The Strange Case of Mr. Wallace Leach

Part One: “Circular Insanity”

“Hello, Judge,” Leach called out. “Get on and ride.”
  • “Hello, Judge,” Leach called out. “Get on and ride.”

The sun over Coronado said 3 p.m. Wallace Leach bumbled out the side door of the Horton House bar and shielded his eyes from the glare. Though a snappy dresser — he was one of the richest men in boom town San Diego — Leach’s graying blond hair and beard, black cravat, and once-starched collar were as off kilter as his eyesight. He’d been drinking since noon.

Leach lived two blocks west, at the southwestern corner of First and D (today’s Broadway). He unhitched the reins of his sorrel colt. But as he was a short man — four feet six inches tall — and because he’d been imbibing, two men had to hoist him onto the saddle.

The skittish colt bucked and bolted down the hard-packed thoroughfare, swerving around buggies and scrambling pedestrians as if desperate to lighten its load.

Leach owned the Club Stable behind his six-room house. Needing to make a sharp left turn onto First, the colt spun, reared up, and flung him skyward. Leach let out a muffled cry as he fell head first onto the rail of a streetcar.

Men watching across the way heard the distinctive kunk of bone on steel. Leach lay motionless in the dust. A man filled a bucket from a trough, and they ran to his side. A cold splash of water didn’t help, so they hand-carried Leach to his house just yards away. Leach’s wife Maggie called Dr. Thomas C. Stockton, president of the San Diego Board of Health and a close friend. Though he found no wound on the surface, or even much bruising, Stockton suspected a concussion of the brain and possibly the spine. Leach never regained consciousness. He died eight days later on May 13, 1888. He was 41.

San Diego’s four newspapers could not have paid more glowing tributes.

The best lawyer in town, said the San Diego Bar Association. Leach always sided with the underdog. “In over 90 cases, no man he defended ever suffered the death penalty.”

San Diego Bee: “Sparse of body, large of brain, and still larger of heart,” Leach had more personal friends than any other San Diegan. “He believed ‘the faults of men should be written upon the sands, their virtues upon the tablet of memory.’ He fought the good fight of life.”

The part about faults “written on the sand” — and thus forgotten — was code. Four months before he died, the “little man who walked among men honestly and uprightly” had become, according to a San Diego Bee headline: “LEACH THE TERROR” Leach was a blind, blithering, blackout drunk. During binges, he ran out to the street and fired his wavering pistol at anyone within range. “If something is not done to prevent this man from carrying weapons, he will kill someone.”

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the image of snooty, Victorian rectitude began to fracture. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray had two faces: a civilized mask and an evil self, disintegrating on canvas. In Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1886), the good doctor has a savage alter ego. Physicians labeled the two-faced condition “circular insanity.” The split personality, wrote Henry James, resembled a “revolving lighthouse — pitch darkness alternating with a dazzling brilliancy.”

Educated at Harvard Law, Wallace Leach was a better lawyer, a colleague wrote, “than the rest put together.” But from early December, 1887, until he died, Leach was a menace to society. The difference between Leach and Dr. Jekyll’s “double lives”: Leach lived both in public.

In July, 1878, the Temperance Movement rolled into the sleepy seaport on a wave of moral urgency. Prominent San Diegans founded a chapter of the Band of Hope, an organization begun in England to sway working class youth from the dangers of “ardent spirits.” New members wore silver badges, shaped like a shield, and vowed to embrace “absolute abstention.”

The first meeting filled Horton Hall, the two-story, all-brick community center at Sixth and F. The keynote speaker on the rustic stage: Wallace Leach. Renowned for eloquence in the courtroom, Leach sported the Band of Hope’s symbol of “teetotalization,” a diamond-shaped bronze medallion, around his neck. Like a fiery prophet, he railed brimstone against “demon rum”: how it poisons the body and harrows the soul. Many new converts pledged “by divine assistance abstention from all intoxicating liquors.”

When he gave the speech, Leach had a wife, Maggie Hankinson, and a daughter, “Little Mary,” on whom he doted. Four years later, Mary was “bourne whence no traveler returneth.” Friends believed the six-year old’s death may have been a final blow: Leach chucked the medallion into a pub spittoon and began to quench his “liberal thirst for strong potations.”

In 1883, J.J. Bush got in bar fight that escalated into a shoot-out and murder. Leach defended him in court. The prosecutor, Zach Montgomery, was a large, rheumatic gent who walked with a silver-handled cane. A few days into the trial, Leach was late. “He had apparently overstayed his visit at the Horton House rendezvous,” writes Don M. Stewart. “But when he was in this condition, he seemed to be at his best in court.”

Sarcastic, cantankerous, and theatrical — even when sober — Leach humph’d at Montgomery’s assertions, aped his affectations, and would not stop taunting. Finally the old man had enough. He hoisted his cane, dragged his bad leg across the floor, and made a furious swipe at his opponent’s head. Leach ducked, but the silver whoosh caught the court reporter on the chest-bone. Hunched over, coughing, the reporter snatched the weapon away. Judge W.R. McNealy ordered the bailiff to haul Leach to the Sheriff’s office, and court to adjourn.

Judge McNealy also presided at San Bernardino when Leach defended three Jewish merchants from San Diego accused of stealing cattle. To curry favor with the 12-man jury — all whiskered farmers, their coats removed in the oppressive heat — the local attorney belittled Leach’s small stature and stentorian manner, and for defending Jews. The lawyer concluded his summation with an anti-Semitic tirade.

Leach went point by point through his opponent’s case and, writes A.J. Graves, countered the attack on Jews with a “beautiful tribute that it was ever my pleasure to listen to.” He swayed the biased jury and won the case.

It was no secret that Leach and District Attorney A.B. Hotchkiss had “no earthly use for each other.” Twice Leach charged him in court — fists clenched, murder in his blood-shot eyes — and had to be restrained. But when Hotchkiss was accused of accepting a $300 bribe, only one attorney fought against disbarment. “I am going to reverse this case,” Leach told astonished colleagues, “or break a leg trying.” Some said he never worked harder. He went all the way to the State Supreme Court and got his “sworn enemy” off on a technicality.

Today, Wallace Leach is best remembered for the Leach Opera House, one of San Diego’s first theaters. In 1881 he bought adjoining lots on Broadway between First and Second (across from today’s Spreckels Building). He built Leach’s Athletic Hall out of redwood. Three years later, he converted the gymnasium to a theater 50 feet wide, 100 feet long, with a 25 foot stage. The audience — estimates range from 800 to 1100 capacity — sat on benches on a level floor. Scraping seats, clinking spurs, and heavy boot-heels on splintery hardwood made miserable acoustics even worse.

“It was not a masterpiece of beauty or construction,” wrote the Union, “but it answered the purpose for a number of years.” And its three exits made it the “safest stage in the city.” A tourist from New York, however, called it a “barn.”

A rumor persisted that Leach ran a tunnel from the Opera House catty-corner to his home at First and D. Some said he even had a Turkish bath in the basement, where visiting performers could “relax.”

That one’s probably apocryphal; likewise the yarn about Leach being caught in a Los Angeles brothel and claiming he was chief of police. But beginning around 1885, many others are not.

Leach was a “Bourbon Democrat” — conservative, pro-laissez-faire capitalism — in a town Alonzo Horton founded on Republican values. When Grover Cleveland, the “symbol of conservatism,” was inaugurated May 4, 1885, Leach hosted a barbecue-for-all celebration. On his vacant lot next to the Opera House, two chefs cooked beef, hog, and mutton on steel rails over a pit of flaming oak logs and railroad ties. To infuriate those who voted otherwise, Leach held the fete on a Monday. Wafting smoke and spattering grease emptied the stores and schools for the rest of the day.

In the late fall of 1887, Leach pleaded self-defense for a man accused of murder at Los Angeles’ Superior Court. In his summation, which spellbound everyone, he paused to let each of the prosecution’s circumstantial claims sink in. Finally, with a flourish worthy of the stage, he turned and faced Chief Justice Wallace: “And now, Your Honor, if that be murder, MAKE THE MOST OF IT.”

Leach won and ran next door to celebrate at the St. Charles Hotel bar. “In a half hour,” writes A.J. Graves, he was “drunk as a lord.” And so boisterous the hotel clerk ordered him to simmer down or leave. Leach grabbed a wheelbarrow from a porter. He staggered to his room and piled suitcases and legal briefs onto the vehicle. Somewhere he recruited a yellow pup on a string to aid his search for lodging on Main Street.

Leach aimed the dog and wheelbarrow toward the United States Hotel, about a block away. As the mini-parade wobbled past the courthouse, Chief Justice Wallace waited on the steps for his carriage. Leach plopped onto his luggage. “Hello, Judge,” he called out. “Get on and ride.”

After deliberation, the judge gave a thoughtful no. His weight would crack the vehicle. “Oh hell,” Leach spat, “you’re not a dead game sport!”

In 1887, San Diego had a fixed class system: those who frequented the swanky Horton House bar, Wyatt Earp among them; and everyone else. Even though Tillman A. “Till” Burnes was as wealthy as most, his businesses were south of Market — soon to be called the “Stingaree” district. His bars and brothels disqualified him from the club. The most lucrative was the Last Chance Saloon, at the foot of Fifth, so named because it was a sailor’s final filling station before boarding ship.

Along with the worst rotgut in town, cut with gunpowder and turpentine, the Last Chance had a menagerie of caged animals on the wood-planked sidewalk: coyote, gila monster, vampire bat, monkeys, and, chained to a post, a big brown bear that on occasion tore free and terrorized the denizens.

Burnes was five-feet-six with a waistline in the mid-40s. He was a foot taller than Leach, but of average height in those days. The two men had but two things in common: a hair-trigger temper; and a hatred of taxes. When Leach failed to renew the leash license, his faithful dog went to the pound muzzled in a box. Just after midnight, word had it, a “certain shady character,” funded by a “certain lawyer,” rescued the pooch “unlawfully.” Leach never paid a cent after that.

A liquor license cost $25 a month in 1887. Either Burnes didn’t know — unlikely — or figured he was above the law and never paid. When the city totaled up his “saloon tax,” he owed $360.

Burnes ran a stage line to El Cajon and Baja. He served as a volunteer fireman, and lost a race for constable. In early December, 1887, he declared himself entitled, at last, to sample the “over 100 kinds of liquor” served at the Horton House bar.

Dressed like a financier, three-piece suit, gold watch chain a half-moon arc across his vest, flat-brimmed felt hat, Burnes entered the bar from the lobby. He found no flappy, “bat-wing” saloon doors that bang you on the backside if you’re slow afoot or too sauced. It was an ornate portal to pleasure.

A quick survey took in handsome oil paintings in gilded frames. Slick-haired bartenders, wore arm bands on precisely ironed sleeves and prepared cocktails with scientific precision. Unlike the stink of the Last Chance, an ancient amalgam of sweat, vomit, and urine, the Horton House smelled like saloon heaven. Patrons actually bathed, and wore colognes and scented powders. The smoke from thumb-thick, imported cigars hovered in a crown overhead. The clinking glasses were spotless, the mixed drinks many-hued. The Last Chance would never serve a claret sangaree! — nor would the Phoenix, Burnes’ most up-scale bar. And that splendid mirror behind the bar? Wouldn’t last 10 seconds south of Market.

Burnes strolled in. But before he could take a seat, a high-pitched, liquor-laced blurt pinned him down: “You have no business here. Get out! GET OUT NOW!”

It was Leach, deep in his cups and raring to snarl. Burnes, who nightly subdued brutes in his saloons, balled his big right fist and bashed Leach so hard it flattened his nose.

Upscale bouncers elbow-hustled Burnes out the side exit. Leach did nothing. The next day he sailed to San Francisco on business. He returned shortly before Christmas, nose still bandaged, with a medium-sized, athletically trim male who turned out to be a professional boxer.

Regulars at the Horton House sent Burnes a message: please forgive our rudeness. Feel free to join us soon — on the house, of course.

Burnes showed up that evening. As he entered, the boxer shouldered into him. Burnes, trying to be civil, requested an apology. The boxer just glared. Not to be intimidated, and in deference to the high-toned establishment, Burnes jerked his thumb at the door. “Outside,” he barked with the legendary, gravel-chewing voice that struck fear in stevedores. “We’ll settle this like men!”

John Desmond, a shell-dealer standing across the street, watched the most one-sided fight he’d ever seen. The boxer took his opponent apart with systematic ferocity. As Burnes wobbled, the boxer lined up a new section of the anatomy and wailed away — and wailed away. After an “unmerciful” beating, Desmond said, Burnes “staggered over to the hotel steps, sat down, buried his head in his knees, and cried.”

Burnes eventually recovered. Leach never did. Along with a squashed nose on his “handsome and intellectual-looking face,” something happened back in San Francisco that set all his Furies free.

Next time: “A Little Man with a Big Gun


  1. J.A. Graves: “Dissipated, but industrious, with low instincts, yet not lacking in some admirable traits of character [Leach] was a queer compound of gall and vanity.”
  2. Herbert Hensley: “An eminent but erratic attorney, he seemed to feel himself something of a pariah, and his attitude was that of an embittered and thwarted man.”
  3. Hensley: Leach had an “unfortunate proclivity to drown his remembrance of that ‘bar sinister’” — he was an illegitimate child — “in the flowing bowl.”


Crawford, Richard, “Colorful saloonkeeper was known for his menagerie,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 13, 2008.

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

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

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

Kenealy, Jane, San Diego History Center, interview.

Smythe, William E., History of San Diego, 1542–1908, vol. 2 (San Diego, 1908).

Stewart, Don M., Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History (Los Angeles, 1965); Lawyers of San Diego, Vol. 3, San Diego History Center.

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

Part 2: "Little Man with a Big Gun"

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