America’s Last Emperor: Cora and Casey

Chapter Fifteen

Fort Gunnybags, courtesy of OpenSFHistory

May 14th, 1856

Norton found his life without an office to go to rather unfocused. He continued his twice daily constitutionals but now paid no attention to the time it took him to make his rounds. He had no set path, but made his way from Meigg’s Wharf to the site of his Genesee Warehouse much in the same way he did when he owned the warehouse.

His friend Eastland bought the Genesee Warehouse so that Sherman’s Bank would not have to carry the debt. Norton watched earlier that spring as they’d razed the ship and erased the bay around it with dirt from the sand dunes that filled the area south of Market Street. He felt as though a little bit of his story of coming to this place was erased.

Since February the bar at the foot of Meigg’s Wharf was Norton’s unofficial office. He often met people there to talk. He was not bothered by the lewd pictures that Abe Warner put on the walls, but started to notice that Mr. Warner was not cleaning the place at all. The man slept in the room behind the bar, and had a crab trap that he dangled through a hole in the floor when he felt like eating seafood. Norton wryly thought that it smelled like he ate a lot of seafood.

More often than not he was followed by stray dogs on his rounds. The dogs would not go near the Warner bar, though. The monkey kept them away. The monkey didn’t like dogs, and would stand at the doorway chittering at them and throwing its own feces until the dogs relented and ran away. The whole time the parrot was screaming obscenities. The drunken crowd that this bar instantly attracted loved this show.

Warner named the monkey “Franklin Pierce” but mostly called him Frankie. The monkey responded to this name quickly. Norton quickly learned that this was a reflection of Warner’s opinion on the American president. Norton had never really understood American politics. This was mostly because he hadn’t had time to get into it. He’d had enough trouble dealing with local politics, until he wasn’t involved anymore. Warner gave him a schooling on current events in the short time his bar was open.

It was a Wednesday, and there was a steamer from Sacramento that docked at the wharf on Wednesdays. Norton sat in Warner’s bar with a coffee and the newspaper, reading stories and talking with Warner as the sailors and folks stopped by.

“So the compromise is that slavery exists below a line on a map, and the current kerfuffle is because the president signed a bill allowing it in Kansas if they vote for it?”

“Precisely,” said Warner. “State’s rights over the federal.”

“But surely people have to see the moral problems with slavery?” asked Norton.

“Most people don’t care,” said Warner. “I moved out here to get away from it, and it’s threatened to follow me out here. If you leave it up to a vote, there will always be some cocksucker who wants to own another person.”

“Which is why monarchy…” began Norton.

“… is so much better,” finished Warner. “Yes, your highness, we have heard your monarchy argument before. The fact is that this isn’t a monarchy, and yet we’re at the whims of a system that is still controlled by a very small class of people that we don’t agree with.”

“Not in Kansas they aren’t,” said Norton.

“It’s all the fault of Pierce,” said Warner. “Kansas is in open rebellion right now over slavery, and it’s getting uglier. I would bet you even money that there will be a major uprising in the next five years. We’re among the last countries in the world with legalized slavery.”

“It won’t come here,” said Norton.

“Not for lack of trying,” said Warner. “The Democrats here are split evenly on slavery on the local board. Thank god we got the know-nothings out of power.”

Norton tried and failed to follow the political party discussions that Warner had, but he could not identify a single thing that made a man a Democrat or Republican in this town. His eyes were focused on the fact that most of the people he knew in the local political scene were appointed by David Broderick, like the Casey fellow.

“Did you notice that your ex-landlord published his story?” asked Norton, flashing the newspaper.

“What story?” asked Warner.

“The one about Supervisor Casey,” said Norton. He tapped the paper. “Spent time in Sing Sing for…”

“… stealing a prostitute’s furniture, yes, I remember,” said Warner, picking up the paper. He muttered as he read.

“Well, that’s gonna cause a fight,” he said under his breath.


Norton was walking back toward Mrs. Carswell’s boarding house when he heard the bells ringing and saw the crowd. Mrs. Carswell’s house was only half a block from the county jail on Broadway, and there was a crush of people around it. He decided to walk up Fresno Street to Kearny to avoid the crush of people. As he got to the small dirt track behind the jail, he saw Tom Sawyer there.

“What’s going on, Sawyer?” he asked.

“James King of William’s been shot,” he said. “You remember that queer bird?”

“Warner and I were just talking about his article on Mr. Casey,” said Norton.

“Well, that’s who shot him,” said Sawyer. “The mayor and Broderick had to escort him to jail themselves to keep this crowd from hanging him from the nearest lamppost. They’re still inside.”

“The bells…” said Norton.

“They’re reforming the Vigilance Committee,” said Sawyer in response. “It’s a lot nastier this time. Casey’d better hope he doesn’t die.”

“He’s not dead?” asked Norton.

“He’s down in the Monkey Block, being tended to by a doctor,” said Sawyer. This was Sawyer’s euphemism for the Montgomery Block, that building Norton adored at Montgomery and Washington. “You wanna get some guns and go patrollin’ again?”

“I have no interest in participating this time,” said Norton. “The last time left a bad taste in my mouth.”

“This time there’s a telegraph,” said Sawyer. “I’ve heard from a friend that the governor in Sacramento is calling out the militia over this.”

“This does not bode well,” said Norton.


May 18th, 1856

Norton took his morning constitutional towards south of Market to see Fort Gunnybags.

Four days earlier the bells rang for the formation of the Second Committee of Vigilance. It was all anyone in the town could talk about. Since Marshall Richardson was shot by Charles Cora six months prior, a seething undercurrent of distrust in justice surged to the surface. The editorials of James King of William inflamed this distrust over the past six months, and his shooting threw the old Vigilantes into action. Norton recognized none of the names of the new guard in charge.

The “fort” was actually a two-story warehouse for liquor that was fairly new, on Sacramento and Front Streets. Norton remembered when this part of town was the shoreline at low tide. The front was painted white and a sign (“Mills and Vantine”) proclaimed the owner’s names as was customary. A bell was set up on the roof, in a thrown together wooden frame. Two men stood guard on top of the building. Around the front sandbags were thrown down in defensive barriers, giving the fort its nickname — the committee had officially named it “Fort Vigilance” but this wasn’t descriptive enough for the common citizens. Nobody called it that.

Norton considered this scene for a moment, then walked towards Market Street. Front turned into Fremont Street, and before long Norton found himself in front of a sandlot at Howard Street where his storeship once stood. A wooden fence stood around the site, and painted on the fence proclaimed this lot as the NEW HOME OF PACIFIC GAS WORKS. Burly workmen clustered around the gate to the lot as Norton walked up, and he saw his friend Eastland there pointing to a piece of paper with one of the workmen. Eastland looked up as he approached. For an instant his face was concerned, but that melted away with a smile as recognition dawned.

“Norton!” he said. “How good to see you. Come to see what I’ve done with your ship?”

“Eastland, hello,” said Norton, more subdued than his usual self. “I actually wanted to walk by Fort Gunnybags, and decided to inspect progress on this landmark of yours.”

“Coal gas plants are boring,” said Eastland. “I want to see Fort Gunnybags myself. Walking back to North Beach?”

“I suppose I should at some point,” said Norton.

Eastland looked concerned at this answer.

“Norton, are you quite alright?” he asked. “You don’t seem yourself. I’ll walk with you.”

“I’ve got a case of the morbs,” said Norton. “Let’s go.”

“Whatever does that mean?” asked Eastland, following Norton.

“I’m melancholy, old boy,” said Norton as they walked up Fremont. “I remember the last time they called up the Vigilance Committee, we were all scared for our lives. This time it seems different.”

“It actually is different,” said Eastland. “This town was booming last time, and this time the gold has run out. Last time there were about twenty thousand people in town. This time there’s over twice that many.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Norton. “It seems that the insanity infecting this country has found its way here to me.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eastland.

“Well, there’s an open rebellion in Kansas,” said Norton. “This committee seems more like a rebellion provoked by inflammatory words than last time.”

Eastland considered this for a second.

“If the government falls, it falls,” said Eastland. “If they do, I have no doubt that Mexico will attempt to regain this state by force. The problems are multiple.”

Norton looked at Eastland sadly.

“These are the problems that self-determination causes,” he said.


As they passed Fort Gunnybags, they saw another man on the roof of the building approaching the bell. The man started ringing the bell as men streamed out of the building. Norton waved one of them down as he came towards them.

“What’s going on, sir?” he asked.

“We’re going to the jail to get the murderer and hang him.”

“Well, that’s that,” said Eastland. “Has James King died?”

“He’s not going to live. We just got the word,” said the man.

“Things go from bad to worse,” said Norton.

“I’ve heard they’re planning to seize a shipment of guns for the militia,” said Eastland.

“The one the governor is calling up against them?” asked Norton.

“Of course,” said Eastland. “Deprive the legitimate government of weapons whilst arming yourself.”

“They’ll be headed to the jail next,” said Norton. “I’ll have a bird’s eye view out of Mrs. Carswell’s back windows.”

“Half the town is going to be there,” said Eastland.


In the end, Norton and Eastland had to walk to the hill on top of Kearny to see anything. The newspaper later estimated the crowd size at fifteen thousand including the people lollygagging to watch. The entire committee approached the jail from three sides in companies of five hundred men each. One company marched up Kearny to Broadway, the other two marched down DuPont and Broadway toward the jail. By the time the jailors were aware of the armed force of fifteen hundred men surrounding them it was too late to do anything.

In the lead was a horse dragging a shiny brass cannon with the lethal end pointed backwards, about three feet long. The man leading the horse guided the horse to the jail’s door, then towards the other side of the street so that the muzzle of the cannon pointed directly at the heavy timber and steel door to the jail.

Norton and Eastland watched this for an hour, while it seemed that nothing was happening. They were about to give up when the jailor appeared at the door with two men. The committee loaded them into a stagecoach, and the companies of men marched in formation back the way they came. Norton was confused.

“Why were there two prisoners?” asked Norton.

“They’re taking Cora too,” said Eastland. “That newspaperman really whipped the crowd into a frenzy before he died.”

“I agree that justice is taking its time with him,” said Norton, “but this is really too much.”

“One could argue that the town is rebelling against the corruption of the current administration,” said Eastland.

“Where does it end?” asked Norton. “This civil unrest would never happen in a monarchy.”

“You don’t remember this country’s history very well, do you?” asked Eastland. “The fact is that Broderick would have let Casey get away with murder and undoubtedly has until he murdered the wrong person. As much as I hate to say it, Norton, but our friend is probably part of the problem.”

“I know,” said Norton. “We’ve grown apart since he’s gotten so successful and I’ve gotten so destitute.”

“We all have,” said Eastland. “I am sorry, my friend, if my business and family has kept me from seeing more of you.”

“That’s all right,” said Norton. “We have moments like this between us, so it’s not all bad.”

“What a moment!” said Eastland. “Do you want to see how it ends?”

“We all know how mob rule ends,” said Norton soberly.


May 22nd, 1856

Norton followed the saga in the newspapers in the next two days. In the interest of getting the entire story he ended up ensconced in the Mechanic’s Institute Reading Room for a few hours both days, reading every newspaper published. The reading rooms that most people frequented had all the newspapers available in the city. There was one less after May 20th. On that day, James King of William passed away of his wounds in a room at the Montgomery Block as the trial of his murderer started in the morning. They were finished by the 21st. The Vigilantes voted to hang both Charles Cora and James Casey the very next day.

Norton made his morning constitutional to the Reading Room as usual, and read the news that the hanging would happen that day at one P.M. He immediately decided to set out to the Pacific Gas Works to see if Eastland wanted to see the end of the story himself. The arrival at the worksite dismayed him greatly — there was nobody there. He turned himself back towards North Beach and soon discovered the reason for the absence of workmen. A crowd was gathering around Fort Gunnybags, and he decided to stay there.

He moved through the crowd and soon found a familiar face in Tom Sawyer. The man reeked of alcohol, as he seemed to drink a lot more lately.

“Hello, Sawyer,” said Norton, greeting his old friend. “Any change?”

“You just missed the madame,” said Sawyer. “About twenty minutes ago Belle Ryan came through here.”

“Is she mad?” asked Norton. “This crowd is already incensed enough that she tried to bribe her lover’s jury.”

“Well the rumor is now they’re married,” said Sawyer soberly.

It hit Norton in a flash. He’d never been in love, and could not conceive of it. His duty was to his country, and being in love was never a consideration for him. Trying to understand what was going through this woman’s mind broke a kind of dam in his mind of self-isolation, and he suddenly had a tiny glimpse of what true love must be like for the ones in love. His heart suddenly ached for the woman that society told him must be beyond redemption.

“Oh that poor woman,” said Norton.

“I can’t even begin to understand,” said Sawyer.

The entire crowd was dead silent when the hour came. A few started to drift away when nobody appeared for twenty minutes. Then, at the second story windows of the building the condemned men appeared. Two beams with blocks were extended from the roof, weighed down by the seven hundred pound bell on top of the timber framework. To provide additional weight, men in military tunics stood on top of the beams. Threaded through the blocks were a hundred feet of hemp rope, with the bitter ends expertly fashioned into hangman’s nooses with thirteen turns for the knot.

Casey stood up, just as Norton remembered him from Broderick’s office. He felt bad for the man, stammering loudly that he was no murderer and that his poor mother would be devastated. Charles Cora stood next to him with a smirk on his face that telegraphed his boredom with the whole ceremony.

While the entire crowd watched silently, the knots were lowered over the heads of the convicted men. While the bag and noose seemed to not matter to Charles Cora, it wasn’t so for James Casey. The man fought and screamed as they put the bag on his head, wailing about how they weren’t the police and had no right to judge him. He was still screaming when the entire group of men picked him up and threw him out the window. The entire crowd was completely shocked into silence by all of this, and the sudden cessation of noise from James Casey made it all the more chilling.

While still in shock from all of this, the crowd barely had time to take in the fact that Charles Cora calmly stepped onto the window sill and out into thin air, the rope suddenly halting his downward momentum and a sickening snap forcing his head to one side. Nobody had pushed him.

From behind the second story window, the entire crowd could hear the wailing of the newly widowed Belle Cora, and they hung their collective heads in shame.


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Founder at KinkBNB. Writer of fiction and nonfiction.

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