In the early 1880s, Leach built a gymnasium at the northwest corner of Second and Broadway. In 1887, he converted the redwood structure into Leach’s Opera House. The theater seated over 800 and doubled as an ice-skating rink.
After a show, Leach usually headed up Broadway to Horton House, where San Diego’s movers and shakers gathered, and drank himself bibulous. (“When he would overstay his visit at the Horton House rendezvous,” writes Don Stewart, “the next day he seemed his best in court.”)
To preserve their reputations, patrons of the Horton House bar entered through the unlit door on Third Street, not through the hotel. One night, as Leach was regaling his cohorts, the door swung open and in walked his impresario-counterpart: Till Burnes.
Burnes was unwelcome north of Market — and knew it. But he made as much money, if not more, than the local crowned heads. He may have wanted to validate his status with a cocktail at the House.
As Burnes was bending an elbow at the sleek, polished-wood bar, Leach made a crack about unwanted lowlifes. Burnes, as if bouncing a customer at the First and Last Chance, pointed to the door and said, “Outside.”
Burnes and Leach assumed their stances: fists up, elbows straight down. Burnes snapped a hard right at Leach’s face.
Now, normally, Leach was quick on his toes. In an 1883 murder trial, he aggravated the prosecuting attorney, Zach Montgomery, so much that Montgomery swung a silver-tipped cane at his opponent. Leach jerked his head back like a cobra and dodged the silver blur with élan.
The lawyer was less agile at Third and Broadway. Burnes caught him flush and smashed his nose.
His face a bloody mush, Leach vowed no revenge. The honey-tongued orator became silent.
Time passed. Leach now had a flattened nose and pinched nasal voice. He grew his blond hair longer but couldn’t hide the permanent mementos.
In the meantime, someone somehow convinced Burnes that he had every right to drink with San Diego’s finest. Burnes accepted the invitation. As he entered the Third Street door, a brusque giant bumped him off balance. When the man didn’t apologize, Burnes saw red and ordered him outside.
The man, it turned out, was a professional boxer from San Francisco. Leach had hired him to inflict vengeful, systematic, bodily harm on Burnes.
John Drummond, a shell dealer who witnessed the fight, said that Burnes, who claimed he never lost a scuffle, got the most merciless beating anyone ever saw. “After if was over,” said Drummond, “Burnes staggered [to the hotel steps], sat down, buried his head in his knees, and cried.”
Next time: Wildcat Alley, the Cribs, and the Sorry Fate of Maggie Bangs.
1. Elizabeth McPhail: [The Stingaree] “was not a subject one wrote home about.”
2. Jerry MacMullen: “It was the recreational area for the Cape Horn sailor, the man-o-warsman, the railroad boomer, the cow-poke, and the amateur Paul Bunyans of the lumber schooners; a few were well-behaved, but many were not.”
3. Don Stewart: “The cheap liquor [sailors] got was enough to make any one pass out.”
Bokovoy, Matthew, San Diego’s Expositions as “Islands on the Land,” 1915–1935, doctoral dissertation, Temple University, 1999.
Brandes, Ray, Susan Carrico, Toni Nagel, “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.
Hensley, Herbert C., “Early San Diego: Reminiscences of Early Days and People,” San Diego Historical Society manuscript.
Hugill, Stan, Sailortown, New York, 1967.
McKanna, Bud, “San Diego’s Stingaree,” True West, July, 1985.
McPhail, Elizabeth, “When The Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, spring, 1974.
MacMullen, Jerry, They Came by Sea: A Pictorial History of San Diego Bay, San Diego, 1969; articles in the San Diego Union.
Mills, James, “Sin, Sailing Ships and the STINGAREE: Our Vanished Barbary Coast,” San Diego Magazine, 9, October, 1957.
Schwartz, Henry, Madame Ida & Other Gaslamp Tales, Leucadia, 1989.
Stewart, Don M., Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History, Los Angeles, 1965.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 3
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 4
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 5
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 6