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The Unrepentant Abortionist Who Defiantly Fought San Francisco Authorities

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A sepia toned image of a young woman in 1914 with wavy brunette bob and long eyelashes. She is wearing pearls.

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ou don’t notice it unless you’re actively looking: The two-story grey-blue building on Fillmore with tasteful gold trim, just steps away from Haight Street. Today, it’s just another well appointed, two-apartment home. But a century ago, it was the most in-demand abortion clinic in San Francisco: a clean and sterile place run by a defiant woman who was unapologetic about her profession, and unafraid of the authorities who came after her.

Her name was Inez Burns. And for almost three decades, she helped tens of thousands of women take charge of their own bodies and their own futures.

Inez knew a little something about seizing control of her own destiny. She was born in September 1886 inside a rear tenement apartment in SoMa — then San Francisco’s gangland. Her father was an alcoholic cigar salesman who died at 39. Her mother was a cold, neglectful woman who fought with her fists and took Inez out of school after sixth grade so the child could work alongside her four siblings.

Inez’s formative years made her tough, but never brittle. The natural beauty dedicated her spare time to self-improvement with an eye on clawing her way out of poverty. Inez taught herself to read well, hiding books away from her mother who considered them a waste of time. Inez learned how to walk and talk like a lady. And when she secured herself a job at the Palace Hotel at age 17, she learned to flirt like a lady as well. Inez worked as a manicurist at the hotel’s barber shop, polishing the nails of the most well-to-do men in San Francisco. She was so charming and such a good listener, her customers were prone to lavishing her with extra cash and expensive gifts.

One of Inez’s most adoring customers was a doctor named Eugene West who began an affair with her when she was 18. A year later, he offered Inez a job at his clinic, paying her twice what she made at the barbershop. West also covered her rent at Elmer House, a women’s rooming establishment at 324 Bush St. Within three months of starting at West’s clinic, Inez became a medical assistant and began aiding her lover in performing illegal abortions. Inez was a quick study and soon noticed that West sometimes performed sloppy work and didn’t always show his patients the care that Inez felt they were due.

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After she got pregnant by another suitor named G.W. Merritt, Inez left West’s clinic, stealing a set of medical instruments as she went. Soon after, tragedy struck with the 1906 earthquake — an event that left Inez with only the dress on her back, the hat on her head and the surgical instruments she had taken from West. It wasn’t long before she needed to put them to use.

While residing alongside 40,000 other earthquake refugees in Golden Gate Park, Inez encountered seven women who were all desperate for help. One was unmarried, and six were unsure how they’d feed another mouth under the dire circumstances. Inez successfully performed abortions on each of them in the park, carefully sterilizing her instruments before and after each procedure. Though Inez offered her services for free, all women insisted on compensating her in some way.

After five weeks of residing in the park, Merritt persuaded Inez to move to Pittsburgh with him to start a new life there. Inez agreed but languished on the East Coast, working for a pittance in a pickle factory. Despite Merritt’s relationship with a younger woman there, Inez bore him two children, George and Bobby. When Bobby was two, Inez managed to save enough money to escape back to San Francisco, forced by Merritt to leave George behind. The boy would return to Inez’s care only when he turned 18.

Back in San Francisco, Inez quickly embraced her inner spirit of independence and went to work performing abortions at clinics around the city, all owned by men. Within months she had enough money to start her own facility — one that she operated out of a series of homes in the city, including two in the Excelsior. Unlike many of the other abortion centers in the city at the time, Inez never advertised her services. She didn’t need to. Word quickly spread around the city about Inez’s impeccably clean clinic — one in which women felt safe, cared for and out of the clutches of exploitative male practitioners.

A two-floor home with garage underneath.
The Fillmore Street building where Inez Burns once operated her abortion clinic.

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t was in 1921 that Inez moved her clinic to 327 Fillmore Street, an eight-bedroom home with three bathrooms. She painstakingly designed the waiting room there to resemble a high-end tea room, with polished floors, Tiffany lamps and sumptuous rugs. Smoking was not permitted and talking was discouraged unless between nurses and patients. Inez installed an outdoor concrete incinerator for medical waste and a secret staircase that led to a back alley.

Assisting her at the clinic was a discreet team of nurses and a utility man named Joe Hoff — a former bellboy Inez had befriended at the Palace Hotel. Hoff also assisted Inez in scaring off mobsters who sporadically attempted to extort her. Inez’s business was widely considered to be the worst-kept secret in San Francisco, but making weekly payoffs to SFPD officers and politicians kept her doors open. Inez also kept a list of trustworthy physicians on call who could assist her with procedures that resulted in complications.

Inez’s services came at a price. Officially, abortions performed by her within the first eight weeks of pregnancy cost $50 (about $880 in today’s money). After that, services went up to $80 (about $1400 now). Despite this, many patients found Inez willing to perform procedures for whatever amount of money they had on hand. For truly dire cases, she charged nothing at all. In one case, she handed a patient with six children an envelope of money and advised her to leave her husband.

Still, Inez was making more money than she knew what to do with. With most procedures taking just 15-20 minutes, she quickly amassed a fortune. She built a home at 274 Guerrero St. — an address that delighted Inez because 274 happened to be the California penal code that outlawed abortion. Inez also purchased properties around the city (including one on Waller Street that doubled as a recovery center) and in La Honda and San Mateo County. She used five different aliases to do so.

A two-story rectangular home with four identical windows on the top floors and a five curved windows protruding from the building on the lower level. Large neat hedges grow in front of the home.
The Guerrero Street home that Inez Burns kept until 1973. (Rae Alexandra)

Inez enjoyed living lavishly, with a lively social life and fierce shopping habit. She bought a limo and hired a driver, doted on her two Pomeranians and kept regular appointments with astrologers. She underwent three plastic surgery operations: One to remove two ribs, another to remove the bones in her pinky toes and finally a facelift in her later years. Still, Inez had so much cash, she took to sewing money into drapes, burying it in lockboxes and hiding it in secret panels around her properties.

As Inez’s business grew, so did complications in her love life. She married William Brown in 1915, after having a son (also named William) with him. After Brown died in 1921, Inez married Charlie Granelli, with whom she had a daughter, Alice. In 1927, while Granelli was out of the country on business, Inez fell in love with an assemblyman named Joe Burns. By then, because Inez was already an infamous figure in the city, the love triangle made for salacious headlines. Inez was granted a divorce from Granelli in May 1928 and went on to marry Burns in 1932. The couple stayed together for the rest of their lives, though the relationship was frequently an open one in which fiery disagreements were not uncommon.

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nez’s legal troubles started in 1936, when her financial situation finally came under scrutiny by the authorities. Still, she proved to be a slippery woman to pin down. She had so many informants scattered around the city, she got tipped off and was able to clear her properties before every raid. On one occasion, Inez was so indignant when police arrived that she kicked an inspector in the shins. Efforts to hold her legally accountable after one successful 1938 raid were thwarted by the fact that former patients steadfastly refused to assist investigators.

In October 1939, Inez was finally indicted for tax evasion by a grand jury, for the years 1935 and 1936. She pleaded guilty and was fined $10,000, plus an undisclosed additional sum to settle the case. At the time, Judge Harold Louderback noted: “Never in my history on the federal bench has so little information been given the court. For some reason, there seems to be a great reluctance to tell what Mrs. Burns’ business was.” (Her business cards described her only as a “Designer.”)

It was after the war that Inez’s old methods of keeping authorities at bay started to become ineffective. The SFPD had undergone major personnel changes to eradicate widespread corruption. And in 1944, a new district attorney arrived and went to war with the seedier aspects of San Francisco life. Edmund “Pat” Brown (future governor of California and father to Governor Jerry Brown) prosecuted bookies and madams in the Tenderloin. He took licenses away from the rowdiest bars, and he set his sights on Inez to make an example out of her.

Brown joined forces with Police Inspector Frank Ahern to go after Inez. Ahern proved impossible to pay off, though Inez tried heartily to do so. Despite Brown and Ahern amassing enormous files of evidence against Inez, a 1945 grand jury refused to indict her. Her luck ran out at the end of that year, however, when a judge announced that Inez and her faithful staff would be tried for felony conspiracy to commit abortion and practicing medicine without a license. It was the beginning of the end.

Brown and Ahern had hundreds of thousands of dollars they had confiscated from Inez’s home and clinic. They had notebooks containing the names of thousands of patients and what each of them had paid. They had case history charts and receipts for medical supplies. They even found two women willing to speak about services they’d received from Inez. Part-time clinic employees Madeline Rand, Virginia Westrup and Kathryn Bartram agreed to testify against Inez and other employees in exchange for having the charges against them dropped.

A woman with neat brown hair and a balding man bend down to assist a woman who has fainted and is on the floor.
Madeline Rand (left), prosecution witness at the Inez Burns trial in San Francisco, and Inspector Edward Penaat assist Kathryn Bartram, surprise prosecution witness who collapsed during a recess in the trial. Bartram allegedly witnessed abortions at 327 Fillmore Street when she was employed there as an anesthetist from 1934-1936. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Despite the mountain of evidence, it took three trials for Brown to get a conviction against Inez and her employees. During the first trial, nine male and five female jurors found themselves deadlocked after days of deliberation. The second trial ended similarly with eight women and four men failing to agree on a verdict. Brown wasn’t about to back down, and in September 1946, a third trial resulted in guilty verdicts for Inez and four of her employees. Bail was successfully secured for the appeals portion of the trial, but after the court of appeals denied Inez and her cohorts a new trial and California’s Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Inez and her friends were sent to prison. Each served 29 months and were released in November 1950.

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nez’s legal woes were far from over. In 1951, she was fined $10,000 and sentenced to a year and a day in a federal prison camp for income tax evasion (for the year 1944). Inez was released after nine months but was caught performing abortions shortly afterwards and sent straight back to prison. She was aged 66 at the time and served another 25 months. During that sentence, she was forced to testify before a San Francisco grand jury. Authorities were trying to convict figures suspected of receiving bribes from Inez. During her testimony, Inez gave nothing up, denying ever paying anyone off and seemingly relishing being back in the spotlight. After her time on the stand, she told waiting reporters, “My, I’ve had a wonderful time!”

Inez was released from her final prison sentence in January of 1956. When more tax evasion charges emerged two months later, she had nothing left to offer the government. All of her properties, except for her Guerrero Street home, had already been seized by the IRS. Her son Bobby and his wife had frittered away half a million dollars Inez had left with them for safekeeping. She was broke. By that time also, Inez was so ravaged by arthritis, she could no longer perform abortions, though many women continued to seek out her services.

Throughout all of her legal troubles, Burns remained dedicated to his wife. The two remained in their Guerrero Street house until 1973 — the same year that Roe v. Wade finally gave all American women the right to choose. At that time, both in their eighties, Inez and Burns moved to a convalescent home in Moss Beach. Inez died three years later at the age of 87.

Inez’s commitment to the safekeeping of women’s bodily autonomy was perhaps best summed up by Burns. “Inez is an artist,” her husband told reporters during one of her trials. “That’s her trade and she won’t quit it. She’s doing a service to the public. Saving people from shame and disgrace.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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