocular remark and entered the saloon. Richardson followed him in, and asked of Perkins his name. He had been drinking heavily. McKibben prevailed upon him to start for his home. It was on Minna street, near Fred Woodworth's, just above Jessie street. Jo. accompanied him most of the way. Richardson spoke to him of an "insult" he had received from "that fellow Carter" - as he seemed to think the name to be - and declared his purpose to make him answer for it. McKibben knew Cora, and that Cora was the man to whom Richardson referred; but he likewise knew enough of Richardson to not correct him, and let him believe that "Carter" was the name, in the hope that, in his condition, he would either not think of the occurrence the next day, or would not be able to recognize Cora if he did. The following Saturday afternoon a party of us - Jo. McKibben, John Monroe, Clerk of Judge Hoffman's Court, E. V. Joice, Pen. Johnston, Josh Haven and myself were in the Court Exchange, corner of Battery and Washington streets. Richardson came in while we were there, and was in drinking humor. He became sullen and, as we all knew his nature, it was quietly agreed among ourselves that we would leave and try to get him away. He was devoted to his wife, whom he married in San Francisco. McKibben and myself accompanied him on his way home, as far as the old Oriental Hotel, within a few blocks of his residence. There he insisted on a "last drink," and we left him - he to go straight home. It turned out that he did not. He brooded over the "insult" of Carter, as he still called him, and made his way to the Blue Wing to find him, Unfortunately he found Cora there. He called him out, and, as one man wilt lead another by his side, walked with him around the corner into Clay street, halting just in front of the store of a French firm - I do not remember the name - and so managed as to put Cora on the iron grating, of the sidewalk inside, with his back to the brick wall of the store. Cora had not the slightest idea that Richardson had taken offence at his remark on Thursday night - for it was in no light offensive or insulting but simply a bit of ordinary pleasantry, and therefore, he was not aware of Richardson's object in asking him to come out from the saloon. But many of Richardson's intimate friends, who felt his death keenly, and were at that time disposed to the extreme penalty of the law upon the man who shot him, after due reflection and deliberation came to the conclusion, that under the circumstances, standing as he was placed before Richardson, who stood with his hands in his pockets, and a deringer in each pocket, pressing his demand on Cora, the latter had one of two things to do: either to kill Richardson or allow Richardson to kill him.
There were not many on Clay street, near the fatal scene, at that hour, but the discharge of Cora's pistol soon brought several to the spot. Richardson's body was carried through the side-door entrance on Clay street, into the drug store then on that corner of Montgomery street, and there hundreds viewed it. Cora was taken in charge. Dave Scannell was Sheriff. That excitement over, the feeling increased every hour, and many urged the summary hanging of Cora. Scannell had duly prepared for all this, and order was preserved, although several hundred men formed in line and proceeded to the County Jail to force their way in, seize Cora and hang him forthwith. Sunday morning the excitement had diminished in spirit of violence, but had increased in volume and disposition to bring Cora to justice. Eminent lawyers, the personal friends of Richardson, had already volunteered to assist in the prosecution of the man who shot him. The application of Cora's friends to several of the most noted criminal lawyers in the city, to defend him, was in many instances declined. Cora had one to his support, however, who proved more successful in engaging counsel in his behalf. This was the woman known as Belle Cora, the keeper of a notorious house, with whom Cora lived. She was rich and possessed of indomitable spirit. She was devoted to Cora. In this connection I will relate that which Governor Foote imparted to myself and J. Ross Browne, on a trip to Oregon, late in the summer of 1857. It was substantially this. Belle Cora had gone herself to the law office of Colonel E. D. Baker, to engage him as counsel for Cora, and had succeeded. The fee was to be $5,000; one-half this sum was immediately paid to him. She then applied to Governor Foote to engage him to assist in the case: He declined, but assured her that he should not appear for the prosecution. In a few days, on account of the intense popular feeling toward Cora, and also because the law partner of Colonel Baker had strenuously objected to his acting as counsel for Cora, as it would greatly damage their professional business the community, Baker and their personal standing in called upon Governor Foote and requested him to see Belle Cora and apprise her that she must employ some other counsel; that he felt that he must withdraw from the case - the $2,500 already paid would be returned to her. To extricate his professional brother from his unpleasant situation, Governor Foote consented to undertake the disagreeable mission. The woman was immovable in her determination to keep Colonel Baker to his engagement. And she intimated in terms not to be misunderstood that she was determined that he should fulfill his obligation. Colonel Baker was a man of dauntless courage in facing dangers of human quality; but he was in constant fear at sea; and it seems there was another quality of peril which overmastered his intrepid spirit. When Governor Foote related to him the result of his mission, he advised the Colonel to see the woman himself. Colonel Baker did go, Governor Foote accompanying him. The Governor said he had never witnessed such a manifestation of a woman's power and irresistible influence. Belle Cora was inspired to the height of heroism, in her devotion to Cora, her purpose to secure his acquittal and prevent his sacrifice. She first appealed, implored, begged Colonel Baker to stand by his engagement. He making no response, and seeming not to yield, she commanded that he must, that he should. She would double his fee. She would have him appear as Cora's counsel, if he did no more than sit in Court with Cora near him, and speak no word at all. But go in Court and have it known that he was Cora's counsel, he must. She was inflexible in this. And when the day of trial came Colonel Baker did appear, together with General James A. McDougall, Colonel James and Frank Tilford - as counsel for Charles Cora, and it was on that trial that he made the most eloquent and extraordinary argument and plea of his life in a criminal case. It was not a packed jury in Cora's case. Care had been taken to empanel only good, respectable citizens, some of whom, a short time afterward, became members of the Vigilance Committee, and in great or less degree participated in the seizure of Cora from the county jail and in his condemnation and execution. Three of the jury were prominent Front street merchants. Notwithstanding all the feeling against Cora, the popular unrelenting prejudice, and the great preponderance of the foremost legal minds of the San Francisco Bar, to his prosecution, Alex. Campbell, General Williams and Colonel Sam. Inge, U. S. District Attorney, to assist the public prosecutor, the jury disagreed, and of the jurors who held out against a verdict of guilty of murder were three Front street merchants and others of equal high standing in the community. Cora was held for another trial, and it was while awaiting this that he was seized by the Vigilance Committee, taken to their rooms and hanged.
The excitement consequent upon the killing of Richardson did not culminate in the formation of a Vigilance Committee, similar to that of 1851, but it influenced the public mind in that direction. It was the piling of the combustibles which required only the next spark from the electric battery to fire the heap to consuming flames. There were still in the city a round number of the early Vigilance Committee which had ridden San Francisco of the "Sydney thieves;" some who had also, in 1849, suppressed the "Hounds;" and they were prepared again to meet violence and lawlessness with the stronger arm of organized force and the quick, sharp vengeance of the lex talionis.
The occasion soon came. May 14th, 1856, between 4 and 5 o'clock, afternoon, James P. Casey shot James King of William on Montgomery street, at the corner of Washington, He fired only one shot. King was facing Casey as he fired; he immediately staggered and fell. A crowd gathered in a very few moments. Casey was taken into custody and Sheriff Scannell hastened him to the county jail in a hack. The excited crowd followed and clamored for his life; they wanted to hang him at once. Then followed the organization of the Vigilance Committee, mainly directed by members of the Committee of '51. An Executive Committee of forty-one members composed the head and governing branch; a military and patrol department was organized, duly officered. The rank and file in a few days numbered between 5,000 and 6,000 men, armed, drilled and disciplined. The second floor of the Truitt brick block, southeast corner of Front and Sacramento street, embracing half a dozen stores below, was made the Committee headquarters. All around in front of the block, nearly to the middle of the street, gunny bags filled with sand were piled five feet high, and two pieces of artillery were mounted at the ends, for offensive and defensive purposes. The name of "Fort Gunny Bags" was given to it. Guards were constantly on duty inside the fort and at the two narrow passageways to the doors on the lower floor, from which the stairs led up to the rooms occupied by the Committee. At the doors, at the foot of the stairs, midway on the steps, at the top of each flight, before every door to every room, and in the passages which led to the different rooms, guards were stationed, with muskets loaded and bayonets fixed. Fort Gunny Bags was as a garrison in time of active war. A very large triangle was hung from the roof of the block occupied by the Committee to sound the signal-call to duty of every member, at any time of day or night; also a bell contributed from Monumental Fire Engine Company, whose leader was George Heossafros, (ex-Chief of the Fire Department). The Executive Committee Court hall and rooms, the rooms of the officers, the rooms for the guards, and the small, close, crimped cells for the prisoners, were all upon the second floor - the upper floor of the block. The entire place was thoroughly guarded.
Casey shot King Wednesday afternoon, May 14th. After the organization of the Vigilance Committee, a number of prominent citizens who were opposed to every movement of that kind and believed in due obedience to the law and in submission to the constituted authorities under every circumstances, likewise organized under the title of the Law and Order Association. Impulse was given to the movement by an unlooked-for incident. The Daily Herald had been for four years annually voted by the guild of auctioneers the auction advertisements, which filled one whole page of the paper. John Nugent was owner and editor. He had approved and upheld the Vigilance Committee of 1851 in the Herald. It was expected that he would approve the Committee just organized. He adopted the contrary course. The Herald denounced the Committee in strong terms. The merchants had generally approved and joined the Committee. That morning every copy of the Herald was gathered, a pile of the papers made in Front street, and burned. It was the significant rebuke which the merchants made; but they did not stop at that - they erased their names from the carriers' lists. Thousands of other citizens did the same. That morning the Herald was a sheet of forty columns, with the largest advertising patronage and largest circulation of any daily newspaper in San Francisco. The next morning it appeared, a small sheet, not much larger than a sheet of foolscap, of twenty-four columns. The Herald was the favorite organ of the Democracy, of the anti-Broderick and Southern wing of the party, particularly. The especial organ of that wing, the Times and Transcript, had ceased publication a few months before, and its patronage went mostly to the Herald. Nugent was opposed to Gwin, the powerful leader of the anti-Broderick party, more than he was to Broderick; but this was overlooked by many of Gwin's supporters. The friends, of General McDougall were his warmest friends and backers, They now rallied to his support and to the sustenance of the Herald. General Volney E. Howard, J. Thompson Campbell, Judge R. Augustus Thompson, W. T. Sherman, the manager of Lucas, Turner & Co.'s banking house here - now General Sherman - Austin E. Smith, Sam. E. Brooks, Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton Bowie, Major Richard Roman; and the solid old merchant, Captain Archibald Ritchie, With hundreds others, stood steadfast by Nugent, for Law and Order, and against the Committee. J. Neely Johnson was Governor of the State, and controlled the militia. He was petitioned by the Law and Order Organization to take action and issue a proclamation requiring the Vigilance Committee to disband. Governor Johnson came from Sacramento to San Francisco by steamboat on Friday night, and was met at the wharf by a deputation of the Law and Order body. Subsequently, up town, a committee from the Vigilance Committee, accompanied by Col. Baillie Peyton, met him, and with them he held a long conference.