Monthly Archives: May 2018


The petitions against his sentence to death by hanging began to trickle in first a few from people in his locality, then other doctors until a large deluge of petitions came in from far and wide. According to different reports there were one thousand, five thousand or ten thousand signatures on the petition. No matter how many, the petition found it’s way to the home office.

Sheffield Independent 18 May 1888


The case of Dr. Burke began to be upheld as as model of intemperance. Details of his heavy drinking was beginning to be made public. It was not so much a case that he hid his regular intoxication from anyone as that would have been impossible. He even hired a locum doctor to treat his patients, while his drinking was at his heaviest.

His wife also fled with their two children when he was at his worst and would return again when he stopped for a time. It seemed to have been a regular cycle in their world in a time when it was rare a wife left her husband.

While sober he was a kind and affable man, good with his patients and was well liked by the local population in general. But he was powerless in the face of alcohol. In the medical directory of the time he cited that he was a member of the Good Templars, an organization that promoted abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. This was possibly a despreate bid to overcome his drinking.

IOGT was not the first group advocating a lifestyle free from alcohol and other drugs. There was a sporadic growth of such organizations in the early decades of the 19th century, particularly in North America, the United Kingdom and in several other parts of Europe.

Alcohol problems had become endemic in these parts of the world and were severely affecting the fabric of society by blighting families and causing poverty, misery and distress to children. Alcohol use was also seen as detrimental to the growth of commercialism and industrialization at the time.
The first seeds for what would become the global IOGT movement were sown in 1840 in Baltimore, USA, when six men decided to sign together a sobriety pledge. The movement that emerged from this act and their subsequent impact is best illustrated by no one less than Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States spoke to the movement’s meeting at Springfield, Illinois in 1842:


Tenby Observer 17 May 1888

19th Century Barnsley Murders (Wharncliffe True Crime) Paperback – Margaret Drinkall,1 Jul 2015


Dr. Burke’s Case and Public Outrage

No sooner had Dr. Burke been taken to Armly Gaol, to await his demise, when the letters campaigning for the lessening of his sentence of the death penalty,began to appear in the newspapers of the day.

It was also beginning to come out of his fragile mental state not just in the lead up to the fateful night but long beforehand. The letter, by his friends the local church wardens to the Leeds Mercury tells of his long term battle with alcohol, and how in it’s grip had reduced him to fits of weeping, unheard of in Victorian society.

The letter, revealing as it was for the time helped to make a case for the doctor. During the days that followed rallying against the harshness of his sentence began to take momentum.

Leeds Mercury 10 May 1888


Armley Gaol

“You have been convicted by the jury on overwhelming evidence of the crime of willful murder. You stand in that dock, an example where no such example was needed, of the awful effects of intemperance. You are a man, we are informed, of high education and great intelligence, but reduced for the time being by drinking to the level of the lowest and most worthless of human creatures. It is my most painful and most melancholy duty to pass upon you the sentence which the law prescribes for your offense.”

The above words spoken by Mr. Justice Mathew, the judge presiding over the case at the Leeds Assizes. Dr. Burke did not speak a word. Supported by two wardens he was escorted from the courthouse and on to Armly Gaol to await execution.

07 May 1888 – Sheffield Independent – Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England
File:Old Gate – HM Prison Leeds.jpg. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository