Love her or hate her, praise her or damn her, there was only one Inez Burns. Born Inez Brown, to a poor family in Philadelphia in 1886, Inez came to San Francisco as a teenager and became a manicurist at The Palace Hotel. With her good looks and outgoing personality, she soon became a customer favorite. One of her customers was Dr. Eugene West, a notorious abortionist who had been acquitted of murder in the 1893 death of Addie Gilmore.
In those days, most abortions were performed in a doctors office, and the woman was sent home on the same day. If complications arose, women rarely went to the hospital — either because the doctor was afraid of losing his license or because the woman was afraid of losing her reputation. As a result, thousands of women needlessly died each year.
Dr. West saw something in Inez and hired her as a receptionist for his clinic. Over time, she became quite skilled in performing the operation herself. In fact, Inez became so proficient that when Dr. West retired, she continued the business. By 1922, she had made enough money to buy and outfit a three-story building at 327 Fillmore St.
From the beginning, patient safety was Inez’s top priority, and she designed her Fillmore Street offices like a modern hospital ward. She outfitted multiple rooms with beds for recovering patients, and her operating room was spotless, furnished with the latest surgical instruments and equipment. She hired a staff of registered nurses, a blood technician and others to provide professional care. She also installed trap doors to escape through — in the event of a police raid.
As Inez’s reputation spread, so did her practice, especially among the well-connected. Her patients included socialites, politicians’ wives, prostitutes, even movie stars, such as Rita Hayworth and Sojia Hennie. She performed up to 30 abortions a day, at prices ranging from $75 to $200 — though she sometimes provided her service free for poor women.
During her best years she was grossing $50,000 a month, more than $600,000 in today’s money.
Inez had a house custom-built for her at 274 Guerrero St., designed with the finest furniture and materials. Because her business was illegal, she couldn’t use banks, so she had secret compartments built to store the vast amount of cash flowing into her coffers. This proved very expensive when termites ate $750,000 that was hidden in her wine cellar.
In 1932, Inez married her fourth husband, Joseph Burns, a California Assemblyman, and took his last name. They bought a 1,000-acre ranch in La Honda, where they raised and trained racehorses. For almost 25 years, her business was woven into the fabric of San Francisco and protected by bonds of friendship, fear, greed and respect.
The friendship was for her husband Joe, whose Wednesday night poker game included many high-ranking cops with whom Joe had been a childhood friend. The fear came from her prominent business and society clients, who feared exposure if she went to court. The greed was from police and politicians, to whom she paid money and warned her of impending police raids. The respect was from her clients and others, who appreciated her unmatched safety record.
Her Fillmore Street clinic was raided in 1936 and 1938, but she was never charged because no one would testify against her. She settled an income tax evasion charge in 1939 by paying a $10,000 fine. But her luck changed in 1943, when Pat Brown, an ambitious young district attorney, was elected on an anti-corruption platform.
On Sept. 26, 1945, police raided the clinic only to find that Inez had escaped a few minutes before in her limousine. Police Inspector Frank Ahearn raced over to Inez’s Guerrero Street home and discovered a safe containing $289,000. She offered Ahearn the money not to arrest her, but he turned her down immediately. This established Ahearn’s reputation for incorruptibility, which helped him later to become the chief of the San Francisco Police Department.
Ahearn also seized a handful of notebooks with names, dates and dollar amounts, indicating that Burns had performed $500,000 worth of abortions in 1944. Brown reported this to the IRS and charged Burns. Again, a grand jury refused to indict, citing insufficient evidence.
Undaunted, Brown continued building his case and re-arrested Inez on Oct. 27, 1945. His revelation that prominent people might be named in the case made it front page news. Police also announced they were seeking Lavina Queen, Inez’s anesthetist, who had escaped the police raid.
Inez was indicted, and the case went to trial. A number of clinic employees testified against her, but the results were two hung juries. The third trial began on Sept. 19, 1946. This time, Queen made a surprise appearance and testified after being given immunity. Her testimony made the difference.
Inez and her co-defendants were convicted and sentenced between two and five years each. Inez was released after two years, but her troubles were far from over. She was convicted of tax evasion and for performing another abortion and spent another 14 months in jail. In 1956, she was forced to pay more that $740,000 in back taxes to the IRS, which wiped out the rest of her fortune. Inez and Joe Burns spent their final years in a nursing home in Moss Beach. She died in 1976 at the age of 87.
Late in life, Brown served two terms as California’s governor. When asked about Inez Burns, he said: “She was a very good abortionist with a good reputation. Everyone thought she was a necessary evil. But when I became DA, her business had become flagrant.”