The Abortion Queen of San Francisco

Stephen J. Gallas reviews "The Audacity of Inez Burns: Dreams, Desire, Treachery & Ruin in the City of Gold."

The Abortion Queen of San Francisco

The Audacity of Inez Burns by Stephen G. Bloom. Regan Arts. 448 pages.

SAN FRANCISCO’S REPUTATION as a freewheeling city is hard-earned, with a background as an Old West boomtown that still pervades the local climate and lets eccentrics rise higher than they would in a more sedate place. One of these figures was a 20th-century woman named Inez Burns, who performed an estimated 50,000 abortions in what was at the time an illegal profession.

Perhaps only in San Francisco could such an operator live among high society, buy properties all over California, and throw soirées at her ranch. Nearly everyone in town knew who she was. Now a new book, The Audacity of Inez Burns: Dreams, Desire, Treachery & Ruin in the City of Gold by Stephen G. Bloom, seeks to remind the world of who she was.

In Bloom’s telling, Burns served as a foil for former California governor Pat Brown — father of current California governor Jerry Brown — during his days as a crusading district attorney of San Francisco. Even before he rose to the position, Brown touted his stance as a “family values” candidate hell-bent on eradicating San Francisco of corruption, which put Burns squarely in his crosshairs.

Burns was perfectly suited to her time and place — for a time — and while she may seem to be a complex character, Bloom’s account shows that she wasn’t hard to understand. She was an opportunist who figured out what her skills were and how to use them in order to ascend the societal ladder. More than anything, she was a survivor — extremely adept at adapting in order to elicit the best results. In short, she was the quintessential San Franciscan.

Of course, abortion remains a touchy issue, and there may be some readers who will be repelled by a story about the most prolific abortionist in US history. Yet most readers would not advocate robbing banks, and that doesn’t stop the American public from being fascinated by John Dillinger or the Australian public by Ned Kelly, whose deeds only highlight the circumstances of the times in which they lived.

A reader gets the sense that Bloom spent years — perhaps even decades — researching Burns’s life. He has used interviews with people who knew Burns, particularly her granddaughter Caroline Carlisle, as well as old trails of documents to piece together and present a riveting read of the woman’s life. Bloom is at his best when he takes us through the San Francisco of the early 20th century, painting a vivid picture of the city as an embarkation point for sailors during World War II. Local women were encouraged to make men feel welcome in the city, which was increasingly saturated with blue-collar workers coming to work in factories whose wartime products were in increasingly high demand. Bloom asserts that this phenomenon helped Burns’s business, as did any occasion that led to a surplus of transient men in the city.

A wartime national advertising campaign pleaded with tourists to stay out of San Francisco because it was too busy and crowded to deal with them. Well over one million military personnel descended upon the city, and although it was developing at an astonishing rate in order to keep up, this was proving to be extraordinarily demanding. The city’s hospitality services simply could not withstand anyone extraneous to the war effort or the burgeoning blue-collar economy. To go along with Bloom’s apt descriptions of the city, a bevy of photographs of early 20th-century San Francisco is included, as well as locations and figures relevant to Burns’s life. These photographs serve to immerse the reader in Burns’s world, and their inclusion most definitely enhances the reading experience.

Perhaps the strongest section of The Audacity of Inez Burns covers the events surrounding the 1906 earthquake, as well as how it affected a young Burns. This portion is so crucial because it was not only the first time Burns performed an abortion on her own, but because it also dictated the development of her life over the years immediately following the disaster and her brief move to Pittsburgh to work in a Heinz pickle plant. Bloom describes the start of the earthquake:

Built entirely of wood, the Elmer House was the kind of building most susceptible to collapse during such a catastrophic event. Within seconds, Inez heard one of the walls in the hallway buckle. She knew she had to get out immediately. She hurriedly put on a dress, not having the time to button up the front, and instinctively grabbed the canvas satchel of medical instruments and the bottles of quinine and chloroform she’d lifted from Dr. West’s clinic.

The only problem with The Audacity of Inez Burns is that it is at times repetitive — Bloom often reminds the reader of what she should already know. A tidbit that Bloom repeats more often than he needs to is Burns’s conviction that she was providing San Francisco with a civil service by performing abortions on so many women. Bloom notes that Burns did, of course, outwardly state that this was her belief, but rehashing the point as much as Bloom does creates a small feeling that he is arguing for the merits of abortion when, in fact, the rest of the book does not read this way.

The woman herself started at the bottom. She was a member of a poor family, which was crammed into a house in Bernal Heights and headed by a drunk. She was never a licensed physician but was still able to make her mark as the most accomplished abortionist in the city. Burns was a woman who did not care what other people thought of her, and she existed in a city that did not care what the norms of the rest of the country were. Though they were illegal at the time, abortions were performed at a higher rate during Burns’s heyday than they are in modern times. A law that was viewed by many — Burns included — as nothing more than a way for men to control women saw less enforcement than current regulations regarding Planned Parenthood.

Burns was able to thrive through bribery. Nearly half of her unreported income was spent on protection and the names of those who were on Burns’s payroll. Women still become famous for committing crimes — see no further than Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony — but this is mainly short-term media exploitation. After a moment in the spotlight, criminals of this ilk tend to fade away. Burns, however, lived in the public eye for decades and carried on as if she were a real estate mogul (which she was, in a sense). She built her reputation on her considerable skills and acumen, and no matter how unlawfully she may have done so, it cannot be ignored that she earned her way.

For as much as The Audacity of Inez Burns is about the combination of circumstances that allowed Burns to thrive, it is just as equally about the shift in American sensibilities that led to her downfall. Bloom frames Pat Brown as her archnemesis looking for a big case to jumpstart his political career in a time of moral crusades. While she was able to capitalize on the circumstances of her environment, so was Brown. He won, she lost. Bloom’s adroit narrative brings this forgotten San Francisco story to light.


Stephen J. Gallas is a current MFA candidate at Chapman University.

LARB Contributor

Stephen J. Gallas is a current MFA candidate at Chapman University. He lived in Korea for four years, where he worked as an English instructor. He has fiction forthcoming in The Cat’s Meow for Writers & Readers.


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