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 this 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.