If Dr. Burke wasn’t guilty of attempted murder, he sure as hell acted like he was guilty of something.

Earl Edmunds, a 19 year-old orderly at Burke’s Sanitarium, testified that he saw the doctor shortly before the blast. “I noticed Dr. Burke appeared to be very nervous when he first came by the card room and was still nervous when I saw him in the hallway,” he told the jury. “There was no one with him when I saw him the second time. He was walking slowly and was twitching his beard nervously.” When the explosion was heard a few minutes later, Edmunds ran outside and saw Burke coming towards him. “I guess that girl has done it,” Burke remarked. The intended victims, a woman and her infant child, survived but Burke did not seem terribly concerned about them; as people gathered around the scene of the crime, he called out, “Boys, did you find anything?”

The 1910-1911 trial of Dr. Willard Burke brought the national spotlight to Santa Rosa as no other event in the 20th century, except for that earthquake a few years before. Dr. Burke was wealthy and well-known and Lu Etta Smith, the woman he allegedly tried to kill with dynamite, insisted he was the father of her child. There’s a rundown of many of the people mentioned here in the previous article, or if you don’t have the foggiest about it at all read the introduction to this series.

As the trial entered its second month, the case against Burke appeared stronger every day. It was known from the Grand Jury indictment, for example, that six weeks prior to the crime, Burke visited a mine he owned and came away with six sticks of dynamite, which he claimed were for blowing up a boulder at the Sanitarium. When investigators arrived the day after the dynamite explosion however, Burke lied to them. He told the Santa Rosa police chief no dynamite had been used on the property for fourteen years and told the sheriff’s office that he would ask around, but dynamite hadn’t been used for “a number of years previously.” He also informed Undersheriff Lindsay that dynamite could be purchased at the general store in nearby Fulton, implying the victim herself had purchased it for the purpose of suicide.

The jury also heard contradictory testimony about her injuries. The doctor who initially treated her wounds described powder burns, fine lacerations on her face and a gash on an arm – not trivial, but not appearing life-threatening, either. Yet when first asked about her condition by the District Attorney, Burke said he believed she would soon die.

His prediction almost came true. In the days following the explosion, Dr. Burke, a widely-respected physician, demanded that Lu Etta Smith remain at his Sanitarium under his personal care. Her health grew steadily worse. The arm wound was smelling gangrenous and developed “proud flesh” (the runaway growth of bright pink tissue that develops before a scab forms). During a visit to Lu Etta’s bedside, District Attorney Lea noticed powder from a little box was spread over the wound when dressings were changed. Curious, he poured a bit of the powder into an envelope and sent it to a San Francisco chemist. The compound contained seven percent arsenic. Lu Etta was moved to the County Hospital, away from Burke’s control.

This was a bombshell: It appeared Burke – having failed to kill Lu Etta by blowing her up – was covertly trying to finish the deed by poisoning her. But this evidence had not been revealed to the Grand Jury, so Burke had been indicted only on the dynamiting charge. Why?

District Attorney Clarence Lea’s prosecution was brilliant in all respects, including not seeking to indict Burke with a second count of attempted murder by poisoning. Laypersons knew arsenic was bad stuff, but it’s not as plainly a murder weapon as, say, firing off a stick of dynamite next to someone’s head. The way the arsenic angle played out at trial vindicated Lea’s hesitance; even the Press Democrat – which had produced uniformly excellent trial coverage – was confused, and ran a headline stating, “DR. BOGLE SAYS SYMPTOMS OF POISON WERE LACKING.” This shows a misunderstanding of Dr. Bogle’s testimony: What he primarily said was that a seven percent solution was close to the minimum fatal dose.

Another local physician, Dr. James Jesse, testified the arsenic could have been toxic, particularly since it would have been absorbed easily through the open wound and its effect intensified by repeated applications under bandages. The defense countered with Dr. E. S. Howard, chief surgeon of the San Francisco Emergency Hospital, as an expert witness. He told the court that arsenic was a good antiseptic although he wouldn’t use the stuff himself. In cross-examination by Lea, according to the PD, the doctor “admitted that arsenic is known as one of the ‘secret poisons.’ He said it leaves its traces, however, if one knows where to look for them which is in the bones and in the liver.” The paper ended with the wry observation, “Dr. Howard made a better witness for the prosecution than for the defense, everything taken into consideration.”

A modern Internet search, by the way, turns up that arsenic was sometimes used to treat proud flesh in the Victorian era, although probably not in the nearly lethal quantities found in Burke’s potion. But despite the potential of the arsenic angle to show Burke’s determination to kill his alleged mistress, it became yet another blind alley in the trial. And Lord knows there were enough irrelevancies heard in that court; there was one front page headline about a “farce marriage” between Burke’s head nurse and an Army doctor that took place over a decade earlier, and which has no bearing on the case at all. Honestly, following some of this trial coverage is a bit like enjoying the plot of a Dickens novel until it suddenly dawns on you that ten minutes were just wasted in reading about a minor character’s peculiar fondness for chickens.

After the New Year’s break, the prosecution dropped another another courtroom bombshell: They had recreated the crime. “The remains of a tent constructed and furnished in all respects like the one occupied by Lu Smith on the night of the explosion, and which had been blown up with dynamite in accordance with the theory of the crime as held by the prosecution, was brought into court and bit by bit offered in evidence,” the Press Democrat reported.

Thos. Riley, a miner formerly employed by Dr. Burke at the latter’s Kanaka Peak property, was called to the stand. He told of having performed an experiment a few evenings before at the request of the District Attorney, the object of which was to test a theory of the prosecution regarding the crime…

…there had been two experiments, and the first had not been a success, owing to the fact that the dynamite used was not “sensative,” [sic] only a portion of it exploding…

…It was left for Sheriff Smith to relate the result of the second experiment and tell what it was all about. He told of the construction of a tent at Maroni’s stone quarry near this city which was in all essential respects the counterpart of the one occupied by Lu Etta Smith on the night that her tent cottage at Burke’s was blown up. [He] told how it had been equipped with the same kind of furniture with a lamp and a clock, and how a pasteboard box and two blocks of wood had been placed in the bed so that when covered over with the blankets they resembled a lay figure; and last but not least he told how the dynamite had been hung on the outside and against the tent by means of a string fastened to the upper edge of the wall, and fired from a three-foot fuse of make similar to that alleged to have been used at the time Lu Etta Smith [illegible microfilm].

When it came to showing the results of the explosion, the jurymen [and] spectators that were present in the courtroom were treated to an ocular demonstration. One by one the various objects and pieces were brought in, shown to the jury, identified and put in evidence. Judged by this tent, the effect of the explosion appears to have been almost identical with that which occurred at Burke’s Sanitarium on the evening of February 5, 1910.

And with that, the prosecution rested its case.

Illustration from the Oakland Tribune, February 14, 1910      (CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

The defense lawyers began by teasing that yes, Dr. Burke would take the stand and testify – but first they had to prove to the jury that Lu Etta Smith was crazy. Really, really, crazy.

Defense Attorney Rollo Leppo told the court they intended to call a large number of witnesses from Lu Etta’s past to show she was periodically insane, irresponsible and “notoriously” immoral: “…[H]er mind was blind, or like that of the drunken man, incapable of perceiving correctly…A harmless conversation which to a sane mind would be perfectly clear and reasonable might take on a different complexion in the brain of a maniac…”

The District Attorney understandably objected to this effort to turn the criminal trial into an ad hoc sanity hearing for the victim, and surprisingly, Superior Court Judge Seawell said there was no legal precedent preventing it. After considering it over the weekend, Seawell ruled the defense could introduce testimony on her mental condition, but not immorality unless it might relate to paternity of the child.

Thus over the next five days the jury and courtroom spectators were entertained with the further odd doings and eccentric beliefs of Smith. They learned she would sometimes come into the Sanitarium kitchen, look up at ceiling and “whistle and holler.” Witnesses described seeing her “not in a very ladylike position,” meaning parts of her arms or legs were exposed. Another said she had a “diseased imagination” and believed “if we allowed ourselves to be raised to a high enough state of being we could understand the birds when they sang.” And if the court hadn’t already had its fill about the “immaculate conception” of her child, there was this:

Lu Etta Smith told witness that her child was born of an astral conception. “She said a great White Light spread over and enveloped her body, and she knew when she conceived, and that she had never had sexual intercourse with Dr. Burke, and if she had she would be proud to acknowledge it,” said the witness.

But curiously, only one witness said they heard Lu Etta Smith threaten suicide. And that witness was Dr. Burke’s sister.

The only significant physical evidence offered by the defense were four sticks of dynamite that were supposedly the same explosives Burke brought back from his mine. Testifying about the dynamite was another brother, Dr. Isaac Burke, whose San Francisco office the Sanitarium Dr. Burke shared when he visited the city twice a week to see patients. Dr. Isaac told jurors he came up to the Sanitarium the day after the explosion, and that night buried the dynamite in the sandy bed of Mark West creek. He returned about two months later and dug it up, giving it back to his brother who handed it over to his defense attorneys. Asked why he concealed vital evidence from the Grand Jury, the PD reported Dr. Isaac said the object of the secrecy was to “keep it quiet. I did not think the Doctor was guilty of anything, and thought if I said anything about the dynamite there would be a great howl about it.”

So except for Dr. Burke’s upcoming testimony, that was about all the defense had to offer; the case hinged on the jury believing Lu Etta was insane enough to attempt suicide – and likely kill her baby as well – by blowing herself up. The only other line of defense came from a parade of miners from Burke’s mines and acquaintances brought down from the Sierras. All of them said the same thing: Thomas Riley – the miner who had participated in the crime scene recreation and testified he had given Burke six sticks of dynamite, not four – was a lying sonofabitch who wouldn’t tell the truth to save his rotten soul. During their long train ride to the Bay Area paid for by the defense team they all had plenty of time to work up the expected level of bile.

There was one other mini bombshell in this phase of the trial: It seems that some of the witnesses who testified against Burke were receiving strange letters in the mail. Former Sanitarium bookkeeper Dillard and Dr. Hitt – and apparently others – received envelopes with just a sulphur match inside. It was probably supposed to look like a death threat from the Black Hand, which was then much in the news. But whatever the meaning, Judge Seawell told the jury to ignore such threats and turn over anything like that over to the court.

Read More


Two weeks into the Burke trial, testimony began sounding like dialogue from a crime novel – which is why the public couldn’t get enough of it.

The details of the 1910 crime were horrific enough: Dr. Willard Burke was charged with the attempted murder of his mistress and their infant child  – by blowing them up with dynamite. Interest in the crime was also high because Burke, owner of Burke’s Sanitarium (an upscale health spa) on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, was very wealthy, very well known, and hardly looked the part of a murderous adulterer; his grey beard stretched to his waist, making him appear even older than his 59 years. But once the trial began, his odd writings about using “various organs and functions” to commune with Life-God and obeying the “voice of Life” through “physical sensations” became known, another aspect of the good doctor’s bedside manner was exposed. Add in the equally nutty notions of the nearly-exploded victim Lu Etta Smith – that her child may have been sorta’ the result of immaculate conception – and the Sonoma County courthouse became the best show in town. The presiding judge banned minors from the courtroom, and had seat belts existed at the time, he would have ordered spectators to strap down tight for the bumpy ride.

But the free-love and metaphysical stuff flamed out (mostly) after that second week and the trial settled into a more familiar battle between a prosecutor and defense attorneys. Witnesses paraded to the stand to recall what they saw or heard or didn’t. What emerged from their testimony were a number of surprising clues. Even if you approach the crime as being an open-and-shut case that Burke was guilty of attempted murder, there certainly were others involved in the efforts to cover it up – and maybe were part of the crime itself. Squint at the clues a little closer and you might think there’s reasonable doubt Burke had a direct role in the event at all.
(RIGHT: Burke’s Sanitarium main building, 1912. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Newspaper and magazine readers around 1910 were crazy over murder mysteries like the Burke case. A great many people considered themselves armchair detectives able to solve crimes that stumped the experts, pouring themselves over testimony that appeared in the press looking for proof to confirm their theories. Months after the Burke verdict, readers were still sending essays to the Press Democrat presenting alternative versions of the crime. This was also the beginnings of the golden age of murder mystery writing; Arthur Conan Doyle had just re-relaunched his Sherlock Holmes franchise after a four-year hiatus and “The Mystery of the Yellow Room,” considered the first and possibly best “locked room” detective story was then being serialized in American papers. Probably everyone had read or heard about Mary Roberts Rinehart’s blockbuster bestseller, “The Circular Staircase,” which created the “old dark house” genre of mystery fiction, challenging the reader to solve a murder by naming the killer among a number of suspicious people gathered together at the scene of the crime.

One can argue that the Burke case fits the old dark house sanitarium model; there were about ten parties who worked there and might have had motivations to help with the crime or incriminate Dr. Burke:

*   ALFRED BURKE  Manager of the Sanitarium, although his duties seemed minimal and limited to opening the mail, operating the telephone and acting as postmaster for the occasional letter. The 41 year-old brother of Dr. Burke was also a deputy sheriff and handled all evidence before authorities arrived the morning after the explosion. Dr. Burke allegedly complained that he had supported his relatives for years and wished they would go away.

*   AGGIE BURKE  Alfred’s wife was apparently widely disliked at the Sanitarium. In an incident three months before the explosion she slapped or punched Dr. Hitt twice in the face in front of witnesses, allegedly while she was drunk. She emerged as a spokesperson for the family in the days after the explosion and repeatedly stated Lu Etta Smith was insane and had been attempting suicide with the dynamite before she lost her nerve at the last moment. Alfred and Aggie Burke were the first to reach the scene of the crime after the explosion.

*   DR. ADDISON W. HITT  A surgeon and respected authority on leprosy (working first at Indian leper colonies and later lecturing widely on the topic, including 1902 testimony to the U.S. Senate), Hitt was certainly overqualified to be an assistant physician at Burke’s Sanitarium. Hitt resigned a few weeks before the explosion and told the jury he left on good terms, but Burke’s defense attorney asked if it wasn’t true he vowed to “get even with the Sanitarium.” Hitt also denied he sought Dr. Burke’s permission to place the Sanitarium’s name on a patent medicine he intended to manufacture.

*   ABBIE SMITH  The head nurse at the Sanitarium was part of Dr. Hitt’s extended family, having moved to California with Hitt and his wife. She resigned shortly before Hitt left and was living at the Hitt residence in Berkeley at the time of the explosion.

*   DANIEL WARREN DILLARD  The bookkeeper at the Sanitarium had known Dr. Burke for fifteen years. While Burke was at his mine obtaining the dynamite, Dillard wrote him a gossipy letter about the incident between Aggie Burke and Dr. Hitt, emphasizing that he viewed Aggie’s “clever rascality” as a destructive force among the staff and patients alike. It was Dillard who initially alerted the sheriff’s office about the explosion, for which he was upbraided by Dr. Burke for “exceeding his authority.” Dillard quit soon thereafter.

*   EARL EDMUNDS  The 19 year-old nephew of Dillard’s wife was part of the Dillard household. Earl worked various jobs at the Sanitarium including duties of an orderly, and was chatting with a nurse when the explosion was heard. He quit the following day.

*   MRS. MARIAN DERRIGG  A confidant of Dr. and Mrs. Burke, she was seen with them in the months before and after the explosion. It was Derrigg who passed $750 to Lu Etta Smith for passage to Japan, after having her sign several sheets of blank paper that were mailed the District Attorney as typed confessions of Smith’s guilt in the explosion. It was said during the trial she had inherited $50,000 or $60,000 earlier that year and was negotiating with Dr. Burke for half interest in the Sanitarium. Her testimony was sought by both sides, but she disappeared before the trial began, only to resurface the day after closing arguments. “Derrigg” was almost certainly not her real name; she had also gone by the aliases of Pierce and Somerville, and had been supported for a number of years by salesman named G. R. Pierce who traveled between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

*   DR. HENRY F. DESSAU An osteopath and assistant physician at the Sanitarium, Dr. Dessau treated Lu Etta Smith’s injuries on the night of the explosion and testified they were not life threatening. Dr. Burke told him they didn’t need to bother authorities by reporting the incident, as an investigation could be handled internally.

*   MISS ADA CLARK A nurse who was washing dishes at the time of the explosion and had little to do with the court case aside from being “pretty and petite, more attractive possibly than any other of the female witnesses,” as the Press Democrat reporter described her. She was also the only witness (aside from Burke and Lu Etta Smith) to have her photo in the San Francisco Call.

Mysteries abound; it’s possible to sprout any number of plots from those seeds. Why were problematic relatives Alfred and Aggie Burke – at heightened risk of losing their sinecures – both the first on the scene of the crime to prevent the fire spreading to other tents? Why did the Hitt faction resign just before the explosion? Why did the Dillards leave soon afterwards and why did bookkeeper Dillard rush to notify the sheriff without authority?

(RIGHT: Ada Clark, the “pretty and petite” nurse who was the only witness to merit a photo in the San Francisco Call)

The defense lawyers repeatedly tried to suggest there was a conspiracy between a bunch of the employees, citing an evening in Berkeley when Hitt and Dillard, along with Ada Clark, Edmunds and Abbie Smith had what the defense claimed was a “meeting” and not merely a social get-together. The defense attorney suggested they anticipated soon gaining control of the lucrative operation, which was not entirely unlikely; Dillard testified that, “Dr. Burke said at one time that if his mine turned out well he intended to turn over the management of the Sanitarium to us three boys, meaning Dr. Hitt, Dr. Dessau and myself.” The defense also made much over Dr. Hitt racing back to the Sanitarium the day after the explosion, suggesting his purpose was an emergency confab with Dillard over taking control of the operations. Hitt’s withering reply: “I came to Santa Rosa, then, because I thought ‘I can save Lu Smith’s life.'”

Dr. Hitt did in fact believe Lu Etta’s life was at risk; he had received a letter from Dillard stating she was expected to die within a few days. But in the letter Dillard also urged Hitt to act fast and contact attorney Naylor to see if anything could be done to oust Dr. Burke if he was not otherwise suspected of the attack. “I believe between all of us we have enough to put him through, or at least break up his infernal damned crime,” Dillard wrote.

Dear Dr. Hitt;
Well, I am nervous. It has happened. Dr. B has been talking to everyone for the past week or so about Lu Smith threatening to blow herself up, and last night at 9:30 o’clock p.m. away it went, either a stick of dynamite or giant powder. My wife and I were in bed reading. We knew instantly what it was. Alfred and Aggie were the first to reach the scene and found the baby all right and Lu Smith miraculously alive and little hurt. Head is cut a little and left arm cut a little. Dr. B. was standing in the kitchen at the time. He was up there during the excitement after the explosion, and said, “Oh, yes; sometimes they get right up and do these things in their sleep–” silly talk. Was disappointed of course. They moved her to another tent.

Now Doc dear he says this morning that she has absorbed so much of the poison of the powder fumes that she will probably die within three or four days. Dr. Dessau and I are dubious about it. She is scarcely hurt at all. It has a bad color, his talk. Now can we all stand by and let this fellow finish her up. That’s what he means. They haven’t notified the sheriff’s office yet and they don’t intend to. Think I will do it anyhow. It should be investigated. I believe between all of us we have enough to put him through, or at least break up his infernal damned crime. I can’t remain here a moment longer than time to get out. Dr. Hitt something must be done. Why let him go on? I feel certain beyond every question of doubt he fired that powder and is disappointed; has even said he was sorry she didn’t “finish herself” as he puts it. This institution is rotten with crime and in the sake of humanity and in the sight of an Almighty God lets break it up. Tell Mr. Naylor and let’s act.

I saw Dr. B. last night at 8 a.m. about, going a dark road towards his tent, but little did I think then he could stoop so low as to try to commit murder. Do not write me here at all. You may phone me up if you like. If you write I may be gone and they would open the letter.
Yours in big haste;

Whether or not Hitt wanted control of the Sanitarium, he was certainly the most important player in the melodrama after Dr. Burke and Lu Etta Smith. Burke once confided to him that Lu Etta sometimes grabbed his long beard and he said he “had to choke her on two or three occasions.” (Presumably, this was not what the Doctor meant when he wrote the Life-God wanted us in “close touch with the Divine thought.”)

Hitt testified that drove his buggy to the Fulton train station and picked up Burke about six weeks before the explosion – and unknown to Dr. Hitt, Burke was then carrying the sticks of dynamite in his baggage. “On the road I told him that there had been quite a commotion at the Sanitarium on account of Lu Smith having telephoned to San Francisco to an attorney. I told him she had claimed that he was the father of her child. I asked him if it was true. ‘No,’ Dr. Burke replied. ‘I am not the physical father; I may be the spiritual father, as Lu Smith looks to my higher plane of mentality and believes that.'”

Hitt also suggested to him that Lu might be better off at an asylum or institution. Burke replied, “We can’t very well do that.” Burke also commented that Lu and her child would be “better off dead.”

A few days later on December 23, Dr. Hitt wrote to attorney Naylor, who was considered a friend by both Hitt and Burke. The letter read in part,

Conditions here are drifting closer to the dangerous shore, I fear, as Dr. Burke has repeated several times that Mrs. Lou Smith is trying to get some dynamite out of our cases and has threatened to blow herself and child to atoms. This does not sound just right to me and Miss Smith agrees with my opinion in the matter.

I trust no tragedy is to take place as it would be a terrible thing.

Dr. Burke sent Mrs. Lou Smith more money today, so it seems he is living in fear…

Dr. Burke wasn’t confiding his fears to Hitt exclusively; it seems in the weeks and months before the incident he was apparently blabbing to everyone who would listen that Lu Etta would someday turn up exploded. The crisis was always right around the corner; Dillard recalled he had upwards of a hundred conversations with Burke regarding her mental state, and he always said she was getting worse. But if he always planned to kill her, why the delay? Over six weeks passed between the time he returned from his mine with the dynamite and the attempted murder.

District Attorney Lea called to the stand Gilbert Boalt, who was staying at the Sanitarium the night of the explosion. He testified that he saw Dr. Burke the next morning and he appeared very nervous, with shaking hands and avoiding eye contact. Boalt knew why Burke was uneasy – at that moment, Lu Smith was on the telephone to attorney Charles Stetson Wheeler in San Francisco. Boalt knew this fact because he was there acting as a lawyer working for Wheeler.

Lea revealed the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case: It was the unexpected arrival of Boalt that caused Burke to panic and attempt to murder Lu Etta Smith that very evening. If she had retained Wheeler’s firm to bring a damage suit against him, all of Burke’s secrets were bound to tumble out. Wheeler was likely the most renowned attorney on the West Coast and prominent in state and national Republican party politics; he was the personal lawyer for Phoebe Hearst, a Regent of the University of California, and a leader in the group of prominent men who took charge of the reconstruction of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Dr. Burke must have realized he had no chance of mounting a defense against such a legal powerhouse. And surely Lu Etta was planning to depart with Boalt, possibly as early as the next morning.

With the court soon to adjourn for New Year’s, the District Attorney left the jury with a clear motive to ponder during their week off. And you can also bet every armchair detective following the trial sighed in deep satisfaction: The “A-ha!” moment was now revealed.

Read More


“It was easily the most stirring day so far in the unfolding of this famous case,” began the Press Democrat coverage of the third day of Dr. Willard Burke’s jury trial for attempted murder. “But we are promised more sensations, and therefore there are likely to be other even more eventful days.”

Yes, there were sensations aplenty at the Sonoma County courthouse that December, 1910, as the PD reminded us constantly in the headlines. “DAY OF SENSATIONS IN THE TRIAL OF DR. W. P. BURKE,” was at the top of the front page one day. “SENSATIONAL EVIDENCE GIVEN AT TRIAL OF DR. BURKE” read another headline, and buckets of ink were used to announce “EACH DAY UNFOLDS NEW SENSATIONS IN THE TRIAL OF DR. W. P. BURKE.” The articles found under these hyperventilated headlines weren’t quite as twitchy, but they certainly offered more colorful writing than previous trial coverage in the Press Democrat, which had been a model for restrained and impartial court reporting.

(RIGHT: Illustration from the February 26, 1910 Oakland Tribune)

This was also the third day of Lu Etta’s Smith testimony, and the article subhead teased, “Letters from Lu Smith to ‘Father Doctor’ Are Read.” Our new reporter – neither this person or the earlier one received a byline – commented, ” After listening to that weird 5,000 word document written to Lu Smith by Burke, introduced in evidence last Friday, people were naturally curious to have a sample of her style of letter writing.” (For more on “that weird document” and background on the case, see the previous article in this series.)

Every seat in the courtroom was filled within seconds after the door opening. “There were more women present, apparently deeply interested in the proceedings. Some of them smiled profusely when possibly some of the saddest secrets of the life of the woman on the witness stand were being laid bare.” Presiding Superior Court Judge Seawell opened the session by ordering the bailiff to block minors from the proceedings. “His Honor wisely ruled that the trial was not one conductive to the uplift of boys and girls not yet out of their teens.”

Dr. Burke’s Defense Attorney Rollo Leppo continued his cross-examination of Lu Etta. She denied threatening suicide or to kill her baby. She conceded she may have once said, “I wish I was dead,” but denied she added, “If I had the means I would soon make it a fact.” She denied “illicit relations with other men” and Leppo pressed hard to introduce questions that would suggest she was promiscuous. Judge Seawell shot down his attempts to ask about her “love imaginations,” including that supposedly she said she was “violently in love” with a professor at UC/Berkeley “whom she was communicating with via telepathy.” Lu Etta did testify that she had written several times to Wilson Fritch, “a lecturer on a ‘new thought’ said to incline to the teaching of Dr. Burke’s philosophy of love,” and arranged for him to speak at Burke’s Sanitarium. 

Leppo also failed to coax her into saying that she had a father-daughter relationship with Burke, and the letter below was read aloud. The Press Democrat reported, “While they were being read one could almost have ‘heard a pin drop’ in the courtroom.”

October 29th, 1909.

Dear Doctor Father:–
You dear old doctor, and so you have not been practicing deception on me that is only negative all this time. You have not loved me in that way at all. You have been your kind old self and I have misunderstood.

Well, now let us understand each other if we can, or I can. It is all right and I thank you very much. Of course you are old enough to be my father and that is what you have been and I am very grateful. But it is time I was going my way now and leaving you in peace.

It will be all right. Mr. Fritch wanted to marry me last summer, but on account of the child I thought I ought not to do it. But I see you care nothing for the child and so goodbye. I shall go to the city the coming week.

Goodbye more than father as ever.
Lu Smith

Leppo also read another letter from Smith written a couple of months after explosion. This note to Burke read, in part: “…I would like to go to Japan and if you can and want to raise the amount necessary, it seems to me it would be the best thing to do under the circumstances for all concerned. You intimated once that you might at some time give me twenty thousand dollars. If you will do that–a part now and the rest later–that will satisfy me and I will go my way and you go yours, and forget…Will meet you anywhere you desire to make a settlement.”

The sensational highlight of the day, however, was this exchange:

“Did you ever tell anybody that your child was born of immaculate conception?” asked Leppo.

“I did not,” said the witness warmly.

“Did you tell Miss Waldron that Dr. Burke was the father of your child but that it was immaculately conceived?”

“I told her that Dr. Burke was the father of my child but I did not tell her it was born of immaculate conception.”

“Did you not tell Miss Waldron that your child would be called the ‘New Christ?'”

The witness did not remember all this. She was questioned again concerning the conception of her child, and replied, qualifying previous answers:

“According to the general acceptance it was born of immaculate conception.” [I] do not think my child was immaculately conceived. In the East India Hindu religion, I do. I did not tell any one that I knew nothing about what happened at the time my child was conceived for twenty-four hours, and that I had been either drugged or hypnotized.”


“I have never said that my child was of immaculate conception in the generally accepted sense. I wish that understood.”

“I am sure,” said the witness, “that Dr. Burke wrote me a letter, saying that my child was of immaculate conception.”

“Where is that letter?” asked Leppo.

“It is destroyed.”

“Who destroyed that letter?” demanded Leppo.

“I did not,” quietly replied the woman.


The witness was asked to explain the Hindu idea of “immaculate conception, which denies the spiritual fatherhood and maintains there was a physical conception on a higher plane.”

“Dr. Burke said he believed that way,” insisted Miss Smith. “He said the child had been born on a higher plane and I believed what he said. I doubt it now.”

Leppo did not press for further explanation of what she believed (or what she thought Dr. Burke believed), for which the courtroom was probably deeply grateful. The Press Democrat tried to make some sense of her notions in a special sidebar, but ended up leaving Gentle Reader lost farther out in the weeds: “…Christ was the son of Joseph and Mary and the conception was both physical and immaculate, the latter on account of its spirituality. She at first believed the conception of her own child to have been immaculate, in the sense that it was upon this ‘higher plane,’ but later when Dr. Burke declined to properly care for the child she changed her mind…” Thanks, PD editor Ernest Finley, that was oh, so helpful.

(RIGHT: Illustration from the December 6, 1910 Oakland Tribune)

Lu Etta Smith returned to the stand the next day for her fourth and last day of testimony – and this time, brought her toddler to court and held him in her lap through most of the proceedings. “The youngster made many friendly overtures to those around him,” the Press Democrat reported. “…The baby smiled and chattered and waved its little hands at the crowd in the courtroom. The spectators smiled back at the baby, who seemed rather to like the attention being showered upon it.”

Much of her testimony that day concerned her trip to Japan and connections to the mysterious Mrs. Marian Derrigg, who gave Lu Etta money for the boat passage and had her sign several sheets of blank paper, onto which confessions of Smith’s guilt in the explosion were typed and mailed the District Attorney. (Mrs. Derrigg was highly sought as a witness but could not be found until the trial was over.)

Although evidence suggests Derrigg consistently acted as a bagman in Dr. Burke’s efforts to implicate Lu Etta in the explosion, Smith testified she considered Derrig a good friend and a confidant who even “once offered me money with which to sue Dr. Burke.” Amazingly, there were apparently no followup questions to that remarkable assertion.

Lu Etta said she wanted to go to Japan to avoid the trial, Derrigg gave her $750 total, including $500 on the day she sailed. Derrigg insisted she give the fake name of “Mrs. E. L. Long” for the steamer’s passenger manifest.











Once in Japan, Lu Etta testified she wrote three letters to Derrigg asking for money to support her and the baby, but received no reply. She also sent a cablegram to Dr. Burke, who also did not answer. Out of money, she willingly returned to the U.S. “She was asked whether she would have stayed in Japan had money been sent her. ‘I should have stayed,’ was the quiet reply.”

Thus ended Lu Etta Smith’s testimony, but there were other witnesses that day. Nurse Lois Clausen told the court that Dr. Burke spoke to her the morning after the explosion, saying: “It is too bad it did not kill her. She would be better off dead. The child would be better off with another mother.”

Mrs. Anna Macey took the stand and stated Lu Etta was at her boarding house in San Francisco for several months around the time Smith became pregnant. Dr. Burke was a weekly visitor, she said. The doctor’s visits were always about an hour long. “I know that he paid for her room and board while she was at my house. She had no income and I know she kept company with no other men while there. On the occasions of Dr. Burke’s visits he always went into her room.” She knew Lu was “in a delicate condition” when she left in Feb. 1909.

The landlady had also testified before the grand jury, and said she was surprised her observation of Lu Etta’s pregnancy weren’t mentioned in their report. She also told District Attorney Lea in court that Dr. Burke’s investigator showed up at her door soon after the explosion and misrepresented himself as working for the Sonoma County DA:

Mrs. Macey testified that Frank Golden, a lawyer of San Francisco, and a relative of Dr. Burke, called at her house after the explosion with Mrs. Golden, who is a stenographer, and represented to her that he was “from the District Attorney’s office.” Later when the conversation was half over, Mrs. Macey testified that Golden told her who he was.

Mrs. Macey further testified that when other people called subsequently and stated that they were “from the District Attorney’s office” she slammed the door in their faces, not caring for any further deception.

Read More