Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
“Murder! murder most foul and dastardly has been committed in our streets, and the blood of the victim crieth aloud for vengeance.”
Even regular readers of the Daily Evening Bulletin had never seen its editor, James King of William, this angry. All through the winter of 1855–56, he’d been calling for Charles Cora’s death. “He must and will be hung!” he’d written. And if the sheriff of San Francisco let Cora slip away? Then “hang him—hang the Sheriff!”
But now, Cora had been caught, and the only thing hung was the jury. Rumor had it that Cora’s lover, the madame of a Waverly Place parlor house who was known simply as Belle Cora, had influenced the jury with gold dust. Key witnesses were fleeing the city. The murder case was falling apart.
“Hung be the heavens with black!” cried King of William, quoting Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1. He cursed Cora’s “obscene paramour”; he wept for “the fame of the fair city.” In the pages of his newspaper, he’d already declared war in San Francisco, “war between the prostitutes and gamblers on one side, and the virtuous and respectable on the other.” He viewed the hung jury as a patriotic humiliation.
But he wasn’t about to surrender. He ended his editorial with a threat that would’ve chilled anyone who recalled the violent excess of the Committee of Vigilance: “Gamblers, we warn you! remember Vicksburg!”
It all began with a breach of decorum. At the American Theater on November 19, 1855, the professional gambler Charles Cora escorted Belle Cora to a private box. Seating a Waverly Place madame in a box, rather than at the curtained-off back of the house, was taken as an insult to San Franciscan high society. When the gaping eyes of the audience turned toward the wife of U.S. Marshal William A. Richardson to see her reaction, the marshal had no choice but to protest La Belle Cora’s presence. Harsh words were exchanged, and several days later, near the Blue Wing Saloon, Charles Cora shot the marshal dead.
The case seemed cut and dried, but justice in San Francisco wasn’t that simple. The fact that a professional gambler could even exist in the city, which had outlawed gambling in 1852, suggested the depth of the corruption. It has been said that, of a thousand murders committed from 1849–56, just one resulted in a legal conviction. Though he’d gunned down a U.S. marshal, Cora could count on well-placed friends in government. His attire at the trial exposed the court as a rigged casino, with Cora “jaunty in a fancy velvet waistcoat, light kid gloves, and his drooping black gambler’s mustache curled and perfumed.”
But as evidenced by the popularity of the Evening Bulletin, public opinion had turned against the gamblers. Issue after issue, its editor, James King of William, railed against “these fiends in human shape who earn their ill-gotten gains at the gambling table.” In just a few furious months, the Bulletin had become the voice of San Francisco’s increasingly restless conscience.
Born in Georgetown, D.C., in 1822, James King added the monarchical “of William” to his name to separate himself from thirteen other James Kings in his social circle. Full of the self-reliant spirit of the age, James and his six brothers were always seeking such distinctions. One brother, Henry, became a captain in John C. Frémont’s exploratory expeditions in the West. He later led a group of men into the mountains, got snowbound, and was cannibalized.
After a brief period prospecting for gold, James King of William founded a bank that went under, and then worked in another that also folded. Perhaps it was during his ill-fated experience in finance that he acquired his passionate hatred of gambling. As Petrarch once wrote, “All money is unstable,” and King of William saw banking and gambling on a volatile continuum that victimized honest citizens.
When a financial crisis in 1855 wiped out the fortunes of many Californians, he began publishing the Evening Bulletin. In apocalyptic editorials, with froth at the corners of his mouth, he attacked the banks and published the locations of illegal gambling halls. The Bulletin was charged with a righteous electricity, and it soon became the most popular paper in the west.
Antigambling crusades emerged in the nineteenth century wherever a community sought legitimacy. In his history of California, Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote of the eradication of gambling in San Francisco as a process of social evolution: “As a more refined civilization crept in and overwhelmed the low, the loose, and the vicious, gambling sank into disrepute.” While the gambler’s risk-taking spirit was essential to expansion on the American frontier, it was too primordial to secure a place in an advanced culture. As Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, gambling is “an archaic trait … incompatible with the requirements of the modern industrial process.” Gambling’s challenge to capitalist civilization goes a long way toward explaining our abiding attraction to games of chance. With a roll of the dice, we escape to a time when superstition enchanted the world, and connect with our ancestors who tingled the same way as they braced for the outcome. This is, perhaps, as close to a universal experience as we have, for the one thing every person has felt is uncertainty.
In the nineteenth century, where the destabilizing force of gambling couldn’t be repressed by moral sermonizing, it was cleansed in blood. Hanging over the Cora affair were the events at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1835. In that bustling center of the slave trade and cotton industry, a confrontation at a Fourth of July barbecue between local citizens and a professional gambler spiraled into violence. A militia called the Vicksburg Volunteers circulated a notice expelling gamblers from the city, then seized gaming equipment and cast it on bonfires. When a raid on a gambling house resulted in a shoot-out, in which a local physician was killed, five gamblers were arrested and led into the woods. As the nooses were strung up, the Volunteers’ band drowned out the gamblers’ pleas for a jury trial. All five were hanged. Their bodies were left on display for twenty-four hours, then buried in a ditch.
Most of the country expressed disgust with Vicksburg—but not James King of William. In his war with the gamblers, he repeatedly invoked Vicksburg as the inevitable fate of his enemies. If justice were thwarted, he wrote in the Bulletin, there would be “more fearful consequences than attended the expulsion of such parties from Vicksburg.” King of William bemoaned the necessity of violence, while recklessly tempting its outbreak, essentially washing his hands of events he himself was writing into existence. “God forbid!” there should ever be mob violence in San Francisco, he wrote. But then again, “Extreme cases require severe remedies.”
And San Francisco already knew how to cure itself. Just a few years before the Cora affair, the so-called Committee of Vigilance had been formed to rid the city of criminality. Some have perceived the Committee as animated by nativist, anti-Irish sentiment; others have seen it as a check on the politics-by-any-means practiced by corrupt Democratic leaders with ties to New York’s Tammany Hall. Regardless, the Committee was an extrajudicial force, private citizens who took the law into their own hands and executed four men for crimes ranging from burglary to murder.
James King of William had been an early supporter of the Committee, and while it had receded to the background, its leaders continued to meet. As the Cora affair unfolded, the editor began warning his readers that another Committee might be needed: “The welfare of this community, and indeed the reputation of the State, is now at stake.”
King of William had made powerful enemies. The consummate antigambler was probably galled to discover that bets were being taken as to whether he would live another twenty days (he did). But there was something of the death-drive about him, an impatient rush toward catastrophe. He published the route he took home from the office every night, and invited his enemies to take their grievances up with him there. “In case we fall,” he wrote, “our house is but a few hundred yards beyond, and the cemetery not much farther.”
With Charles Cora still in jail awaiting a new trial, King of William went after another high-profile associate of the gamblers. James Casey had been imported from New York by the local government to rig elections. He was promptly set up as the Inspector of Elections, and as one contemporary wrote, “He has probably done more stuffing and ticket shifting than any man in the world.” After amassing a considerable fortune, Casey founded the Sunday Times to rival King of William’s Bulletin. In the pages of the Times, the fixer postured as a crusader against corruption.
On May 14, 1856, King of William’s editorial exposed Casey’s criminal background. Readers learned that the sanctimonious editor of the Times had served two years in Sing Sing for grand larceny before coming to California.
It was hardly the most incendiary column ever published in the Bulletin, but just hours after the issue came off the press, Casey stormed into King of William’s office.
“What do you mean by printing that article?”
And the editor archly replied, “To what article do you refer?”
King of William threw his rival out. But, later that night, when King of William left the office, Casey appeared outside Phil’s Oyster Saloon. Wielding a navy revolver, he threw back his cape and fired. The bullet passed through King of William’s left breast and exited out his back, and he crumpled to the street.
San Francisco was thrown into a frenzy. As police conveyed Casey to the Broadway Jail, where Charles Cora was also being kept, they were pursued by crowds shouting, “Hang him! Hang all the gamblers!” Observers had never seen a mob like this before, not even in the days of the Committee of Vigilance. Armed guards were stationed around the jail. The crowd kept multiplying. The mayor’s limp speech couldn’t get the people to disperse.
With the mortally wounded King of William lying on a counter in the Pacific Express building, the leaders of the Committee of Vigilance convened. Was it time for a second Committee, a hand to guide the mass? A pamphlet signed “BRUTUS” circulated: “The Law is here a MOCKERY,” it read. “The rich villain, the powerful gambler, supported by his rich confederates, laughs at the impotence of the law.” The city’s gunsmiths couldn’t keep up with orders for sidearms and muskets. “We cannot favor mob law in any shape,” wrote the editors of The Placer Herald, “but could tolerate a violence of the kind, in this case.” Newsboys delivering word of King of William’s condition to women at home were told, “If the men don’t hang [Casey], the ladies will!”
The Committee announced it would accept new recruits. The enlistment went on for thirty hours straight. Over two thousand men were organized into regiments, and this grassroots army marched to the Broadway Jail. A brass cannon loaded with powder was aimed at the door.
Inside, the sheriff told Casey they were outnumbered about two thousand to thirty. There was no choice; he’d have to go with the Committee. Someone had smuggled a bowie knife to the prisoner, who now threatened suicide if he wasn’t promised a fair trial. The Committee readily agreed—it was always quick to claim propriety—and delivered both James Casey and Charles Cora to their headquarters on Sacramento Street.
But how was a fair trial possible? Newspapers everywhere had proclaimed the guilt of Casey and Cora (“James King of William shot—Probably Killed, by Jim Casey,” read a typical headline), and the Vigilance Committee conducted the trial in total secrecy—no reporters, no observers. Everyone involved was sworn never to discuss the proceedings.
A little after noon on May 20, James King of William died. Black cloth draped the windows of the Bulletin office. The news spread across the state, which one writer said became “as solemn as the grave.” Shortly after—presumably because the victim must die for it to be murder—guilty verdicts were rendered for Casey and Cora.
Huge crowds followed James King of William’s funeral cortege to Lone Mountain cemetery. In their eulogies, clergymen castigated Casey, “the vicious, gambling, idle, cursing man,” and proclaimed King of William “a martyr to the cause of public virtue.” The Committee of Vigilance promised to carry the spirit of the saintly editor forward. In the coming years, it would transform into the People’s Party, which ruled the city for a decade before being absorbed into the Republican Party of California. When the crusade was finally over, San Francisco would be described by one historian as “peaceful as a rural village.”
On the afternoon of King of William’s funeral, the regiments of the Committee gathered outside their headquarters. Around one o’clock, the windows on the second story opened. Wooden boards shot out, with hinges in the middle. Hooks had been installed above the windows.
Charles Cora was allowed to marry Belle Cora, who then watched the white cap being drawn over her husband’s head, the heavy noose about his neck. He kissed the crucifix held out to him. Then the hinge gave way and he dropped five feet. His neck snapped instantly.
Weak in the knees, James Casey had to be propped up. In a stammering voice, he addressed the crowd below. He didn’t intend to commit murder, he said. He was only acting “according to my early education”—the gambler’s ethic of how to avenge insult. “Oh God!” he cried, when he saw it was no use. “My poor mother! Oh God!” he cried, and he dropped. Dangling, he struggled for three minutes, and was still.
The Committee left the bodies hanging for an hour. Thousands came to see that the rein of the gamblers was over. Civilization had dawned in San Francisco.
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.