Gold rush women, the soiled doves

Belle Ryan, a preacher’s daughter, provided the most beautiful girls to wealthy San Francisco gentlemen from her place on Dupont Street—Grant Street today. In 1855 while at the American Theater with her lover, the gambler Charles Cora, William Richardson, the U.S. Marshal, demanded that Belle be ejected because of her occupation. Richardson and Cora argued and several days later Cora shot Richardson dead. Cora was soon tried and acquitted. James King of William, a newspaperman, accused Belle of bribing the jury, and railed at city Supervisor James Casey for his part in widespread corruption. Casey responded by shooting King. The city erupted. Mobs roamed the streets. The Committee of Vigilance took both Cora and Casey from jail and, after allowing Belle and Cora to marry, lynched both men from the second floor of their headquarters on Sacramento Street, but Belle’s career as a Madame was over.

Belle Cora house

Chinese woman

Ah Toy arrived in San Francisco soon after the discovery of gold. She must have been remarkably beautiful because men would line up and pay an ounce of gold just to look at her. She called this a ‘two bittee lookee.’ She opened a parlor on Pike Street, today’s Waverly Place and imported young girls from Canton, many of whom were sold to other madams in the city. In 1854 she was arrested multiple times and charged with running a disorderly house. Soon afterwards she disappeared from the city, but in 1928 a Mrs. Ah Toy died in San Jose just a few days short of her 100th birthday. Was she the famous San Francisco Madam?



  1. It seemed you used what talents you had to survive and thrive in that place and time. Some won and some lost, but they all seemed to play the game.

    • Opportunity was everywhere. Remember, when the gold was found in 1848 there was almost no people in California other than the Indians. Women were in short supply from the outset and the working girls that did show up were great demand.

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