It was Santa Rosa’s Crime of the Century, Scandal of the Century, and when it became Trial of the Century, Santa Rosa was square in the national spotlight as it had never been before or has been since. Newspapers in East Coast cities and small Western mining towns alike were often publishing daily courtroom updates, sometimes with front page headlines. The crime in question was the 1910 attempted murder of a young woman and her baby – by blowing them up with dynamite.

In spite of all that newshound competition – or perhaps, because of it – the best reporting appeared in the Press Democrat. The big papers and wire services might have offered readers fancy graphics and the occasional scoop, but the PD churned out more than a hundred articles; so thorough was the coverage that during the trial entire pages were filled with court testimony.

So instead of blogging the usual modern summary about the story, I’d like to step back and let the original reporting tell the tale. Articles will be edited only for length and not everything will appear, but Gentle Reader will hopefully share the same experience people had in 1910 in following an unfolding suspenseful story.

The setting for the crime was Burke’s Sanitarium near Wikiup (the address was 733 Mark West Springs Road, about 1½ miles east of Old Redwood Highway). If you lived in Santa Rosa at the time you might have known someone who worked there because it was a large operation, but it was unlikely you would have known someone who was staying there; it was fairly expensive, with a shared room costing $20-27 per week, which was about half the weekly paycheck of an average Santa Rosan.

Burke’s Sanitarium was part nursing home, part resort. There were year-round accommodations to be had in the main building, which the previous owners originally intended to be a hotel – an item below mentions a retired gentleman who had lived there for six years. During warmer months guests could stay in the tent houses on the banks of Mark West Creek, which ran through the grounds. Advertisements touted their “cuisine is unrivaled” (it was decidedly not vegetarian, some ads boasting only the best quality meat was served).

On the medical side, Burke’s also had a nursing staff and modern equipment, including an x-ray machine and instruments needed in obstetrics and surgery. Ads claimed they could treat diabetes and “tumors of every kind,” although most of the ailments they listed were the same general complaints mentioned in patent medicine ads, such as rheumatism, nervous troubles, hemorrhoids, constipation, catarrh, obesity, insomnia and “premature old age.” They did not accept drug addicts seeking rehab or anyone with psychological torments.

Unlike the sanitarium near Cloverdale operated by Madam Preston, Burke’s was founded by a certified MD who was usually in residence. Dr. Willard P. Burke had a San Francisco office he visited twice a week and was shared with his brother, Isaac. Both were osteopaths, and for a few years Willard was president of the California College of Osteopathy in San Francisco. Dr. Burke also wrote most of the content for Health, a self-published monthly magazine. The sanitarium had made him a wealthy man, and he was much respected in Santa Rosa and well known in the state. As our story begins, he is 59 years old.


District Attorney and Officers Investigate Startling Affair Near Burke’s Sanitarium
Tent houses at Burke’s Sanitarium.
Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

District Attorney C. F. Lea and Sheriff Smith are investigating an explosion of either dynamite or giant powder in a tent at Burke’s Sanitarium on Saturday night. At the time of the explosion the tent was occupied by Luella Smith and her eleven months-old baby. The mother was hurled from her bed and was somewhat cut and bruised, but not seriously hurt. The baby, who occupied a cradle at the foot of the bed, escaped unhurt. A big hole was torn in the side of the tent and the explosion started a fire which was quickly extinguished. The report was heard in the main hotel building and in the cottages and caused some excitement.

In view of the fact that she had been apparently despondent for some time, and that a sister had died in an insane asylum, and another sister is said to be weak minded. It was thought that the woman had attempted suicide. She denies this, however.

The District Attorney and officers will continue the investigation today, and will satisfy themselves. The dynamite or giant powder was placed in the bed occupied by the woman.

– Press Democrat, February 8, 1910
Theory of the Crime Supplants That of Suicide

District Attorney Clarence Lea’s investigation of the explosion of dynamite in the tent at Burke’s Sanitarium occupied by Luella Smith and her baby, last Saturday night, has resulted in his arriving at the conclusion that the reasonable theory is that it was a criminal act on the part of some one. He so stated Wednesday night upon his return from the scene. Coupled with this declaration, however, he says that he will look deeper and more carefully into the past history of the woman as regards traces of insanity. He realizes that she is a woman of a very nervous temperament and as such is more susceptible to nervous disease that the ordinary woman.

Another startling development in the case Wednesday came from the mouth of the woman herself. It affected the paternity of her child, and the man upon whom she fixes the blame denies the accusation, says she has made similar charges before, and that they are an evidence of her insanity.

At half past nine o’clock last Saturday night the explosion in the tent occurred. Its force partially wrecked the tent, hurled the sleeping woman from the bed, cutting a deep gash in her arm and another on her head. The infant who occupied a cot at the foot of his mother’s bed, was unharmed. A fire started but the night watchman and others who were quickly on the scene, extinguished the flame. The woman’s injuries were attended to. The dynamite had been placed in the bed and was exploded by means of a fuse, which the District Attorney and officers are satisfied was lit on the outside of the tent.

The woman came to the Sanitarium on February 5, 1909, and has been there ever since, and there her baby was born. She says that she has been well cared for. Her condition at the present time, as a result of the injuries she sustained, is somewhat serious. It developed Wednesday that in the deep wound in her arm proud fresh has appeared.

As intimated District Attorney Lea will continue the investigation and there will be no let up until everything is probed in an endeavor to bare the mystery which shrouds the matter. Other developments are expected.

– Press Democrat, February 10, 1910
Developments in the Investigation Here Yesterday

Summed up at the close of the day practically the only new development Thursday in the investigation being made by District Attorney Lea into the mysterious dynamite explosion last Saturday night in the house tent occupied by Luella Smith and her baby on the grounds at Burke’s Sanitarium, centered in an interview over the telephone with her brother, Edgar Smith, whose home is in Upper Lake, Lake county.

Smith was asked as to the mental condition of his sister, Luella Smith. He replied that she had never exhibited signs of insanity. It was true, he said, that another sister had died in an insane asylum, but there had never been anything the matter mentally with his sister, Luella. He denied the published assertion that another sister was weak-minded.

Mrs. Ella Force, who resides in a town some distance from Santa Rosa, was communicated with. She and Luella Smith were school girls together. Mrs. Force said that as far as she knew there was never anything wrong with Luella Smith mentally.

Considerable importance is attached to the statements made by Mr. Smith and Mrs. Force, owing to the claims that have been made that Luella Smith is insane and that her statements as to certain matters are the product of a disordered brain. The woman says that the despondency from which she has suffered at times has been due to the position she has occupied at the sanitarium, particularly as regards her social ostracism.

Sheriff Smith has been away from town looking up a clue. He was expected home Thursday night, but did not arrive. He may come today and more or less importance attaches to the success of his mission.

While District Attorney Lea has announced that the reasonable theory is that a criminal act was committed, he is proceeding very cautiously in the matter, and is carrying out his intention to look deeper and carefully into the past history of Luella Smith as regards the presence of insanity.

Inquiry on Thursday elicited the information that the injured woman is making satisfactory progress towards recovery and it is believed that she will soon be able to be up and around again.

The developments in the case are being watched with much interest here and all over the State, as Burke’s Sanitarium is one of the best known institutions in northern California and yearly hundreds of people go there for medical treatment.

– Press Democrat, February 11, 1910


Newspapers All Have Special Men Here on Explosion Mystery
Dr. W. P. Burke, 1905.
Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The effort of the authorities to probe the mysterious dynamite explosion at Burke’s Sanitarium last Saturday night, was yesterday transferred from Sonoma county to Berkeley, where District Attorney Clarence F. Lea and Court Reporter Harry Scott went to interview Dr. A. W. Hitt, a former surgeon at the sanitarium…it is reported, among other things, that Dr. Hitt while at the Sanitarium last December, wrote to a medical friend in San Francisco, a Dr. Naylor, predicting some such an occurrence as happened at Burke’s on Saturday night.

Sheriff Smith did not return from Oroville yesterday, as was expected. A dispatch from Oroville to a Sacramento paper announces the purport of Smith’s visit to Butte county as follows:

Oroville, Butte Co., Feb. 11–Sheriff L. K. Smith of Sonoma county arrived here yesterday and made some investigations in regard to the recent visit here of Dr. Willard P. Burke, owner of the now famous Phoenix mine, near Hurleton, and whose connection with Miss Lou Etta Smith, a patient at his sanitarium, is being investigated on account of the recent explosion in her tent, which nearly caused her death.

This morning the Sheriff went to Hurleton. He is trying to ascertain, if possible, whether Dr. Burke took any dynamite with him from here when he returned to Santa Rosa after his recent visit.

The Phoenix mine was purchased by Dr. Burke some time ago for $1,500 and he worked it for several years with poor success, spending about $60,000 before he struck it rich last May. In that month he took out about $500,000 it is claimed and since then has been getting $1,000 a month from it, according to reports.

It is recognized that much hinges upon locating the source of the dynamite or other explosive used in blowing up Luella Smith’s tent cottage. Until that point is made clear, all theories advanced must remain more or less speculative in their character. Every possible clue is being investigated and every possible source of information scrutinized, in the effort to probe the mystery to the bottom.

Outside Newspapermen Here

All the San Francisco newspapers have special men here, detailed on the case, and some of them have two or three. Frequent visits to the Sanitarium are made, and yesterday noon a hired automobile conveyed a party of visiting scribes to the scene of the explosion, most of whom remained the greater part of the day.

Injured Woman Described

While the reporters found it a difficult matter to interview anyone around the institution yesterday they saw the injured woman and are able to give a good description of her appearance. She was able to leave her bed yesterday, and take a little exercise. While she was walking through the grounds the newspaper men arrived. She had a bandage around her head and her arm was also bandaged. She is described as a woman not overly prepossessing in appearance, about five feet seven inches tall, with nose slightly upturned and prominent cheekbones. Her eyes are deep set,  and dull, while her face is almost without color and she wears a sad and worn expression. Her actions are quick, suggestive of extreme nervousness. She was dressed yesterday in a long, violet colored gown.

– Press Democrat, February 12, 1910
Woman in Hospital as Investigation Proceeds

Saturday abounded in interesting details in connection with the investigation of the dynamite explosion at Burke’s Sanitarium, although no great significance is attached to what developed.

District Attorney Clarence Lea drove out to the sanitarium in the morning, accompanied by Assistant District Attorney G. W. Hoyle, Undersheriff Walter C. Lindsay and Police Officer John M. Boyes. They were soon followed by other automobiles containing the newspaper representatives and camera men. The latter were equally as interested in the unravelling of the mystery and work with zest.


Incident of the Day

The newspaper men had a conversation with Luella Smith but her remarks were in the main along the line of the story already published. She passed the lie direct to Attorney Golden of San Francisco, whom she said had visited her tent on the day previous, representing that he was a San Francisco newspaper man. She became quite angry with him and said he had tried to get something out of her. He came in for a share of criticism from the newspaper men, too. He denied the allegation.


– Press Democrat, February 13, 1910
Another Arrest Made at Sanitarium Grounds

Deputy Game Commissioners A. F. Lea and B. H. Miller made an arrest at Burke’s Sanitarium Sunday afternoon. The man taken into custody is C. M. Bent, and is a guest at the sanitarium. He is charged with having trout out of season.

Bent put in part of Sunday in whipping Mark West creek in the vicinity of the Sanitarium for trout and when the sport ceased in the afternoon he had landed five nice specimens. While deputies Lea and Miller were beneath the residence of Alfred Burke searching for any clews [sic] to the dynamiting mystery, Bent came out of the creek bed with his fish.


– Santa Rosa Republican, February 14, 1910
Formally Placed Under Arrest Sunday Afternoon at Sanitarium Near This City-Released on $20,000 Bail
District Attorney Lea Makes Statement Regarding Case

Early Sunday afternoon, and shortly after Sheriff Smith’s return from Oroville, where he went several days ago under instructions from District Attorney Clarence Lea to investigate certain matters in connection with the mysterious dynamite explosion at Burke’s Sanitarium, Dr. W. P. Burke, the well-known head of that institution was formally placed under arrest and charged with the attempted murder of Luella Smith and her infant child.

The story of the mysterious explosion has already been told in these columns, and is well known. About half-past nine on the evening of Saturday, February 5, the residents of Burke and vicinity were startled by a tremendous detonation. Investigation soon developed the fact that the explosion had occurred in the tent-cottage occupied by Luella Smith and her child, some three hundred yards from the main building. The woman was hurled from her bed and badly shaken up and otherwise injured, but not fatally. The child, which occupied a cradle at the foot of its mother’s bed, escaped unhurt.

A great hole in the tent-cottage floor, and another in the side of the flimsy structure, evidenced the force of the explosive that had been used. Later a fuse some three feet in length was found near by. The woman claimed that an attempt had been made to murder her, but this charge was met by the assertion that she had attempted suicide while suffering from despondency, the result of her social ostracism. When questioned, she made the direct charge that Dr. Burke was the father of her child, and says this is a possible reason why he or someone connected with the institution might like to see her done away with. Dr. Burke met the charge calmly, and dismissed it with the remark that it was merely a vagary, the result of a disordered mind.

Several years ago Luella Smith first came to Burke’s Sanitarium as a patient. Upon regaining her health, she remained there in the capacity of assistant nurse, also performing certain other services as occasion required. She finally left the Sanitarium, and after the earthquake met Dr. Burke in Oakland, where he had established temporary offices. According to her story, their relations there became intimate. Early in February of last year she again returned to the sanitarium, where she gave birth to a child. The acquaintanceship of Dr. Burke and Luella Smith is admittedly of long standing, the Smith and Burke families having been friends years ago in Lake county. It is Dr. Burke’s contention that his relations with Luella Smith have at all times been only those of friend and benefactor the result of his long-standing acquaintance with her family, which began while she was a mere child.

The Specific Charge

The specific charge contained in the complaint is “using an explosive with intent to injure a human being.” The language of the complaint is copied from Section 601 of the Penal Code and Sheriff Smith swore to the complaint.

Dr. Burke Not Surprised

When the officers went to the main sanitarium building and the quarters occupied by Dr. Burke, Police Officer John M. Boyes asked the doctor to step outside. He acquiesced very willingly and as he stepped outside Deputy Sheriff C. A. Reynolds walked up to him with the warrant in his hand.

Dr. Burke smiled and remarked: “I suppose you are going to take me this time,” and without apparent surprise.

“Yes,” replied Reynolds.

Dr. Burke walked inside and donned his overcoat and hat and in a few seconds had taken his seat in the automobile.

Attorney Golden, a relative of the Burke family, counseled him at every step–“Don’t talk, don’t talk”–this said to prevent his saying anything to the crowd of newspapermen who were on hand.

Even as the automobile started up, Golden clung to the step repeating his admonition to Dr. Burke: “Don’t talk, don’t talk.”

Brought to the Courthouse

From the sanitarium the automobile was driven rapidly to the courthouse. Quite a crowd had gathered to await the coming, a rumor having gone ahead that the arrest had been made.

The automobile pulled up in front of the Fourth street entrance to the big building, and Dr. Burke walked nimbly up the steps and went upstairs into the District Attorney’s office, where he was closeted with District Attorney Lea for a short time.

Justice A. J. Atchinson, on whose court the complaint was sworn out, was on had and fixed the bail at $20,000. Cornelius Shea, the well known local capitalist, and G. T. Watterson, a retired San Francisco contractor, who has made his home at Burke’s for the past six years, qualified as sureties. James W. Oates, Dr. Burke’s attorney, was present to attend to the preliminaries, which were quickly arranged. Had Dr. Burke required more sureties they would have been forthcoming. P. H. Noonan, president of the Noonan Meat Company, Mr. Crane and others were present for the purpose.

Returns to Sanitarium

After his admission to bail, Dr. Burke left the courthouse, accompanied by Attorney Golden (the latter having in the meantime made a rapid trip to town), Mr. Shea, Mr. Watterson and others. He then drove home.

Search Sanitarium Premises

In the meantime orders had been given for the searching of some of the offices in the building at Burke’s Sanitarium for any evidence that might be forthcoming…Nothing was found, however. A search warrant for the purpose was secured by Under Sheriff Lindsey.

A Dynamite Explosion

For some days there has been a discussion as to whether dynamite or giant powder had been used in the explosion. District Attorney Lea, when asked as to whether the investigation had settled this point, replied with assurance:

“It was a dynamite explosion.”


Burke Would Not Talk

Advised by his attorney, Dr. Burke had nothing to say to the newspapermen who approached him. His attorney, Col. James W. Oates, had nothing to say, either. Colonel Oates said he deemed it ill-advised for his client to say anything at all on the matter at the present time, particularly to exploit any matters in the newspapers.

Woman Hears the News

After the arrest of Dr. Burke and its first surprise people turned their thought to Luella Smith and her baby, the occupants of the tent cottage blown up in the dynamite explosion. On Saturday afternoon the two were moved from the sanitarium to the county hospital and they now occupy a room there under the care of County Physician S. S. Bogle, Matron Miss Margaret Lindsey and the nurses attached to the hospital staff. On Sunday it was learned that Miss Smith was making satisfactory progress towards recovery and that her injuries were less painful.

When told that Dr. Burke had been arrested the woman started and inquired if it was really true. She did not seem very much surprised. There is no doubt but that she became much attached to Dr. Burke in the years she had known him. She has repeatedly said so. To a newspaper representative the woman gave quite a long interview, in which she told again the details of the rude awakening on the night of the explosion. It is not thought that Luella Smith will have to remain in the hospital more than a few days, that is if she continues to improve as she is at the present time.

Newspaper Reinforcements

Several more representatives of the San Francisco newspapers arrived here on Sunday night to look after details in connection with the Burke story. It has been years since a local matter has attracted so much attention. But Dr. Burke and his institution are widely known throughout the state.


Draws Gun on Newspaperman

Eugene Maxwell, an employee of the Sanitarium who had been temporarily left in charge of the main gate to the grounds Sunday afternoon, drew a revolver upon a Press Democrat representative, who failed to heed his orders not to enter the grounds. The reporter took the young man and his gun, and walking down the road turned him over to Sheriff Smith, who took possession of the revolver and after receiving the comment of the reporter, released him.

Naylor’s Mysterious Call

Mention was made to the Press Democrat Sunday morning of the mysterious visit of Attorney Charles Naylor here Saturday night. It was for the purpose of taking Luella Smith’s deposition, which will probably be used in proceedings to compel Dr. Burke to contribute to the maintenance of the child, which she avers is his.

Arrest Caused Surprise

The news of Dr. Burke’s arrest caused considerable surprise here. In spite of the sensational articles that have been appearing in the San Francisco papers almost every day for the past week, it was recognized that from the evidence as given out by the authorities very little of a positive character had developed to connect Dr. Burke with the alleged crime.

It was, of course, known that an explosion had occurred in the tent-cottage of Luella Smith, and that unless she had fired the charge herself someone else had done so; but even assuming that the latter view was the correct one, this was not saying that Dr. Burke was the guilty party. In the opinion of those who had followed the case most closely, it was generally admitted up to Sunday morning that despite the efforts put forth by the authorities, no positive evidence had been brought out against the accused. It is assumed that the links missing until that time from the chain of evidence woven around the man now charged with attempted murder, have been supplied through the investigation carried on at Oroville during the past few days.

Important Institution Here

Since the establishment of Burke’s Sanitarium here some ten or twelve years ago, the institution has played an important part in the business life of the town. Nearly all the supplies used at the sanitarium were procured here, and a number of persons from this city have from time to time been employed there in various capacities. Patients from all parts of the Pacific Coast have been attracted to the sanitarium through the knowledge of the many successful cures wrought there, and in addition to the business resulting from the sanitarium itself, friends and relatives of those undergoing treatment have been in almost constant attendance at the hotels and rooming houses, traveling back and forth as occasion required, and by such means as their inclination or fancy suggested. A number of these have purchased property and settled here. Dr. Burke and his associates have many friends here who will sincerely regret the fact that he has been called to face the serious charge now confronting him, and who hope that he may be able to clear himself of complicity in it.

– Press Democrat, February 14, 1910

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