Culture

San Francisco’s Queen of Abortions gets her moment of recognition

Two new biographies look at the life of Inez Burns, an uncompromising and extravagant turn-of-century women’s healthcare provider.

Culture

San Francisco’s Queen of Abortions gets her moment of recognition

Two new biographies look at the life of Inez Burns, an uncompromising and extravagant turn-of-century women’s healthcare provider.
Culture

San Francisco’s Queen of Abortions gets her moment of recognition

Two new biographies look at the life of Inez Burns, an uncompromising and extravagant turn-of-century women’s healthcare provider.

It was there, in the relative tranquility of her little cottage in the Women's Department at San Quentin at Tehachapi and later at the federal prison at Alderson, in the twilight of her sixties, that notorious abortionist Inez Burns had her feminist awakening. More important than making money (and she loved making money), her work helped women to take charge of their bodies in a world controlled almost entirely by men — men who wanted to have their cake, eat it, and then moralize about the wickedness of baking in between visits to their mistresses.

She saw the church and its second class treatment of women as complicit in women’s suffering; all those years of watching Catholic women enter her clinic, trailing six children and desperate to prevent a seventh, left a sour taste in Burns’ mouth, even more so than their legislative efforts to put her out of business. In her eyes, the church was adding generations of misery around the world for the pleasure of men, and making slaves of half of the population by giving men unchecked control over the reproductive systems of their wives, girlfriends, and daughters. What had for so long been purely business had become a crusade for her, and when she got out of prison, she went right back to work.

Burns never met a man she couldn’t charm until she crossed paths with pathologically ambitious attorney Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who aimed to launch his political career out of the ashes of her empire. He couldn’t have picked a tougher nut to crack — San Francisco’s “Queen of Abortions” was as tough as the steel needles she used to perform her services on thousands upon thousands of women. Burns’s improbable, fantastically scandalous trajectory took her from humble beginnings in a San Francisco slum to a Pittsburgh pickle packing plant, a fateful manicurist job at the ritzy Palace Hotel, and then onto her lifelong career as the West Coast grande dame who — assisted by her team of nurses in crisp white uniforms — provided safe, hygienic abortions on demand to WWI war widows, rape survivors, scorned lovers, Hollywood stars, and the Gilded Age elite alike. She made unholy amounts of money, bribed the cops with abandon, changed husbands like hats, sashayed through theater premieres in Paris couture, had a run in with one of Al Capone's Mafia thugs, almost certainly dispatched one of her own husbands with arsenic — and she did it all with so much style, cunning, and hard-nosed grit that, for decades, she was untouchable.

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Despite her larger-than-life influence, Inez Burns remains an obscure figure in American history, even within the canon of feminist scholarship. The thought of digging up Burns’ secrets and connecting the scattered dots of her extraordinary life makes for an intimidating prospect, considering the secretive nature of her business. (She often employed code words like “glantham” for cash, “Emily” for phantom pregnancies, and “ni-dash” for “don’t you dare open your mouth!” for an extra layer of security beyond her hidden staircase, trapdoors, and private cash reserves). However, the unsinkable Mrs. Burns’ tale of woe and wickedness captivated not one, but two authors in recent memory. 2017 saw the release of Lisa Riggin’s San Francisco’s Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, and this month sees the release of Stephen G. Bloom’s The Audacity of Inez Burns: Dreams, Desire, Treachery, & Ruin in the City of Gold. It’s surely no accident that both books were released within spitting distance of the 45th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized abortion in the United States.

Burns’ story is titillating and outlandish, but beneath the glitz and cop-taunting banter runs a more sober current: the stark choices that faced those burdened with unwanted pregnancies in the dark days before Roe vs. Wade. Those who could afford it went to see Inez in her elegantly-appointed clinic; those who could not were left with back alleys, kitchen tables, and, all too often, coffins. Burns got her first big break from her paramour-turned-medical mentor Dr. West, who trained her first as an assistant and ultimately as a full-fledged abortionist. Around the time they met at the Palace Hotel, he had found himself in a spot of bother; the decapitated body of a young woman who’d recently visited his abortion clinic bobbed up in the San Francisco Bay, and Dr. West had inconveniently been spotted dropping packages into the bay late at night. Despite rafts of incriminating evidence against him, he copped a not guilty verdict (and, to be clear, he was almost certainly guilty). Burns would follow in his legally precarious footsteps, though the only murder she was allegedly involved in happened outside the clinic’s walls.

In those days, it was nearly impossible to convict a suspected abortion provider; most women refused to testify for fear of public shame, and on top of that, it suited the city’s philandering movers and shakers to keep the “abortion mills” up and running, just as long as nobody died and the providers kept the bribe money flowing. There was no collective will to shut them down. Clinics like Inez Burns’ were regarded as a public utility, something to be whispered about but ultimately left to their own devices. San Francisco was a wild town overrun by pleasure palaces, dirty cops, and indulgent politicians; you could get away with a lot if you had the right friends and knew how to keep your mouth shut, and Burns thrived in the decadent atmosphere.

Inez Burns, circa 1917.

Inez Burns, circa 1917.

For moralists, Burns — with her multiple husbands, scandalous occupation, dripping jewels, underworld connections, and late-in-life habit of stealing her teenage granddaughter’s boyfriends — was a nightmare in a mink stole. And yet, those same highfalutin society ladies always came to Inez when they needed her unique service. She gladly took their money at a markup — she subsidized poorer women’s abortions by overcharging rich clients — and just laughed when her blue-blooded customers breezed past her at the opera, noses in the air.

Outside of religious circles, the prevailing attitude towards abortion at the time was that of a necessary evil — a problem to be taken care of by “ladies’ specialists” in order to prevent greater misery, or embarrassment. Abortion was technically illegal, so anyone who found themselves in need of one had to rely on referrals from sympathetic doctors or whisper networks, both avenues which — in the best case scenario — led to professional illegal practitioners like Burns. Every major city had their abortion kingpin, from Chicago to Hoboken, where Frank Sinatra’s mother “Hatpin Dolly” worked as a midwife and provided safe abortions for Catholic Italian women on the side.

Though the common stereotype of an abortion seeker was of a young, unmarried, “fast” woman, in reality, Burns and her ilk welcomed all manner of women into their clinic. Many were mothers with too many children and not enough money, society women with boyfriends, society men with girlfriends, sex workers, war widows, and even a few nuns. As her lawyer Walter McGovern noted during the closing arguments of one of Burns’ abortion trials, thousands of troops shipped out from San Francisco Harbor to war in the Pacific. Local young women were encouraged to flirt and “entertain” WWII soldiers as a sort of patriotic service, but when the GIs left and morning sickness showed up, what were they meant to do?

Her tastefully decorated clinic provided a welcoming, professional environment, and Burns herself provided the medical expertise and efficiency to solve their problem, provided they had the cash. Burns had sympathy for poor girls in distress, but always demanded her fee. (There was a sort of informal sliding scale — $50 to $75 for poor mothers, up to $2,000 for Hollywood starlets.) Then as now, the best quality healthcare was reserved for the rich, and for those who could scrape up the asking price; then as now, working class and poor women suffered terribly under a weighted system that offered them nothing but pain.

The party had to end sometime, though, and as she entered her sixties, Burns finally met — if not her match — her most formidable foe: Pat Brown, the father of current California governor Jerry Brown, who pursued her for years in an effort to make his own political bones, and his bulldog prosecutor Tom Lynch. After dabbling in local politics and eyeballing loftier office, Brown seized upon Burns as his own personal bête noire — a diamond-studded symbol of San Francisco’s deeply embedded culture of corruption, sin, and violence — and became determined to take her down. Her clinic was raided time after time, but Burns was always one step ahead, escaping through trap doors and down secret staircases whenever she got tipped off. Undercover cops came back with scathing accounts of the goings on inside, but could never get a conviction. Burns and Brown’s game of cat-and-mouse lasted for decades, until Burns’ luck finally faltered. After failing to convict her for years and undergoing multitudinous humiliations at her finely gloved hands, Brown and his boys successfully sent her to prison — three times.

Inez Burns (standing, on the right) at a family wedding in 1965.

Inez Burns (standing, on the right) at a family wedding in 1965.

Bloom’s exhaustive new biography is cinematic in scope as well as feel; each turn of the page reveals another finely-wrought revelation or flummoxing plot twist. Inez Burns with her Titian hair and killer curves was born to be a movie star, but in the end, she lived a life far too big, bad, and brash for the silver screen. The book reads like a love letter to not only the irrepressible Mrs. Burns, but to the city of San Francisco itself, with especial attention lavished upon the gilded excess and savage grotesqueries of its lawless prewar years. There is blood, yes, as well as plenty of corrupt politicians, Mafia dons, botched procedures, glittering jewels, and murder, all backlit against the rolling fog and bohemian spirit that continues to define the city to this day.

Lisa Riggin’s book on Inez came out a year before Bloom’s, but Bloom’s is the far more satisfactory read, in terms of pacing, storytelling, and research; he spent over 25 years reconstructing Burns’ world, and it shows. Riggins focuses mainly on Burns’ trials, starting the story when she’s already a hardened older woman with a fortune and a rap sheet, while Bloom recounts Burns’ entire life in minute detail, down to how she stored her prodigious hat collection or her chosen method of poison. Within the first few pages, discrepancies between the two tales emerge, and continue throughout the book; it’s an interesting sort of he-said she-said born of the hodgepodge of court records, diaries, and newspaper clippings that form the foundation for the story.

For example, Riggins dismisses Burns’ days working in a Palace Hotel barber shop as a front for escorting, while Bloom takes his time explaining how her work there allowed her to harness her own sexual magnetism and learn how to attract powerful, rich men, including the one who brought her into the medical trade. His telling makes no specific mention of escorting, but focuses on how she built mutually beneficial relationships and honed her interpersonal skills. (Sex was an obvious factor, but reducing this period in her life to a sentence on sex work diminishes Burns’ agency and her calculating intellect.) This is a common theme of the dueling narratives: after spending so much time getting to know her and the circumstances, Bloom seems more inclined to be sympathetic to his subject, while Riggins is more matter-of-fact, keeping opportunities to humanize Burns’ at arm’s length.

Bloom paints a sobering picture of Burns’ final years. Worn out by years of public trials and prison, financially ruined thanks to a belated IRS crackdown, betrayed by her money-grubbing children, and lonesome following loss of her final husband, good ol’ Joe Burns, the aging libertine spent most of her time reminiscing about her fallen empire, and spending peppermint schnapps-soaked Sundays with her beloved granddaughter, Caroline, who later became a source for the book. She died in 1976, three years after Roe vs. Wade revolutionized women’s place in the world and rendered her former trade unnecessary.

Now, with the freedoms granted to Americans in possession of a uterus under strident attack from the highest offices in the land and a president who actively campaigned on its repeal, Burns’ legacy feels especially relevant. At the height of her career in the gilded 1920s and hardscrabble 1930s, she reigned over San Francisco with a kid gloved fist, profiting off society’s overarching “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” attitude towards her particular line of work. She safely, hygienically, and expertly ministered to thousands of women in need; without Burns, they would’ve been faced with the other, truly horrifying options afforded to unhappily pregnant women before Roe vs. Wade. They could have bled to death on a kitchen table or succumbed to sepsis after trying to puncture their womb with knitting needles; they could have ended up dead on the operating table, their abortion botched by unqualified quacks. They could have ingested herbs that didn’t work, or poison that worked too well. They could’ve broken their bodies on stairs or scalded their skin in “gin baths.”

No matter what, they would have suffered, and were it not for Inez Burns and her fellow practitioners, San Francisco — and everywhere else across the nation — would have been home to thousands of dead women who died dreaming of a better life. This is the future we’re currently facing: a world without Roe vs. Wade, a dystopia of forced birth, starving children, and dead women; a world that remains under violent patriarchal oppression but has stripped us of our remaining claim to bodily autonomy.

California governor Jerry Brown declined requests to be interviewed for Bloom’s book; one assumes that his own progressive record on women’s rights could do without the stain of association with his father’s crusade against Burns and her famously effective abortion clinic. A virago until the end, she stayed sharp throughout her 80s, and surely cackled with glee when, in the ‘60s, she saw Pat Brown’s presidential hopes dashed by a handsome film actor named Ronald Reagan. No one could be allowed to get one over on her.

(Correction: Burns’ sliding scale has been clarified.)

Kim Kelly is a writer, editor, and radical political organizer in New York City.