The Charles Cora trial

Belle Cora, the mistress of Charles Cora, had determined to spare no expense to save her lover. To that end she hired the best attorneys she could, including the well known Edward D. Baker and James A. McDougall as well as George F. James and Frank Tilford. But, in spite of this impressive collection of legal talent Cora still appeared for his arraignment dressed in full gambler splendor, clad in a richly figured velvet vest, light kid gloves, with an overcoat thrown loosely over his shoulders, his mustache carefully trimmed and carrying himself with such a nonchalant manner as if to defy both decency as well as justice. His demeanor, while vaguely noticed by the populace, was loudly trumpeted in the newspapers and this went a long way to intensify the popular feeling of distrust and vengeance.

Edward D. Baker

On January 3, 1856 Charles Cora’s trial took place. Of the four lawyers on his defense team Baker and McDougall handled most of the oratory while San Francisco District Attorney Henry H. Byrne and US District Attorney Samuel W. Inge, assisted by Charles Williams and Alexander Campbell, made up the prosecution team. Most of the jurors were good men, but one did expose an attempt to bribe him, and there was little doubt that large sums on money were lavished on witnesses and most likely on other jurors. Baker went so far as to describe the prostitute Belle Cora as a woman of the purest and holiest of female virtues. While it is possible that he had some effect on a few jurors the general feeling was that the fix was already in and his praise of Belle Cora was little more than an insult to common decency.

The lawyer

The one thing that almost every person agreed on was that, while Cora was clearly guilty, there was little or no chance of a verdict against him. The talk about town had it that no man, no matter how bad his crime, who had such a large fund at his back for the purpose of corruption, could ever be convicted and so the trial of Charles Cora was a farce. When on January 17th, after sitting out for twenty-four hours, the jury returned having failed to agree—seven voting for murder, one for manslaughter and four for acquittal—no one was surprised. But, almost to a man, the citizens of San Francisco were enraged.

 

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