Little man with a big gun

The Strange Case of Mr. Wallace Leach, Part Two

Lillie Langtry, 1885
  • Lillie Langtry, 1885
  • Image by William Downey/The National Archives UK

Wallace Leach barged into the Occidental Hotel bar with a broken nose and a powerful thirst. He was in San Francisco on business, he said, but was out for revenge. He came to hire a professional boxer to smash Till Burnes’s snout the way Burnes flattened his back in San Diego.

The Occidental bar boasted visits by Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. Its bartender, the late “Professor” Jerry Thomas, may have invented the first martini in 1884. He called it the “Martinez,” after the town across the bay.

Leach wasn’t after new-fangled concoctions. He wanted the bonded Kentucky bourbon the Occidental was also famous for, and keep ’em coming.

Leach was falling apart. Though an expert lawyer and beloved by San Diegans, he was belligerent inside the court and out. “In fighting” (San Diego Union), Leach “displays little or no judgment, and would engage with John L. Sullivan as readily as he would a one-lunged tourist.”

Some speculated that fisticuffs were his way of pushing back: from being four-feet-six inches tall, being an illegitimate child, losing his daughter “little Mary” when she was six — maybe all or none of the above, and more. His life was an endless vertical climb. And now mere breathing made it harder.

The bar had a reserved area, enclosed by a brass railing, where San Francisco’s elite imbibed. As Leach entered, a shock cracked through him. His longtime rival, David McClure, was hobnobbing with Judge James Messick and Dr. D.C. Keeney. Leach and McClure grew up in Illinois. They competed for everything. McClure, who lived a free and easy glide, usually won. Both became lawyers and since (San Diego Union) “Illinois was neither large nor rich enough to divide between them,” they went to California. “McClure could live at Napa and Leach at San Diego without either feeling cramped by the existence of the other.”

McClure became a state senator and (San Francisco Post) “the handsomest attorney in the employ of the Southern Pacific Company.” Leach practiced law in a flea-fogged backwater on the Mexican border.

McClure saw his “demon of discord” and barked “loafer!”

Leach shot back: “Your knowledge of law is as rudimentary as your knowledge of good manners!”

McClure: “I’m surprised the police permit hogs to run at large.”

Leach: “You are no gentleman!”

As if to prove the point McClure fired a left hook sucker punch over the railing and bashed Leach’s bandaged nose. Leach flopped to the floor. As McClure dove after him, Dr. Keeney shouted, “Kick him in the ribs!”

Instead, McClure “proceeded to reduce the rugged protuberances of Leach’s face to a dead level” (Post). Other accounts say McClure was so drunk half his blows smacked the marble floor.

Leach scrambled to his knees. He lowered his bloody head and made a mad charge. McClure spun, crab-waddled away, and banged his right eye on a corner of the bar and left shoulder on a faux marble cuspidor.

Leach raged for more. McClure signaled he had enough. The crowd yanked Leach, drooling red saliva and fuming, away.

“Strange are the feelings of man,” wrote the Post. “McClure, who will be laid up for many days, is jubilant over what he considers his victory, while Leach, who will be all right in a few hours, is distressingly despondent over what he considers his disgraceful defeat.”

Leach returned to San Diego with a professional boxer. He got his revenge on Till Burnes — but not on the world.

On December 21, Joseph J. Jeffries, John Helpingstine’s black custodian, took in the evening air next to the Leach Opera House. Jeffries saw Leach wavering toward him, amber-eyed and muttering. Leach’s explosions, incited by “percolating fluids,” were common knowledge. So Jeffries took a step back and looked the other way.

“What right do you have to make remarks about me?” Leach roared. Then he bashed Jeffries on the jaw and drew a pistol.

“He pointed it at me,” Jeffries wrote in a complaint. “He said ‘You get out of here you black s—- of a b----.’” Jeffries raced up the street.

“Did you say anything to Mr. Leach?” asked Judge L.L. Boone, taking the complaint.

“No sir. I never said anything to him in my life.”

At the northwest corner of First and D, directly across from Leach’s home, one of San Diego’s new electric arc lights flood-lit blocks and blocks of downtown until midnight. The next nearest tower was at Fifth and F. Maybe it had nothing to do with Leach’s alcoholic outbursts. But the 3000-candle-powered light streaming from a 110 foot steel mast peopled the darkness with, what became for Leach, moving targets.

Before sunrise on Christmas Day, Leach walked west to the corner of Front and D. Near the courthouse, he drew a pistol. He fired several shots at the building. Three police officers arrived.

“Don’t come any closer,” Leach told them.

Officer O.J. Ellsworth, who had taken him to jail two days before for drunkenness, talked Leach down and sent him home. Ellsworth issued a warrant for his arrest.

Around mid-morning, Leach bulled his way through a crowd, shaking a pistol above his head. “I am Robert Wallace Leach! I am Robert Wallace Leach!” he shouted. A stranger ran up from behind and snatched the gun away.

Leach ran home. Seconds later, the front door whipped open. He ran into the street waving an old, wood-handled horse pistol. The flintlock handgun was probably a collector’s item from his mantle. He blithered words known only to the insane. Before he could fire a shot, officers Cota and Shaw arrested him. They “locked the little man in a little cell” (Bee). He was charged with intoxication and later released.

The next day, the “little man with the big gun” (Bee headline) bought a black revolver. He vowed to “let the hirelings of the law know how a bullet hole feels!”

Halfway between First and Front Streets — thus halfway from the courthouse, where he had reigned supreme, and the Leach Opera House, which was barely getting by — Leach fired at three police officers and a black man, possibly Jeffries. This time, he took dead aim.

Read part one of this series: "Circular Insanity"

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