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.

Part 2: "Little Man with a Big Gun"

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