How an abortionist helped launch a California governor’s political career

Inez Burns circa 1904, when she was about 18.
Inez Burns circa 1904, when she was about 18. Courtesy of Caroline Carlisle

No one encouraged me to plumb Inez Burns’ scandalous life. They waved aside her story as though it was an odor defiling the air.

“Let sleeping dogs lie” was an expression I heard several times.

“Stop your research,” others offered emphatically. “No good shall come of this.”

What exactly were they scared of? I put Burns’ story on hold, one more in a string of leads that reporters wish they could pursue but never get to, until 1992, when I found myself writing a feature for The Sacramento Bee about a boomlet in San Francisco real estate development along the waterfront.

That’s when I called Corinne Patchen, a smart San Francisco native and gadfly in her mid-60s. Patchen had the uncanny ability to put anything contemporary into context and leaven it with just the right amount of wisdom. Corinne gave me the quotes I was looking for to finish my story with a flourish.

After I finished the interview, I thought to bring up the name Inez Burns. Patchen had a steel-trap memory. That’s why I had called her in the first place. She knew everyone who’d ever been anybody and had the gossipy stories to prove it. She was just about the right age to have known Burns – or least, to have known about her.

“Does the name Inez Burns ring a bell?” I asked tentatively, out of the blue.

My chatty source paused, a pause that seemed to last forever.

Then she dropped the phone. From my end, I heard the receiver skittering across the floor.

“Corinne, are you still there?”

After several seconds, she followed the accordion cord and picked up the phone.

“Oh my,” she said in a barely audible voice. “I haven’t thought about Mrs. Burns in more than 40 years.”

I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I noticed a ridge of goose bumps popping up on my forearms.

She took a deep breath and began.

In 1946, Corinne and a soldier met at a USO dance on Mission Street and took an immediate liking to each other. He was to ship out in a week, and over the next five days they spent as much time together as the soldier’s training schedule allowed. On his last night in San Francisco, they ate dinner at Flor D’Italia. They split a bottle of Chianti, and after their meal, they drank espressos and shared a cannolo. Perhaps they had too much to drink, perhaps they didn’t. Corinne and the soldier returned to her studio apartment on Russian Hill, where the soldier spent the night. Six weeks later, Corinne discovered she was pregnant.

Corinne did not seek to contact the G.I. Theirs had been no more than a weeklong fling. Corinne had her whole life ahead of her. Marriage to any man, lest a soldier she hardly knew, was the last thing on her mind.

A family friend who was a North Beach attorney directed Corinne to Inez Burns. “Talk to her. She’ll help – if that’s what you want.”

“I remember going to her Guerrero Street house and sitting in the front room, a beautiful, elegant room,” Corinne told me as though recalling a vivid dream. “And I remember meeting Inez, a pleasant, kind woman, who sat down in the parlor with me.

“The first thing she asked was, ‘Do you want this baby?’

“Yes!” Corinne recalled blurting out without a moment’s hesitation.

The woman smiled and paused. “Well, dear, then you don’t belong here,” she said.

“She took me by the hand and showed me the door. And that was the last I ever saw of Mrs. Burns.”

Corinne’s only son today is 71, and has no idea he almost was never born.

There was a moment of silence between Corinne and me, each of us registering the magnitude of what she had said. Then Corinne asked anxiously, “You won’t be using my name, will you?”

Before I could answer, she added, “Please, please don’t use my name in anything you write about this. Please.”

I assured her I wouldn’t, a promise I’ve kept for 25 years, and why I’ve used a pseudonym here as well as in the ensuing book I wrote.

“In San Francisco then, we looked out for each other,” Corinne said. “We protected each other. There was nothing sinister about Inez. She was like your grandmother.” We talked some more, I thanked her, I hung up and wrote my story on land development.

But the conversation shook me, as I’m sure it shook Corinne. Her comments piqued my interest again in Inez Burns. The agents and editors who had repeatedly told me to drop my fascination had to be wrong.

Delving into Burns’ life and times, I discovered that she had performed a staggering 50,000 abortions over a 40-year period. Neither a doctor nor nurse, she was known for her hygienic clinic, performing abortions on as many as twenty women a day. From Burns’ years as a young unmarried mother toiling in a Pittsburgh pickle factory to her starring role as a national fixer for women “in trouble,” she was an outrageous, larger-than-life figure, a kind of combination of Wallis Simpson, Mae West, Margaret Sanger, and Coco Chanel.

Word circulated, as it always does, when what you do, you do exceedingly well and your particular skill is highly specialized, in demand, and illegal. Women came from around the corner and across the nation. Whether they arrived in San Francisco by bus, automobile, train, ferry, or plane, they’d discreetly ask other women, sometimes strangers on the street, “Know where that Burns woman lives?”

Through that underground woman-to-woman network, they’d end up at one place – 327 Fillmore Street, just south of San Francisco’s lively Jewish district, filled with butchers, bakeries, markets, synagogues, theaters, and kosher restaurants.

Burns performed abortions on rich and poor alike. Apart from some high-profile Hollywood starlets, along with women like Corinne, most of Burns’ clients were married women who couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. Their husbands often didn’t have a clue that their wives were even pregnant.

At the time, the prevailing standard in San Francisco and other American cities when it came to abortion was that if the woman undergoing the procedure didn’t die, the police looked the other way. Let the abortionists do what they do, as long as no woman gets killed or maimed in the process. A necessary evil, with two mandatory components: the services had to be safe and discreet.

The fact was that just about every city in America had someone like Inez Burns. Thousands of skilled abortionists were scattered far and wide in every region of the nation. They seldom were physicians, but in their medical specialty, women were forced to trust them more than they trusted doctors. The distinction between Burns and other abortion providers was that she was among the best and most experienced anywhere.

That made little difference to a newly elected, ambitious, 39-year-old district attorney by the name of Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. What Burns was doing at her sterile clinic was illegal, punishable by two to five years at the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi, and Brown went after her with a vengeance.

Brown’s vertical career began when he was a scrappy politician wannabe who had the moxie to run against a long-entrenched district attorney, Matthew Brady, a softy known as Good Ole Matt. It made no difference that Brown had never tried a criminal case before. Megawatt Pat would walk into the wrong hotel ballroom fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to deliver a speech, only to be “persuaded” to toast a pair of newlyweds or to welcome a herd of cattlemen to the city he loved. It was all part of Brown’s 24/7 manic drive to make himself a celebrity.

Brown had lost his first attempt to get elected D.A. in 1939, but four years later, he succeeded in unseating Brady. By then, Brown had already set his sights on running for attorney general, following in the path of his mentor, former Alameda County D.A. Earl Warren.

With purpose and calculation, Brown took to transforming himself into a Prosecutor for the People, or “a mean little bastard,” as he was to call himself. But he needed a high-profile case that would catapult him beyond the insular confines of the vertiginous city that had elected him.

That case would become police corruption – personified by well-connected San Francisco abortionist, Inez Burns, who had plenty of experience paying off beat cops and downtown brass, spending as much as $20,000 a month in bribes. Burns had become a real estate mogul and one of the wealthiest self-made women in California. She owned an 800-acre racehorse ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not to mention luxe mansions in Atherton, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. She kept a constant supply of furs in cold storage at H. Liebes’ vaults downtown.

Graft and taking down a notorious abortionist – that’s what Brown would make his daily-double ticket to Sacramento.

Burns would turn into a formidable and curious opponent. An auburn-haired libertine, Burns in her twenties had her pinky toes removed to fit into stylish heels; she also had the small bones of her rib cage excised to display her figure. She hosted raucous weekly poker games at her elegant, statuary-filled Mission District home.

Burns was one of the worst-kept secrets in California, and putting her behind bars would become Brown’s strategy to pivot the klieg lights of his political career from San Francisco toward Sacramento. Banner headlines wouldn’t hurt in illuminating the pathway.

Brown and Burns would become agonistes, a word from the ancient Greek, which means persons engaged in public struggle. Two opposing forces seeking to prevail when there is room for only one.

It would take two failed police raids on Burns’ clinic, three high-profile trials, two no-bill grand juries, and all the political chits Brown could muster to send her to prison. But to Brown, it was worth it. His political future hung in the balance.

Stephen G. Bloom, a former senior writer in The Sacramento Bee’s San Francisco Bureau, is the author of five nonfiction books. This is adapted from his“The Audacity of Inez Burns: Dreams, Desire, Treachery & Ruin in the City of Gold,” released this month;