Crime of the Century put Sonoma County in spotlight

To truly appreciate the vagaries of history it helps to have a quirky sense of humor. Mike Von Der Porten qualifies.

Mike is the one who sent me an email a week or so ago after he read SMART’s Code of Conduct, presented in alphabetical order to prospective passengers of the long-awaited train.

Between “Drinking and Eating” (Allowed - with good manners, of course) and “Hover Boards” (Not Allowed - thank heaven), Mike found:

“Hazardous Materials: With the exception of oxygen for personal medical use, materials considered as hazardous by the U.S. Department of Transportation are not permitted on trains and platforms.”

He has no quarrel with that. None at all. But it did serve to remind him of a chapter of Sonoma County history that reads like a mystery novel - or maybe a romance novel gone awry.

“That seems,” he wrote, “to prohibit the actions such as that of Willard Burke, who just over 100 years ago carried, on the train from Oroville to Fulton, fuse and cap in the right pocket of his overcoat, dynamite in the left.”

“Good to know,” Von Der Porten adds, “SMART’s foresight will prevent us from being blown up in our tents.”

And “ka-boom!” we are headed back 107 years to an idyllic meadow where that transported dynamite went off.

A “blast from the past,” you might say.


IN 1910, DR. WILLARD P. Burke, a wealthy osteopath who owned a busy sanitarium just north of Santa Rosa, stood accused of setting a dynamite charge under the cabin where dwelt a woman and her infant son - a baby named Willard P. Burke Smith.

Both survived the explosion. The mother, LuEtta Smith - known locally as “Crazy Lu” - also survived Burke’s subsequent medical care, which included a salve containing dangerously high portions of arsenic that he concocted to treat her wounds.

Burke’s trial for attempted murder assumed epic proportions in the Bay Area, and to some extent, nationally. “Crime of the Century,” the San Francisco newspapers trumpeted. (In Santa Rosa that designation only lasted a decade - until three men were lynched in the Rural Cemetery for killing the Sonoma County sheriff.)

Part of the press interest was the politics involved in the case. Burke hired a progressive San Francisco lawyer named Hiram Johnson for his defense. Johnson, at the time, was a candidate for governor of California (later a U.S. senator and Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose vice presidential candidate). Johnson stepped away from the Burke case when he was, indeed, elected governor. But he comes back later in another role. Stay tuned.


A BIT OF BACKGROUND about Dr. Burke seems in order.

Born in 1850, Burke was 2 when his family came to Sonoma County. He became an enterprising physician in the late 1800s, treating patients in Napa and Lake counties before entering the sanitarium trade in earnest. His clientele expanded as Burke took advantage of a location on the railroad at Lytton Springs north of Healdsburg to bring in patients from the broader Bay Area.

In 1896 he and his wife Nessa moved to a half-finished hotel northeast of Santa Rosa on the road to the Mark West Springs resort. The property had a history already as the site of a pioneer gristmill and a short-lived Utopian community called Altruria, responsible for the incomplete hotel.

Here Burke welcomed people from all over the Bay Area who saw his newspaper and magazine ads offering to cure just about everything - lumbago, fistula, catarrh, neuralgia, insomnia and premature old age.

Eager patients suffering from any one of these maladies (perhaps all of them, in the case of the acute hypochondriac) filled the sanitarium on the banks of Mark West Creek. They paid handsomely for “fresh air and balmy sunshine,” as well as hot and cold water treatments and “internal and external Mechano-Therapy” (which, according to Wikipedia, means “exercise”). He also offered treatment involving electricity (the ads don’t specify in what form).


BURKE MADE A LOT of money at the turn of the 20th century, investing in a gold mine in Oroville as his expanding sanitarium attracted more and more wealthy clients, such as Leonard Howarth.

A Washington State industrialist confined to a wheelchair by paralysis, Howarth was enthusiastic enough about Burke’s treatment for pain that he moved to Sonoma County part-time and built a country mansion he called The Maples, which was just about where Larkfield is on current maps. When Howarth died in 1930 he left a considerable sum to the City of Santa Rosa. Howarth Park is named for him.

Despite his association with the rich and famous, Burke apparently kept in touch with old friends. LuEtta Smith had been a classmate of his younger brother in a Lake County grammar school. She was employed at the sanitarium after 1901, then moved to Yolo County. Jeff Elliott, in his Santa Rosa history blog, suggests that the doctor kept in touch and a relationship began.

When Smith showed up at the sanitarium pregnant, Burke cared for her. He let Smith and her new son, named for the doctor, reside in one of the tent cabins, all the while denying his paternity.

By 1910 the relationship was strained to say the least. It may have been for some time because in December 1909, Burke had made the rail journey from Oroville to Fulton with dynamite acquired from his mine in one pocket, and a fuse in the other.

Two months later, Smith’s cabin blew up.

A “Crime of Passion!” the headlines read. Clarence Lea, the young Sonoma County district attorney, listened to grand jury testimony and charged Dr. Burke with attempted murder.

The trial lasted six weeks, filling the hotels with reporters and the pages of The Press Democrat with column after column of verbatim testimony.

All the testimony seemed conflicting and dramatic. The judge granted permission to bring the infant Willard Burke Smith before the jury to check for resemblance to the doctor of the same name. And 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.

Burke was convicted in February 1911 and sentenced by Judge Emmett Sewell to 10 years in San Quentin. His lawyers appealed and Burke spent the first 14 months of his sentence in the county jail. Accompanied by deputies, he made occasional trips to his sanitarium to treat patients, including his brother, who was gravely ill.

When the California Supreme Court denied his appeal in 1912, Burke was transferred to San Quentin, where he remained until he was granted parole in 1915. He then returned to Santa Rosa to resume his medical practice.

Meanwhile petitions were being passed by his friends, some of them remarkably influential, asking that he be granted a full pardon.

There were 50,000 signatures gathered. Signers included the judge who sentenced him, members of the jury that convicted him, District Attorney Lea (who was running for Congress from this district, a position he won and held for 32 years), Friend Richardson, state treasurer and future governor, former state Sen. Louis Juilliard, Santa Rosa Mayor John Overton and former Sheriff Frank Grace.

In 1916, a full pardon was granted - by Gov. Hiram Johnson, who had once been his defense attorney.


BURKE MAINTAINED his Sonoma County practice into old age - a familiar figure in his black cap, long coat and very long, gray, wizard-like beard. He died in Santa Rosa in 1941.

So, from a sensible warning on SMART’s website, we gather a bountiful harvest of history, with much to ponder on, including health - both mental and physical - criminal justice, most assuredly politics, and how much smarter SMART is than the train that brought the dynamite home with Dr. Burke.

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