Turning Stones - George McKale


Mother-in-law killed in dental chair

Dr. Galen Burdell, a noted Marin County dentist, accidentally killed his mother-in-law, Mrs. James Black. The year was 1864. Let’s start at the beginning.

The scene is what is now Olompali State Historic Park, located between Novato and Petaluma on Highway 101. In 1843, Mariano Vallejo granted Camilo Ynitia 8,900 acres of land that included Olompali. Ynitia, born in 1803, was most likely brought into this world at the Coast Miwok village, Olompali, where his father constructed an adobe building.

In 1852, Ynitia sold most of his land to James Black for $5,200, retaining 1,480 acres. Black held a position as the Marin County Assessor in 1853 and was well respected throughout the territory.  He married Maria Augustine Saiz in 1843 and had two children, one of which was named Mary.

Young Mary, in 1863, married well-known dentist, Dr. Galen Burdell. Burdell had made his way to San Francisco the “long way around”, but first spent time in Brazil honing his trade. Though trained in dentistry in the “big apple”, he was lured by the gold rush in California.  Burdell worked as a surgeon on the ship Dunsbury which was making it’s way to the “city by the bay.” Burdell had invented a popular tooth powder sold in pharmacies throughout the Bay Area.

The wedding between the two was sensational. Love was in the air on that brisk October 6 day.  Mary’s father, James Black was so proud that he gave the Olompali lands to Mary as a wedding gift. Within a few short months, a sinister, sad, horrible twist of fate was to occur. Black’s wife, Maria Saiz, was having one of those agonizing tooth aches, so she solicited the help of her son-in-law, Galen.  Maria died on February 23, 1864, while Galen administered anesthesia.

Black remarried a year later, but was still rather distraught over the death of his wife Maria.  According to reports, he took to the bottle.  Mary and Galen were expecting and, as the story goes, this infuriated James Black. After his death in 1870, daughter Mary learned that she had been disinherited.

Black used to love riding over his property with his many horses, but since the dental chair debacle, continued to ride, only with an elevated blood alcohol content.  In 1869 he took a bad fall at the base of his skull.  Though he lived, he died a year later “in convulsions so terrible an onlooker thought he had been poisoned.”

Upon Black’s death, Dr. Burdell attended the reading of the will at what was known as the Pacheco House. The news of being disinherited hit Mary hard, and Dr. Burdell arranged for another reading at a hotel room in San Rafael. An attorney came in and read the will to Mary, so that she could hear the bad news first hand.  Once the attorney left the room, Mary reportedly grabbed the will and bit off her father’s signature, swallowing the evidence. Mary was arrested for the act of vandalism and the San Francisco newspapers had a field day with the story.

Mary hired three attorneys and filed a suit to contest the will.  Her defense was quite simple, that her father’s drinking had influenced his decision to cut her out of the will.  Mary requested a trial and won the case.

Please note, I have not made any mother-in-law jokes. Though I see the advantages of being sound asleep while having a root canal, I always prefer a little shot of Novocain, which pretty much ensures that both eyes will be kept open, both during and after the procedure. Besides, when you have a dentist as gentle as mine…

One Response to Mother-in-law killed in dental chair

  1. Fred says:

    This was fascinating! Thanks for sharing this piece of history!