San Francisco's Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns

San Francisco's Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns

San Francisco's Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns

San Francisco's Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns


San Francisco's Queen of Vice uncovers the story of one of the most skilled, high-priced, and corrupt abortion entrepreneurs in America. Even as Prohibition was the driving force behind organized crime, abortions became the third-largest illegal enterprise as state and federal statutes combined with changing social mores to drive abortionists into hiding. Inez Brown Burns, a notorious socialite and abortionist in San Francisco, made a fortune providing her services to desperate women throughout California. Beginning in the 1920s, Burns oversaw some 150,000 abortions until her trial and conviction brought her downfall.

In San Francisco's Queen of Vice, Lisa Riggin tells the story of the rise and fall of San Francisco's "abortion queen" and explores the rivalry between Burns and the city's newly elected district attorney, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown (father of the present governor of California). Pledging to clean up the graft-ridden city, Brown exposed the hidden yet not-so-secret life of backroom deals, political payoffs, and corrupt city cops. Through the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Burns, Brown used his success as a stepping-stone for his political rise to California's governor's mansion.

Featuring an array of larger-than-life characters, Riggin shows how Cold War domestic ideology and the national quest to return to a more traditional America quickly developed into a battle against internal decay. Based on a combination of newspaper accounts, court records, and personal interviews, San Francisco's Queen of Vice reveals how the drama played out in the life and trial of one of the wealthiest women in California history.


This book does not examine the personal, social, or moral implications of abortion, nor is it a study of the women who underwent the procedure. Those accounts have been written. However, to appreciate the intense struggle between the “Queen of Abortions” Inez Brown Burns and District Attorney Edmund “Pat” Brown, it is important to have an understanding of the progression of state and federal laws governing abortion in America during this era.

Even as Prohibition became the driving force behind organized crime, state and federal statutes, together with changing social mores, drove abortionists into hiding, opened the door to increasingly dangerous and sometimes lethal practices, and resulted in abortion becoming the third-largest illegal enterprise in the nation. the attempt to pass state laws regarding abortion began as early as the 1820s and culminated in 1873 when Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, succeeded in getting Congress to pass the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” which governed the procedure for most of the next one hundred years. According to historian Patricia Miller, what came to be known as “Comstockery” was significantly instrumental in driving abortion underground, leading to at least forty new anti-abortion laws between the years 1860 and 1880.

The affluent and racy 1920s led to a rise in the number of abortions with fees averaging from $50 to $1000. in her book When Abortion Was a Crime Leslie Reagan quotes an anonymous medical commentator of that decade who stated that abortion was widely practiced, discussed, and openly accepted by many who chose to overlook it and treat it as an “open secret.”

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