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.

“Hitherto,” wrote the Bee, “the police had been inclined to treat Leach’s outbursts with tolerance. But shooting at nearly the entire police force, with no provocation — even though his hand was too unsteady for accurate practice — they naturally felt this was going too far.”

He was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, discharging firearms within the city limits, and threats against life. He was out on bail in an hour.

As Leach was leaving the station, an officer handed him the loaded revolver. Leach smirked and tossed it into the fireplace. Writes Herbert Hensley: “As there was a brisk blaze, this act caused a near panic. However, with the frantic use of the poker and several walking sticks,” an officer recovered the revolver “before becoming hot enough to explode.”

On Tuesday night, January 3, Leach was back at the corner of First and D, howling to the skies. Officer George Knowles told him “if he did not keep quiet I would have to arrest him.”

Leach’s right hand dipped into an overcoat pocket. Out came the black revolver. Knowles yanked the gun away with both hands and ushered Leach to jail.

“I placed the charge of simple drunk opposite his name on the jail register,” said Knowles, “because I knew… he would not be tried. If something is not done to prevent this man from carrying weapons he will kill someone… I don’t want to be killed by him.”

On January 4, possibly suggesting a connection with Leach, the Bee reprinted a one-paragraph article from the Chicago Medical Standard. Physicians studied the condition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They concluded the doctor suffered from “circular insanity complicated by mental epilepsy.” The cause: a “collision of mental states,” aided by malignancy and a “tendency to moral deterioration.” In Mr. Hyde’s “excited state, scarcely anything was incongruous or disgusting.”

The next day, the Bee headlined a story “LEACH THE TERROR.” A reporter interviewed Judge Boone. He said he had two complaints on file against Leach. But “in neither case has anyone appeared against him.” The judge knew other accounts. Leach even pulled a gun on him — “scared me nearly out of my life!”

“What becomes of the numerous charges against Mr. Leach?” (Union, January 5): “The records of the Justice Courts fail to show any disposition of any of these cases.” The rumored answer: attorneys don’t prosecute one of their own, and the District Attorney — John Copeland, a good friend of Leach — dismissed all complaints.

“The Terror” simmered down. He strolled the sidewalks with his pet dog, not a raised pistol — though it must have unnerved him when people scattered from his path as they would a leper.

In the spring of 1888, San Diego fell on hard times. The real estate boom that brought over 50,000 to town had collapsed. The only new arrivals these days went south of Market Street to the Stingaree, not to the Horton House or the even more posh St. James Hotel.

The Leach Opera House hit hard times as well. Even its manager, J.G. Stuttz, complained in print that “among our present needs, there are none more pressing than the construction of a good opera house.” The local facilities were so dismal, the great tandem of tragedians, Edwin Booth and Lawrence Barrett, skipped San Diego on their national tour.

On her second American visit, England’s Lillie Langtry came to San Diego on May 4 and 5. She was renowned for her beauty, acting skills, and epic life-style (she wrote a letter of condolence to a recent widow: “I too have lost a husband, but alas! It was no great loss.”)

But Langtry performed not at the Leach, but at the newly built Louis Opera House, on the east side of Fifth, between B and C. The Louis wasn’t much larger, but unlike the Leach it had a slightly raked floor, relatively comfortable seating, and a drop curtain with a painting of Coronado.

By contrast, the Leach was a glorified gymnasium. While the Louis hosted “Jersey Lillie” at $3.00 a ticket, the Leach booked “Lucretia Borgia, and the Ever Funny Family Jars (admission 10¢, 20¢, 30¢. No higher).”

Langtry’s first performance packed in so many, management had to slide the orchestra off to one side to make room for more seats.

The next day at noon Leach tied his young sorrel colt, named John, to the hitching post at the Horton House and hit the bar. The morning Union called Langtry’s appearance “the greatest theatrical event ever in San Diego,” the audience “one of the most fashionable.” The paper mentioned at least 35 dignitaries in attendance, but didn’t mention Leach.

Three hours later, he needed help mounting the colt. Two men helped him up, gave John a good slap, and John darted down D Street. By the Second Avenue intersection the horse hit full gallop. Observers saw Leach clutching the pommel for dear life. At First and D, John bolted. Surprisingly, Leach still hung on. Then he let go and fell. His head hit a streetcar rail. He never recovered and died May 13.

In the official version, “it was a young colt, and Mr. Leach was pretty full.”

Obituaries glowed. Only the Union mentioned Leach’s darker side: “When not in his cups he was kind-hearted, agreeable, and business-like, and many a poor man, whose friend Mr. Leach has been, feels that he owes to Wallace Leach’s generosity a debt of undying gratitude.”

San Diego gave Leach an unprecedented funeral in the Superior Courtroom of the Courthouse. Pall bearers included the last district judge, the current superior judge, a justice of the Supreme Court, and two prominent attorneys.

That’s the official version. In keeping with his Dr. Jeklyll/Mr. Hyde emotional swings, there was a rumored, second account of Leach’s death. In an interview decades later, Ada Dougherty gave it some credence: Leach the Terror was such a menace to society, he had to go.

As she stood on the corner of Front and D, on May 5 just before 3:00 p.m., Dougherty overheard two men. One said Leach “rode his little colt down to the Horton House… and they wanted to get rid of him, so somebody said ‘Take Wallace out and put him on his horse and send him home.’”

They then walked to the Horton House. When Leach staggered out, “they put him on his horse and put the reins around the pommel of the saddle and put his hand on the pommel and turned the horse loose.”

He had no control. When the colt raced down D Street, Leach couldn’t reign him in. Dougherty watched the sharp left turn at First and D. Leach still clutched the pommel. Then as the colt went vertical, Leach let go. He flipped in the air and “landed right square in the middle of the streetcar tracks — I was looking at it. It killed him — he never came to.” ■


  1. San Diego Bar Association: “Death has chosen him as its own, and as too often the case had selected the brightest and foremost of his profession.”

  2. San Diego Daily Bee: “Leach is in the habit of flourishing his pistol around promiscuously.” Someday he will “kill someone accidentally, if under no other circumstance.”

  3. Ada Dourghty: “Those old timers — you don’t find any more like that.”


Dourghty, Hattie Ada, “Hattie Dourghty Oral History Interview,” San Diego History Center.

Graves, A.J., Seventy Years in California (Los Angeles, 1927).

Hensley, Herbert, Memoirs, vol. 5, Ms at San Diego History Center.

Kenealy, Jane, archivist San Diego History Center, interview.

Stanford, Leland Ghent, San Diego’s LL.B.: Legal Lore & the Bar San Diego, 1968); Footprints of Justice…in San Diego (San Diego, 1960); Tracks on the Trial Trail in San Diego (San Diego, 1963).

Stewart, Don M., Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History (Los Angeles, 1965).

Articles in San Diego Union, San Diego Daily Bee, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Post, and others.

Read part one of this series: "Circular Insanity"

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