On the Trail of the Woman who Performed 50,000 Illegal Abortions

8 min

In a jewel-box mansion in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, artifacts tell a fascinating story involving a secret abortion clinic, hidden cash, police raids, Hollywood starlets, and a highly-publicized trial that went to the Supreme Court.

Among the relics is a pair of Victorian-era forceps. The slender metal tool, one of close to 20 medical instruments unearthed at the property years ago by people who used to live there, once belonged to Inez Burns.

A collection of medical instruments that once belonged to Inez Burns.
A collection of medical instruments that once belonged to Inez Burns. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

In the first half of the 20th century, Burns was one of California’s most sought-after abortionists. She is said to have terminated around 50,000 pregnancies in San Francisco during her long career using these tools -- at a time when doing so could land you in prison.

Jeff and Diane Cerf bought Burns' former home in 1999. They enjoy showing visitors the instruments, as well as the nooks where the abortionist hid her cash.

"There's a part of the wall where the baseboard opens up," Jeff Cerf says. "So she had a little hiding spot there. But we haven’t found any money."

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The couple knows a little about their home’s most infamous inhabitant: that she threw wild parties and made a vast fortune performing up to twenty abortions a day; that her patients included everyone from housewives to celebrities like Olympic skater and film-star Sonja Henie.

But they don't know Burns like Stephen Bloom does.

Author Stephen Bloom shares his knowledge of Inez Burns with Jeff and Diane Cerf. The Cerfs are the present owners of the mansion that once belonged to Burns.
Author Stephen Bloom shares his knowledge of Inez Burns with Jeff and Diane Cerf. The Cerfs are the present owners of the mansion that once belonged to Burns. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Bloom is a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and the author of a painstakingly researched new book about the abortionist, The Audacity of Inez Burns. Bloom and I are spending the day together visiting some of the sites associated with Burns' formidable life. "I’ve been in love with Inez for 20 years," Bloom tells me as we set out from KQED's headquarters.

Burns (birthname, Inez Ingenthron) was born to a poor German immigrant family in 1886 in San Francisco’s then-grimy South of Market neighborhood. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother, a taskmaster. "Her mother didn't believe in education," Bloom says. "She believed that girls and boys needed to work."

So at 17, with good looks but otherwise no real prospects, Burns landed her first job as a manicurist at the barbershop in San Francisco’s luxurious Palace Hotel.

Bloom and I stop in at what used to be the Palace’s barbershop. Today it’s Flatiron Wines, a high-end liquor store. Over a glass of wine, we chat with manager Beau Rapier.

Author Stephen Bloom shares details about Inez Burns' story with Beau Rapier, the manager of Flatiron Wines. The liquor store now stands on the site where the Palace Hotel's barbershop used to be. It was where Burns' worked as a manicurist.
Author Stephen Bloom shares details about Inez Burns' story with Beau Rapier, the manager of Flatiron Wines. The liquor store now stands on the site where the Palace Hotel's barbershop used to be. It was where Burns' worked as a manicurist. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

At the turn of the last century, wealthy men liked getting their nails done by pretty young women. The alabaster-skinned, auburn-haired Inez Burns quickly became popular among the clientele.

"She buffed and polished the nails of a lot of important people," Bloom tells Rapier.

One such high-roller was Dr. Eugene West. Bloom says West was three times the young manicurist’s age and a notorious ladies’ man. He was also a notorious abortionist. The two started dating and eventually West taught Burns his trade.

"Dr. West realized that Inez had the touch and really was able to perform the abortions as well as Dr. West," Bloom says. "This is how Inez got her beginning as an abortionist."

"So she learned how to do the abortions from the doctor that she was dating?" says Rapier, incredulous.

Inez Burns launched her career in the early years of the 20th century. Many prospective customers would find their way to her when they landed in San Francisco at the Ferry Building. This image dates from Sep., 1912.
Inez Burns launched her career in the early years of the 20th century. Many prospective customers would find their way to her when they landed in San Francisco at the Ferry Building. This image dates from Sep., 1912. (Photo: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-137812)

In the pre Roe vs. Wade era, cities like San Francisco were flush with practitioners of varying degrees of skill and legitimacy. They plied their trade under the table while cops and lawmakers took kickbacks and turned a blind eye. It was a dangerous business, leaving many women injured and sometimes dead.

"A lot of women showed up in emergency rooms with failed abortions with injuries as a result of very botched abortions by very inept practitioners," says Carole Joffe, a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco and an expert on reproductive history.

But Burns was meticulous and scrupulously hygienic. Before long, word got around. In 1927, she set up her own clinic in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood.

Bloom and I visit the apartment building that used to house Burns’ clinic. Bloom says Burns had no shortage of customers willing to pay her hundreds of dollars in cash to get them out of trouble. "It wasn't unusual for Inez to arrive here and find five or six women in a line waiting for her to arrive in the morning," Bloom says.

The building is a little run down, with narrow corridors and few distinguishing features. Bloom says the place looked very different in Burns’s day. "There were Chippendale chairs," Bloom says. "There were Persian carpets."

Edmund G. "Pat" Brown,​ 1939
Edmund G. "Pat" Brown,​ 1939 (Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Bloom says Burns was in it for the money and rarely provided discounts. The clinic was one of many properties she owned all over California thanks to the millions she made.

That fortune bought her friends in high places including politicians and lawmakers. Her longtime, live-in lover was Joe Burns, a former assemblyman. But she couldn’t buy off ambitious district attorney Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, father of current California governor Jerry Brown.

"I did enforce the law, but I tried to enforce it rather selectively in the sense that I didn't call the press and say 'I'm going out on a crusade against whores or against abortionists or against gamblers,'" Brown said in an interview for the Governmental History Documentation Project.  "I just quietly waited for an incident."

That incident happened in 1945. Brown had attempted a couple of unsuccessful raids on Burns’ clinic that year. She had been tipped off and gotten away. But the third time, an undercover cop posing as a patient exposed Burns and she was arrested.

"Police confiscated oxygen tanks, instruments, actual beds," author Stephen Bloom says. "They were all hauled over to the courthouse and were used as exhibits during the trial."

Author Stephen Bloom standing in the federal courthouse in San Francisco. Burns was tried there for tax evasion.
Author Stephen Bloom standing in the federal courthouse in San Francisco. Burns was tried there for tax evasion. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

But convicting Burns wasn’t easy. In the first two trials, the jury members couldn't agree on her culpability. "The grand jury met twice and they found nothing wrong with what she was doing, or at least there wasn't enough evidence to indict her," Bloom says.

But Brown was persistent in his efforts to make an example of Burns in his crusade against vice. "I took her out of business, yes," Brown admitted in another interview.  "She was also corrupting the police department. We had substantial evidence that she was paying off about $400 a day to the police."

Burns’ luck finally ran out on Sep. 26, 1946, when she was convicted for performing illegal abortions. At 61, Burns served the first of her two state sentences. There were federal convictions too, for tax evasion. She was in and out of prison several times in her old age.

An appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court. But the justices declined to review the conviction.

Bloom says Burns ended up paying the U.S. government $800,000 in back taxes (roughly equivalent to $8 million in today’s money.) Burns was left penniless. She passed away in a nursing home a few miles south of San Francisco in 1976. She was 89.

Inez Burns at a family wedding, standing third to left, 1966
Inez Burns at a family wedding, standing third to left, 1966

Meanwhile, Brown’s quest against corruption and vice paid off. He was elected California attorney general and then governor, in 1959.

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The Supreme Court legalized a woman’s right to an abortion in 1973. But Burns wasn’t particularly happy about the way things were heading. "Scores of women will die," she told a newspaper reporter at the time the Roe vs Wade case was pending at the Supreme Court. "It will be quite a while before physicians who have not been trained for this type of surgery will be able to do it well and safely."

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