Our history of the bordellos of San Francisco continues with a few profiles of some of the most fascinating, outrageous, vexing — and do I dare use the word “endearing” — madams our raw-boned city has known.
Madame Irene McCready
Irene McCready is generally credited with being the first madam in San Francisco. She came to the fast-growing town in April 1849 with her rakish lover James McCabe, who opened a gambling hall called El Dorado in a tent on Portsmouth Square.
It soon became a magnet for the free-spirited miners with gold dust in their jeans. McCready, with McCabe’s backing, opened a simple bagnio nearby in a one-story frame building. Within a few months, it burned down — as did El Dorado — in San Francisco’s first-of-a-series of disastrous fires. El Dorado reopened and so did Madame McCready’s establishment.
A few months later the bagnio again burned to the ground. This time Madame McCready acquired a two-story brick building, and she was back in business with a plush and proper parlor house that operated through 1856. It was reported that her clientele included a California governor, a senator, and a number of judges.
She and McCabe had a stormy relationship. Believing he was cheating on her, she drugged him, and when he passed out, she shaved him head to toe, which effectively put him out of action for some time. McCabe eventually gave up gambling and took up the law, practicing in San Francisco. Unfortunately history has lost track of Irene McCready.
A Chinese beauty named Ah Toy
A 20-year-old prostitute, Ah Toy, arrived in San Francisco about 1848. She soon set up a small shanty in what was destined to become San Francisco’s Chinatown. She said she came to San Francisco to “better her condition,” and better it she did. Ah Toy was a tall woman, beautiful, and with an aristocratic bearing. Soon she began “keeping company” with a vigilante police officer named John A. Clark. In 1850, she made the jump to madam and provided employment to five young Chinese women. Her parlor house was located in an alley called Pike Street. Today it is Waverly Place.
Not at all shy, Ah Toy used the judicial system to her advantage and appeared in court several times when she felt she was wronged. Once she brought a complaint against miners who she said had cheated her by paying her fees in brass filings instead of gold dust. The charges were dismissed. Later she was arrested and convicted for keeping a “disorderly” house — highly unusual at the time, because the law seldom bothered Caucasian madams and their “boarders.” This happened several times, and she finally left the business. She married and later sold clams in the South Bay town of Alviso. She lived to within a few days of her 100th birthday.
Belle Cora: From dressmaker to madam
Belle Cora, a leading San Francisco madam of the 1850s, claimed to be the daughter of a Baltimore minister. She said that at 17 she had been seduced and left pregnant. Her father cast her out penniless, and she wound up in New Orleans. She said the baby died at childbirth, and having no other options, she had
became a pros-
titute in a local parlor house.
There she came to the attention of a prominent gambler, Charles Cora, who took her under his wing.
Another version of the Belle Cora story goes like this: In her early teens, she became a dressmaker and worked on fancy garments for prostitutes in a Baltimore parlor house. Tired of sewing, she joined the ranks of the parlor house girls and later moved to Charleston. She either met Cora there or in New Orleans.
In any case, sensing opportunity, Belle and Cora sailed for San Francisco, arriving late in 1849. Cora gambled from one mining town to another, and Belle, a striking brunette later described by a San Francisco detective as a “voluptuous creature,” tagged along.
In the early 1850s, she opened a bordello in the California mining town of Sonora. Later, Charles Cora and Belle — now calling herself Belle Cora — moved to San Francisco, and she opened a parlor house on DuPont Street, now Grant Avenue. It was said to be nondescript on the outside and lavishly appointed inside. Then in 1855, she moved to a two-story brick establishment on Pike Street, opposite the “house”
of Ah Toy.
A Methodist minister, the Reverend William Taylor, who tirelessly shamed the fallen sisterhood, described Belle Cora’s parlor: “… magnificent without, beautiful within, furnished with Brussels velvet, silk and damask. Heavy furniture of rosewood, and walls hung with beautiful paintings, and music from a pianoforte, melodeon, and harp, no house more prominent or beautiful for situation in the city.”
A firsthand account.
In 1855, Charles Cora shot and killed a U.S. Marshall over a presumed snub of social-climbing Belle. In spite of Belle’s struggles to save Cora, he was hanged in May 1856 by the Vigilance Committee operating in San Francisco at the time. The day of the hanging Bell married Charles Cora. There were suggestions that Belle be banished from San Francisco, but she also had her defenders. She mourned for a while, and then it was business as usual.
She was 29 when Cora was hung. She died at 35 in 1862. In 1916, Pauline Jacobson published a serial on Belle Cora in the San Francisco Bulletin. As a result, the madam was disinterred from Calvary Cemetery and laid to rest with her gambler husband beneath a common headstone at Mission Dolores.
Eleanor Dumont: Madame Mustache
Perhaps not in the same league with such superstars as Irene McCready, Ah Toy and Belle Cora, but nevertheless an interesting footnote to the San Francisco parlor house saga, was a French woman, Eleanor Dumont. She was known — behind her back, one hopes — as Madame Mustache for her distinguishing feature described by one chronicler as growing with “Mediterranean luxuriousness.”
From 1854, Madame Mustache gambled and “madamed” her way around California gold towns. She also wandered as far as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. At one point Madame Mustache had 15-year-old Jane Canary — Calamity Jane she was called — as one of her “boarders.” Apparently Calamity Jane not only worked in brothels but patronized them as well, believing that in male drag she could fool any prostitute. She also took pride in the fact that she was once thrown out of a Bozeman, Mont., whorehouse for being a bad influence.
Madame Mustache, eventually tiring of traveling what later became known as the parlor house circuit, opened her own place in San Francisco sometime between the late 1860s and mid-1870s. It didn’t last long, and we are told that she committed suicide in 1879.