I see Gaye Lebaron has revisited the story of Dr. Willard Burke, the famous Sonoma county physician convicted of attempting to murder a young woman and her baby by blowing them up with TNT (Explosive act was ‘Crime of the Century’, June 24, 2017). I appreciate her nod to this journal where my ten-part series on the Burke case can be found – although it’s a bit of an academic exercise, as the Press Democrat rarely publishes a URL from local businesses, organizations or otherwise non-PD sources. (Don’t believe me? Visit the PD web page and search for “http”, “www” or any other common part of an internet address.) That’s a particular shame with this story, as the series offers lots to explore beyond the sordid tale of the 60 year-old Love Doctor and his dynamited lover. It’s also an unusual whodunnit mystery and tense courtroom drama; beyond that, the Burke case has much to teach about the power of privilege along with gender bias.
THE BURKE MURDER CASE
THE BIG DEAL OF THE CENTURY
Always most interesting to me is that curious intersection where journalism and history overlap, and Lebaron’s recent article has several good examples, such as this: “… [District Attorney Clarence] Lea, embarking on his own political career, reconstructed the tent cabin in the courtroom, using boards and canvas with telltale rips and burns, and destroyed it with a pull on a rope at a dramatic moment in his summation.”
That was a truly memorable scene – but, uh, it didn’t happen. Nor did the prosecutor risk blowing up the judge and jury by setting explosives in a reconstructed tent and dramatically striking a match, as was claimed in the Press Democrat during the 1970s. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t even a tent built in the courtroom at all (details of what really went on are below).
What’s more important is that these goofs show how it’s always important to go back to the original source material. The facts that came out during Burke’s trial were first eclipsed by what supporters said to make the doctor into a sympathetic character, and then the whole story became larded in myth as it was retold and retold again.
Yet the Burke case offers a rare opportunity to examine events in extraordinary detail, as the PD coverage of the six week trial during 1910-1911 documented everthing that happened in court, including much verbatim testimony. Go back and read their excellent journalism and discover why the jury convicted him after only about two hours of discussion.
But Burke had no shortage of friends in Sonoma county, as seen by the hubbub surrounding his 1910 arrest; he was a well-known, likable and charismatic fellow who was a major employer around Santa Rosa, bringing lots of money and attention to the area. Many well-heeled visitors enjoyed his upscale sanitarium – his obituary singled out Leonard Howarth, as did Gaye Lebaron’s new article.
The myth-making likely has roots in the petition drive of 1912-1913, which began shortly after the state Supreme Court turned down Burke’s final appeal. The petitions for a governor’s pardon seems to have their own fog of fuzzy facts; the Press Democrat reported on March 16, 1913 that “nearly fifteen thousand” had been collected – but four days later, the PD reported it was “signed by something like 50,000 persons.” The paper did not explain how the rolls supposedly ballooned over 300 percent almost overnight.
By the time Burke died in 1941 the narrative had shifted entirely in sympathy to Burke. Where the petition pleaded for clemency because he was old or had suffered enough/atoned for his deeds, Burke’s obituary in the Feb. 1 Press Democrat transformed him into a victim. Anyone reading that might think the true ‘Crime of the Century’ was actually the cruel and unjust persecution of the saintlike doctor.
“The story of Dr. Burke is a story of a lifetime of unselfish service in the interest of health, colored by one incident which failed to shatter the faith of his hundreds of friends…” weeped the PD obit. His “sensational court fight” is dismissed in a single sentence as lead-in to a description of the petition drive. The only quote in the front page article is from a 1920s-era former governor: “I am still confident of his innocence!”
Yeah, obituaries almost always accentuate the positive and put lipstick the dearly departed’s blemishes – but what the PD offered thirty years after his conviction was mostly the sort of “untruth” drawn straight from Orwell’s 1984. “Dr. Burke’s work in the field of health has been an important contribution to the community and will be remembered long after other events are forgotten.”
Sorry, but I don’t think a premeditated attempt to murder an 11 month-old baby is casually an “other event” so easily overlooked. Nor do I like the modern implication that courtroom theatrics – which didn’t even happen – helped lead to his conviction. Burke was unquestionably guilty as hell and I’ll go one step further: That man was as close to being pure evil as anyone I’ve ever found.
Read the original coverage: Either via conspiracy or through intimidation of one of his employees (probably his sister-in-law), Burke intended to murder his mistress and her child because it appeared she was about to sue him for paternal child support. He could (and should) have been also charged with obstruction for initially trying to shoo away investigators, and then for a second count of attempting to murder the woman when he left a lethal dose of arsenic in an unmarked container for the attending nurse to innocently apply to her wounds. That’s a whole bucketful of premeditated awfulness.
The details concerning the tent-related evidence can also be confusing unless the original Press Democrat coverage is read. About a week after the explosion, a deputy went to the scene and took the section of the tent torn by the explosion, which was mounted on a frame and shown to the jury at the beginning of the trial. The defense protested the entire tent should have been preserved.
A couple of weeks into the trial, a PD headline stated, “Presentation in Court of Shattered and Scorched Remnants of Tent House.” The original article made it clear the “tent house” in question was an identical structure constructed at a Santa Rosa quarry, where District Attorney Lea and an explosives expert attempted to recreate the crime. Their first effort fizzled because of bad dynamite, but the next experiment reportedly created exactly the same pattern of damage as the attempted murder explosion. Again, the jury saw fragments of shredded canvas, not the whole tent.
Yes, Clarence Lea’s closing argument was powerful, but according to the original PD coverage, it was just verbal fireworks concerning the dynamite: ‘”…much-needed evidence had been destroyed,’ cried Lea in a dramatic manner as he suddenly turned and faced the aged defendant. ‘But it was destroyed on the night of February 5, a year ago, by this defendant when he applied his match to the fuse beside the tent-cottage in which Lu Smith and her child lay peacefully sleeping.’”
Among other interesting bits in Lebaron’s recent offering is that she writes victim Lu Etta Smith was “known locally as ‘Crazy Lu.'” That phrase doesn’t appear at all in the original coverage and is another tweak which apparently first popped up in the Press Democrat during the 1970s.
Smith was inarguably eccentric and had many fringe beliefs, but so did Dr. Burke; much came out at the trial about the screwy metaphysical ideas they shared. Singling her out as the only “crazy” one follows the black-and-white narrative Burke and his followers pressed hard to spread. As I wrote earlier in the “Doctor of Love” chapter, “even in the first hours after the explosion, Burke and his supporters were furiously spinning that Smith was insane. She was suicidal, they said, and had threatened to drown the baby. During the trial Burke’s lawyer offered hours of hearsay testimony that portrayed Smith as loopy and likely clinically schizophrenic.”
But Lu Etta was never shown to be a danger to herself or anyone else – all she wanted was for Burke to admit paternity and pay child support. She made a half-hearted attempt to pursue a civil case against him for the murder attempt(s) and harm to her health, which is remarkable considering her financial situation was desperate. Nearly 40 with no education past grade school and no particular skills, she spent the years after his conviction seeking public aid and living at the Oakland YWCA, always begging the wealthy doctor to support his child. A few more articles about Lu Etta Smith’s pursuit of justice are transcribed below (don’t miss the one when she visits him in San Quentin as he hides in his cell, refusing to see her).
It appears she lived with her son Willard in Oakland for the rest of her life, sometimes listing herself as a “housewife” officially and sometimes not mentioning any job at all. She died on New Year’s Day, 1950, about nine years after Burke. Son Willard Phillip Smith apparently never married, had four years of college and worked as an accountant for the WPA, then as a librarian the rest of his life. He died in 1984.
Then over three-quarters of a century after the night of the explosion, an odd little coda to the story appears in the Press Democrat. It was a tiny ad from the “Bureau of Missing Heirs,” a now-defunct company that fished for relatives of dead people whose bank accounts and other assets had been transferred to the state. The ad appeared only once and apparently only in the PD. It wasn’t a lot of money – it was roughly the equivalent of an average family’s income back in 1910. Still, it was a hell of a lot more than Lu Etta ever saw from the monstrous doctor.
|Press Democrat ad, July 2, 1987|
MAY EVICT MISS SMITHWoman Wants Money Assistance from Dr. Burke
Regarding the proposed eviction of Miss Lu Etta Smith from her lodgings, the San Francisco Chronicle has the following in its edition of Monday:
With but $2 remaining in her purse and an order from the owner of the little Cragmont cottage in which she now resides that she must pay him $60 rent or vacate his premises immediately. Lu Etta Smith, complaining witness in the dynamiting case which caused Dr. Willard P. Burke of Santa Rosa to go to prison for dynamiting the tent in which she and her infant boy lived, has made a final appeal through Clarence F. Lea, district attorney of Sonoma county, to secure sufficient funds from Dr. Burke so that she can go back to Maine, where Professor Horatio W. Dresser of Harvard University has promised to take her as a pupil in the study of “New Thought.” Miss Smith denies all statements that she will not work, claiming that she is desirous of securing any kind of honest work she is strong enough to pursue.
“It is because I have spent many years in the study of the doctrines of new thought, and because I am strong enough to become a professional healer, that I called for aid from the doctor to go east,” claimed Miss Smith yesterday. “If Dr. Burke will only assist me, and above all, acknowledge the child, I will leave the state immediately and do all in my power to secure him a pardon. But until he recognizes the little boy, my utmost energy will be spent in preventing his release.”
District Attorney Lea Monday denied that he had received any communication from Miss Smith regarding the securing of assistance for her from Dr. Burke.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 3, 1912DR. BURKE REFUSES TO ASSIST LU ETTA SMITH
SAN FRANCISCO, July 15.—The failure of Lu Etta Smith, the plaintiff in the dynamiting case against Dr. Burke at St. Helena, to force Dr. Burke to grant her money to go East, where she intended to take up the healing of disease by mental treatments, has resulted in her taking a position as a nurse in this city. Miss Smith, up to Friday, has been occupying the cottage of W. A. Allen at 20 High Court avenue, Berkeley. Forced to vacate on account of inability to pay the rent, she left for San Francisco, telling no one of her destination, as she claims she is to begin life anew.
Up to last week she lived in hopes that her petition through her attorney to Dr. Burke, demanding that he recognize the child and grant her an allowance for its support, would be granted. But when she received the news last Monday that all such attempts would be futile, she decided to take up her old occupation, and become a nurse.– Sacramento Union, July 16 1912LU SMITH VISITS DR. BURKE
Without announcing that she was going or giving any name Lu Etta Smith on Sunday visited San Quentin and asked to see Dr. Burke. When he reached the office and saw who wished to speak to him he fled to his cell and could not be induced to come out. Miss Smith sent message after message to him and finally she wrote a note asking aid for the child, if he would do nothing for her. She says she is sick and in need of money and unless he aids her the child will die of starvation. Dr. Burke has made no replies.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 20, 1912LU ETTA SMITH APPLIES FOR AID
Oakland, March 21.—Lu Etta Smith, who, nearly five years ago, was the object of an alleged attempt on the part of Dr. Willard P. Burke of Santa Rosa to dynamite a tent in which she and her infant child were asleep on the grounds of the Burke sanitarium and for which crime the doctor is now serving a term in San Quentin prison, is again in great distress caused by the depletion of her finances.
Accompanied by her child, which she declared is a son of Dr. Burke, she has applied for aid from Alameda county under the provisions of the Mothers’ Pension Act. The matter, which was taken up with the county expert, will probably be unproductive of Miss Smith being given any material assistance under the Mothers’ Pension Act.
She applied for “half-orphan” aid, but her case does not come under the provisions of the act, the authorities declare. Miss Smith has been living in Berkeley, where friends interested in her case cared for her. At one time she became interested in several university courses with the Intention of fitting herself for a position where she could support herself and child after she had made vain attempts to gain support from Dr. Burke’s estate.– Press Democrat, March 22 1914
LU ETTA SMITH SEEKS WARRANT
OAKLAND, May 7– Miss Lu Etta Smith, who came into public notice several years ago when she charged Dr. W. P. Burke, head of a sanatorium at Santa Rosa, with attempting to kill her and her child, appeared before Prosecuting Attorney Ezra Decoto this afternoon and asked for a warrant charging the doctor with failure to provide for a minor child. The matter was taken under consideration by Decoto, who will look up the law.– Santa Cruz Evening News, May 7, 1915
WANTS DR. BURKE TO PROVIDE FOR CHILD
Miss Lu Etta Smith, heroine of the sensational episode that attended the alleged attempt of Dr. W. P. Burke to kill her and her child in 1910 at Santa Rosa, is living at the Oakland Young Woman’s Christian Association building and is making desperate efforts to support her 7 year-old son, Willard, whom she has always claimed was the offspring of Dr. Burke. Hindered by ill-health Miss Smith has found the road a stormy one, and she has arranged to take legal steps to force Dr. Burke to contribute to the child’s support.
Dr. Burke is with his wife at his mine at Hurlton, in Butte county, and has no property in his own name through which his alleged victim may collect a judgement. She has retained as her attorney, Marguerite Ogden, who said Monday that nothing could be done in the matter until Dr. Burke was “financially responsible.”– Petaluma Courier, March 9 1916