(Photo: Posting with unidentified relatives, Inez Burns, third from left, her husband, ex-San Francisco Assemblyman Joe F. Burns at far right, wearing the hat).
…When the money was rolling in, Caroline Carlisle recalls, her middle-aged grandmother Inez Burns was “happy and jolly”–but Inez never eased upon on her inspection of the house in Atheron., “looking for dust,” often demanding that everything be done her way.
Despite the “inspection,” a visit from grandmother Inez turned into a festive event as she brought armloads of gifts: a black cocker spaniel, a white rabbit fur coat and matching hat, a chestnut horse.
Another great treat for Caroline ws a shopping spree to the Emporium in San Francisco, accompanied by one of Inez’s employees.
After one of these “surprise visits” to the La Honda ranch in the early 1940s, then 8-year-old Caroline Carlisle accompanied Inez and Joe Burns in the shiny, black limousine. As Joe Burns drove, inez sang songs form the 1920s, most often “Stella By Starlight” and “In her Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown.” Caroline hated the singing, especially when she was asked to join in–perhaps it reminded the little girl of the dreaded piano lessons grandmother paid for.
(Photo: Inez L. Burns’ “million dollar hands”–as she called them–enabled her to purchase this home in Atherton, occuped by her son, his wife [seen here] and their children, including Caroline Carlisle.)
Inez Burns also invested in property, paying cash for a Spanish-style home on Selby Lane in Atherton, a mansion on Los Angeles’ legendary Mulholland Drive next door to the home of South American conductor Xavier Cugat as well as the 1000-acre La Honda ranch.
A workaholic who kept late hours at the Fillmore Street flat, Inez made surprise visits to Atherton and La Honda where she installed trusted family members as caretakers.
The Atherton home was occupied by Inez’s son, his wife and children, including Caroline Carlisle. Carlisle remembered the beautiful home and the garden tended by Alfred, the gardener, who pruned the elegant roses and planted rows of sweet corn in the summer.
Sunday night was party time at the Atherton house, with the guests a mix of cops, judges and underworld characters such as “Fat Selmi” and entertainers Joaquin Gray and Pinky Lee.
Inez Burns was the first to admit that she was not a businesswoman. But she did accumulate more cash than she knew what to do with–and because hers was an illegal business–she was unwilling to use the banks.
She hid cash in the hems of the brocade curtains, in the baseboards and inside the bannisters of her Guerrero Street home. A “big black safe” was also installed in Inez’s favorite “hat room” located just off the bedroom where she slept in a luxurious “Hollywood bed” featuring an upholestered headboard.
While playing with a glass globe filled with fake snow, Caroline Carlisle recalls her grandmother surprising her at age seven with a “real pirate’s treasure chest” stuffed with neat stacks of cash (hiding $750,000 in the wine cellar turned out to be a bad decision as Inez discovered termites had consumed the small fortune, leaving only a pile of dust).
Maintaining her youthful appearance was of great importance to Inez Burns. Designers were summoned to her home on Guerrero Street and told to bring the latest fashions including expensive furs, diamond, ruby and emerald jewelry.
To protect her fair skin from the aging effects of the sun, hundreds of expensive hats with wide brims were made for Inez and stored in a special “hat room.”
“It’s better to have one good thing than seven bad ones,” was Inez Burns’ maxim–and she lived it to the hilt.
In the Guerrero Street home’s large rumpus room, she hosted catered parties, never drinking more than two silver fizzes, christened with the cliche, “Down the hatch.”
Inez was a difficult taskmaster, hiring and firing maids in rapid order, forever seeking the perfect maid with a perfect dusting technique.
Driven about town in a chauffeured limousine, she ran around with good friend Mabel Malotte, a high-priced, first-class madam “who treated her girls good.”
Inez’s granddaughter Caroline Carlisle recalled, “Inez didn’t like [Sausalito madam] Sally Stanford. Grandmother said Sally Stanford withheld pay from the girls, telling them the customer’s checks bounced.”
(Photo: Caroline Carllisle, at left, with unidentified friend on horse given to her by grandmother Inez Burns)
During the long career of Inez Burns, she was a self-described “chameleon,” using names such as “Amy Dutch”–and camouflaging her illegal work by sometimes calling herself a foot doctor.
Officials later estimated as many as 20 abortions a day, priced at $300 each, were performed in the Fillmore Street flat in San Francisco. Some calculated Inez L. Burns earned as much as $50,000 per month.
With a reputation as a “perfect abortionist” (no fatalities), Inez began to rake in serious money, according to her granddaughter, Caroline Carlisle.
“Women came from Europe to see her,” Carlisle said, adding that major Hollywood stars, as well as an Olympic medal-winning ice skater-also turned movie star-trusted her grandmother.
With the money earned from her “million-dollar hands,” Inez had a home built to her specifications, with a three-car garage on Guerrero Street in San Francisco.
Only the finest materials would do: custom-made brocade curtains covered the windows–and to satisfy her obsession with cleanliness, separate sinks for hand-washing and tooth-brushing were installed in the spacious master bedroom.
Note: For a recap on this story, please reads Parts I-III below.
We don’t know precisely when Inez Burns began her career as an abortionist but by 1922 during Prohibiton, she was “practicing” on her own–and earning a lot of money. She soon purchased a three-story flat on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, installing surgical equipment in immaculately clean rooms simulating a hospital with ether and other modern techniques.
Attired in a crisp, white nurse’s uniform, Inez was often addressed as “Doctor.” She was clearly in her stride, giving orders to a staff of six competent women–including a receptionist and one male, Joe Hoff, “the blood man.”
She also had her spies.
To this day, Inez Burns’ granddaughter, Caroline Carlisle retains the image of gray haired Joe Hoff, holding up a glass beaker in one of the sanitized rooms.
When entering the clinic, female patients encountered a professional environment where the staff spoke in hushed voices, reinforced by the bold “NO TALKING” signs posted on the waiting room walls.
In the waiting room itself, patients could reach into a shallow copper bowl for one of Inez L. Burns’ business cards, describing her as a “designer.”
Attractive to men, Inez married three times before finding a soulmate in the tall and handsome Joe F. Burns, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District “as one of the boys”–many of whom became police officers.
Later, some of Joe’s old pals joined him for Wednesday night poker parties where they enjoyed the card games but “payoffs” to protect his wife’s abortion mill business may also have occurred.
Inez was in control of the relationship with Joe–but she was also gracious, lavishing him with gifts, including brilliant diamond rings worn on his freshly manicured hands.
She paid for Joe’s gambling habits, poker and the ponies and she probably bought and paid for his political career.
Inez shared Joe’s love of sleek race horses so much that she boarded half-a-dozen beautiful colts on the 1000-acre La Honda ranch, including the gelding “Sun Portland”–an occasional winner at the racetracks in Seattle.
When Joe F. Burns retired as a San Francisco Assemblyman, Inez bought him “Cavanaughs”, a busy bar located at 29th and Mission Streets.
Born in Philadelphia in 1886, Inez L. Burns often spoke of her family’s extreme poverty forcing her to work as a child employee in a pickle factory. How much truth there was to that story we cannot know for certain but Inez claimed the experience embittered her–she also learned the value of hard work, according to her granddaughter Caroline Carlisle.
At age 15 when Inez arrived in San Francisco, she had matured into a “natural beauty” with hazel eyes and titian colored hair. She also came armed with an ironclad will to succeed in a man’s world.
Working as a manicurist at the famous Palace Hotel, Inez met a Dr. West–whom Caroline Carlisle says taught her grandmother how to perform abortions.
Photo:Inez Burns poses after “Sun Portland”, the gelding boarded at her 1000-acre La Honda ranch, wins big at the Seattle track.
In the early 1940s La Hondans instantly recognized the big, shiny black limousine winding its way on the narrow road through the shadows and light of the scenic redwood forest.
The man and woman in the automobile were making a surprise visit to the 1,000-acre horse ranch they owned near Kingston Creek in La Honda, some miles east of the Pacific Ocean.
At the wheel was former Democratic San Francisco Assemblyman Joseph Francis Burns–and seated beside him, wearing an elaborate hat with a very wide brim, was his rich and powerful wife, Inez L. Burns, also known as “the queen of abortionists.”
Inez Burns did not shrink when she heard this allegation.
For more than three decades this remarkable woman provided safe abortions to thousands of women from all over the world. In some respects, her facilities in San Francisco matched today’s medical standards–yet she practiced her “illegal” activities with immunity for much of her long career.
How was this possible? Her success coincided with the prohibition of alcohol in 1920. This event bred a climate of lawlessness, an environment vital to the interests of Inez L. Burns, one in which officials at all levels were easily corrupted.
If you know Mary Florey–the longtime owner of Florey’s Bookstore in Pacifica, you know what a great lady she is. She’s supportive, she’s loving, she’s a real person. Down-to-earth.
One day Mary Florey called me and told me that I might want to interview Caroline Carlisle, a Pacifica woman, who had a fascinating story to tell me about her relative, Inez Burns, the famous San Francisco “queen of abortionists.” Ms. Burns was headquartered in San Francisco but she had strong ties to the Coastside, at La Honda, Half Moon Bay and finally a hospital in Moss Beach.
It’s not often a writer gets a call like this–a tip that really pans out. The result of my multi-houred interview with Caroline Carllisle, along with my own newspaper research, follows in the next series of posts. Maybe someday soon I will put the amazing pieces together in a book–or a movie because the story of Inez Burns possesses so many colorful “L.A. Confidential-like” dimensions to it. And, as they say so often these days–you can’t make this stuff up.