Unlocking History

Curious case of dynamiting doctor Willard Burke

Two photos of man with long beard and a photo of a woman with a baby.
Lu Etta Smith, with her baby Willard Burke, Jr., circa 1910, at left, and Dr. Willard Burke, center and right.

Willard Burke, a doctor with a popular health facility, turned to dynamite in 1910 to solve what he saw as a problem patient.

The Santa Rosa health retreat was the scene of an explosion February 5, 1910, nearly killing a mother and her 9-month-old baby. Investigators quickly turned their attention to the proprietor of the sanitarium – Burke. The aged physician claimed the woman was attempting suicide, but police soon discovered motive and means, all pointing to Burke.

Scandal at the sanitarium

Burke established his sanitarium in 1896 on the site of a colony called Altruria, a semi-religious sect. The Burke sanitarium was a family run enterprise including his wife and parents living at the property. His brother, Dr. Isaac Burke, served as the manager.

According to her version of events, Lu Etta Smith and the doctor had an affair, resulting in pregnancy and the birth of a baby boy. Rather than keep the situation quiet, Smith named her child after the doctor.

The sanitarium was described as “a rather peculiar colony of health-seekers, with a tendency to mix ‘new thought,’ ‘higher life’ and ‘spirituality’ with ‘(mechanic) therapy’ treatments,” reported the Sacramento Union, Feb. 15, 1910.

On the evening of Feb. 5, 1910, Smith’s tent-cabin exploded.

“(Smith) was a pensioner at the sanitarium. Burke declared he felt sorry for the woman (so out of a sense of charity), kept her at his sanitarium. (Smith said) Burke was the father of her child, which she had named Willard Burke, Jr. At times she publicly declared Burke to be the father and thrust the baby into his arms in the presence of patients. (At night,) dynamite was set off under the tent house occupied by Smith and her baby, but they escaped serious injury,” reported the Morning Press, Nov. 30, 1910.

Clues, evidence implicate doctor

Investigators discovered Dr. Burke owned mines near Oroville. It wasn’t difficult information to uncover since the local newspaper noted the trip in their society column.

He traveled to his mine Dec. 20, 1909, “and obtained six sticks of dynamite and three feet of fuse, with caps attached, from Thomas Riley, one of the miners employed there,” according to the Sacramento Union, Feb. 15, 1910. “Dr. Burke asked (Riley) many questions regarding to the use of the explosive and how to attach the fuse and caps. Dr. Burke was not satisfied until Riley had demonstrated to him how to use the dynamite by preparing and exploding a charge. Riley, declared (Butte County) Sheriff Chubbuck, asserted that Dr. Burke carried the dynamite, fuse and caps away with him.”

According to reports, four days before the explosion, the doctor returned to the mine and told Riley he’d successfully used the dynamite to remove stumps at the sanitarium.

“Dr. Burke (told police) he had never handled the explosive and dynamite had never been on his place,”  reported the Morning Press, Nov. 30, 1910.

Attorney Hiram W. Johnson was retained by Dr. Burke in early 1910 to defend him against the charge. Johnson ran for governor, was elected, and stepped aside as the defendant’s attorney but it wasn’t the end of Johnson’s involvement with Burke’s case.

Smith was conflicted over the case. When she learned of Burke’s arrest, Smith wept and said she “still loved him.” While awaiting trial, Smith tried to visit Burke in jail, but was blocked by Massena Burke, the doctor’s wife.

Victim vanishes before trial

Lu Etta Smith rests head on hand.
Lu Etta Smith, circa 1910.

Smith stayed in Berkeley with Reverend File and his family but before the trial began, Smith disappeared without a trace. One of Smith’s close friends immediately suspected Burke or his associates in the disappearance.

“Her absence is puzzling and know that she considered me as one of her close personal friends, I am surprised that she has not written. It looks as if she was being detained somewhere against her will,” Blanche File told the Colusa Daily Sun, May 13, 1910. “I believe she was not responsible for her actions while (at the sanitarium). If Lu Etta Smith has been spirited away, I believe Burke is (responsible).”

Months later investigators tracked her to Japan. Her travel expenses had been paid by a Burke associate.

“(Smith) was allowed to go to Berkeley to live at the home of Reverend W.F. File. She disappeared from there April 19, following a visit to her by Marion Derrig, a close friend of Burke,” reported the Morning Press, Nov. 30, 1910.

“(Smith) and her baby were traced to Japan, (traveling by) steamship. She returned to San Francisco in September. (Smith said) Marion Derrig had furnished her money to make the trip. A grand jury investigation of Derrig’s connection with the disappearance was made, but (there was no indictment).”

Paid her to leave the country

According to Smith, Derrig was a former patient of Burke’s and “asked her to write a letter exonerating Burke of responsibility both for the child and the dynamiting. This she refused to do but later she said the same woman handed her $500. She accepted the money and sailed on the (steamship). Before leaving, this woman came to her, she said, with some (blank) paper to which she asked Miss Smith to place her signature. In addition to the $500 was the promise of more money to be sent at regular intervals as long as she remained out of the (country).”

The blank paper was used to forge letters exonerating Burke, but as Smith indicated, she didn’t write them. Her signature was legitimate, but the contents of the letters were not. Why did she sign blank papers? She was told by Derrig the papers would be used to establish accounts with foreign banks so Burke could send her money while abroad.

When back in California, Smith was hidden in a police officer’s home until she could testify.

“I have seen Dr. Burke in his most tender moments,” she told the newspaper after his guilty verdict. “He was always kind to me and when I had to go on the witness stand and testify against him, I would dig the nails into the flesh of my palms. It’s all over now, however, and I must not talk so much. He must go to jail and I must live and suffer.”

After a lengthy trial, that went all the way to the state Supreme Court, his verdict and sentence were upheld in 1912. He was sent to San Quentin to serve a 10-year term.

Calls for clemency

“I hope to God that they’ll let me do my appointed work when I finally land in jail. I can show a whole lot of men a new way out of their own mistakes in life,” Dr. Burke said while sitting in a Sonoma County jail cell after he was found guilty, according to the Weekly Colusa Sun, Feb. 2, 1911. “I can lead them to better ways.”

He also spoke about the prosecuting attorney.

“(District Attorney) Clarence Lea is a fine boy,” he told the newspaper. “He fought me bitterly throughout this trial but I forgive him. He is simply doing his appointed work.”

Friends and former patients of Burke petitioned Governor Hiram Johnson to pardon the physician and allow him to return to his profession.

“Burke is serving a 10-year sentence at San Quentin having been convicted (for) attempting to kill Lu Etta Smith by means of dynamite,” reported the Press Democrat, March 16, 1913.

His original trial lasted 21 days, but appeals and requests for a new trial dragged on, reaching the state Supreme Court in 1912. The sentence and guilty verdict were upheld. He had already served one year of his 10-year sentence.

“If Burke is liberated, he will in all probability reopen his sanitarium and resume (his) practice. Patients from all over the Pacific coast used to come to the sanitarium for treatment,” reported the Press Democrat, March 16, 1913.

Using skills to help prison hospital

Burke wasn’t idle in prison. He assisted at the San Quentin hospital. When Leo Stanley was appointed resident physician in 1913, Burke was there to welcome him to his new post. Burke served as Stanley’s assistant for two years. 

“Since Burke has been confined in San Quentin, he has been a model prisoner,” reported the Press Democrat, June 20, 1913.

Burke was paroled in late 1915. Since he wasn’t allowed to practice medicine while on parole, he took a job as a laborer, cutting wood at a mine in Butte County.

Governor pardons Burke

On Jan. 26, 1916, Governor Johnson, who was briefly Burke’s attorney early in the case, pardoned his 65-year-old former client.

Supporting Burke’s pardon were:

  • State Treasurer Friend Richardson
  • Superior Court sentencing Judge Emmett Seawell
  • Prosecuting District Attorney Clarence Lea,
  • three of the convicting jury
  • State Senator W.H. Slater
  • as well as prominent California residents Rolfe Thompson, F.H. Kellogg and G.W. Libby.

“I believe that he has bitterly paid the law’s penalty,” the judge said.

Six years later, Governor-elect Friend Richardson, along with his wife and son, spent Christmas Day at Burke’s sanitarium.

“The Burkes are old-time friends of the governor and his wife, who came (following an) invitation to enjoy Christmas dinner with them,” reported the Press Democrat, Dec. 26, 1922.

“We came here to visit our old friends, the Burkes. I have to return immediately, but Mrs. Richardson will remain over here for a few days. We certainly were entertained at a wonderful Christmas dinner,” the governor-elect said.

According to the newspaper, “The governor-elect is in fine fettle and says his health was never better. This is not his first visit by any means at Burke (sanitarium), as through the years he has visited on many occasions.”

Dr. Burke passed away Jan. 31, 1941, at 91 years old.

What happened to Smith?

Lu Etta Smith was evicted from her cottage in Berkeley in 1912 for failure to pay her rent. Through her attorney, she petitioned for support to raise the child she claimed was fathered by Dr. Burke. He refused any financial help and denied he was the father. Smith became a nurse in San Francisco. She later applied for financial help, but her pleas were denied.

“Smith, who nearly five years ago, was (at the center of the Burke trial), is again in distress. 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. She applied for ‘half-orphan’ aid, but her case does not come under the provisions of the act, the authorities declare,” a newspaper reported at the time.

In 1918, she returned to Santa Rosa during a brief train layover. “She called at the office of the District Attorney at the court house while waiting between trains to return to the bay city,” reported the Press Democrat, May 9, 1918. “The child has developed into a big-sized boy since he was last seen here.” Smith receded from the limelight and her trail goes cold after 1918.

Others involved

Massena Ann Burke, the doctor’s wife, died in 1930 at 79 years old at the family home in Santa Rosa. She lived at the sanitarium with her husband until 1925, when she relocated to Santa Rosa to establish a home for the couple.

Hiram Johnson became a U.S. senator after serving as California governor.

Clarence Lea, the district attorney, earned statewide name recognition from the Burke trial and conviction. Elected to congress, he served from 1917 to 1949.

He previously served as District Attorney for Sonoma County from 1907 until 1917. In 1964, he died at 89 years old in Santa Rosa. 

Judge Emmett Seawell became a member of the state Supreme Court, dying only a few years before Burke.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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