130 years ago today a tragic event took place in the sleepy village of Monk Bretton, Yorkshire. A tiny mining town of less than two thousand people, disturbances were few and far between so it must have come as a shock to locals when gun shots were heard on the night of February 4th 1888. It was one of two murders that took place in a short space of time. Both in time would become high profile, as the cases would be brought to the attention of Queen Victoria. The first was committed by Emily’s older half brother William Henry Emeris Burke, son of her father and first wife Catherine.
Dr William Henry Emeris Burke had been drinking all day, sadly it was nothing out of the usual for the doctor. That day and indeed over the previous week he had spent almost all his time in the Norman Inn, a well known establishment in the village. So bad was this particular drinking binge, he had hired a locum doctor to attend to his patients, while the episode lasted. Dr. Burke had a long history of alcoholism. Perhaps he knew deep down that he was helpless in the face of alcohol and would eventually succumb to it. But it was not he who was the victim this time it was his beloved nine year old daughter, Aileen.
The episode was a murder/suicide attempt by a deeply depressed man who saw no way out of his misery apart from ending it all taking his favorite child along with him but it did not quite work out that way. He survived but his daughter didn’t.
The tragic event coupled with the sensationalist headlines of the local and national papers shook the local community to the core. It was all but impossible to make sense of why their kind local doctor, who despite his heavy drinking was well liked and respected by locals. Perhaps a glimpse into his past might explain. Margaret Drinkall, historian and author of; 19th Century Barnsley Murders, whose extensive research into the Burke case and indeed 17 other murders that took place in Victorian times surmised;
“Most of them [Barnsley murderers] in the Victorian and nineteenth century period were just products of the age in which they lived”.
And on Dr. Burke:
“He just came across to me as a very sad and lonely man. In all the reporting of him, people referred to him with fondness, so he sounds like he was a real character.”
Margaret’s handling of the murderers and sensitive and pragmatic way of relaying of their stories inspired me to dedicate a number of posts to Emily’s forgotten brother.
To read more about Dr. Burke and the 19th Century Barnsley Murders, you can purchase the book on Amazon: follow the link