Author Archives: Maria

Dr. Burke vanishes from the news

Since February 1888 when Dr. Burke shot his daughter, his name was scarcely out of the news. For almost half the year one story of the sad affair made the local and national and some times the international news. The story was carried by some papers in his native Ireland but much less so than in the UK. Thankfully that was the case as it would have been very distressing for Emily and her siblings.

“Dr. Burke, the Monk Bretton murderer, was removed fro Wakefield Prison to Dartmoor on Thursday morning.”This short sentence was the finale in the sad chapter of the death of nine year old Oonah Burke at the hands of her father. What exactly happened that night will never be known as the only two people in the room when the gun went off was the victim and her severely intoxicated father.

After Dr. Burke’s trial, conviction, sentence and commute of the death penalty to life in imprisonment, the story still continued to take up column inches. After another man Richardson hanged for a similar crime and Dr. Burke was commuted the public were outraged. To most it was a case of class distinction between the educated Dr. Burke and the laborer, Richardson. Even the clergy had their take on the matter and sermons preaching on the weakness of the flesh. In Dr. Burke’s case drink. The preacher went on to say;

“Did they think Dr. Burke fresh from his college, full of high hope and promise, ever though the day would come when his hand would be stained with the blood of his darling child?” The crime was committed under the influence of strong drink. Backing it up with “wine is a mooker, strong drink is raging, and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”  A proverb at the time, with a grain of truth in it. Rev. Dawkins in his sermon, was a lot kinder than the public, who at this stage were baying for Dr. Burke’s blood, causing his wife and young son, extended family, including Emily, who must have known some of the furor around the case much distress.

Anyone can guess how Dr. Burke felt, it is evident that he gave up the will to live and lingered on for over a year, when his body gave up and he died in prison just before he was set to be released. His wife lived for several more decades, staying with relatives, probably never haven recoved from the death of her daughter and the loss of her husband, no matter how badly things ended. On her gravestone she was named as “Wife of Dr. Burke.”

Leeds Times 21 July 1888
Barnsley Chronicle, etc. 16 June 1888

From the Pulpit

The shooting of Dr. Burke’s daughter was a big outrage his trial a bigger one and the commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment caused the biggest public outcry of all three. The biggest issue with his reprieve was the fact that another man, Richardson who received the death penalty for a similar crime hanged. The difference between the two was class.

Around the same time as Dr. Burke shot his daughter there were two similar ‘crimes of passion’ as they were called at the time. It appeared that there was an epidemic, which there was but not one of murder but alcohol. All three assailants had alcohol in their system when they committed their crimes. It was also unusual that three murders took place in a small and relatively quiet area too. Back in Victorian Times it was not the norm, and caused huge furore, locally and nationally, so much so that the sad affair were preached about from the pulpit of many churches. Some of these sermons were printed in the newspapers. the one below by Rev. W. Dawking a Methodist minister in Barnsley.


Barnsley Chronicle Saturday June 9th 1888

Questioning Dr. Burke’s Insanity

The public were outraged by Dr. Burke’s reprieve, when fellow ‘murderer’ Richardson went to the gallows. The general consensus was that it was class distinction. Richardson was from a working class background whereas Burke was ‘educated’ in the eyes of the public, certainly those of Barnsley. The outrage was so great that the Home Secretary felt the need to comment of the sad affair.

It was clear at the time that Dr. Burke had a drink problem, but was not deemed insane. Less than a decade late 1897 Dr. George Wilson wrote:

“Intoxication to the ordinary observer, is loss of self-control; to the physician, it is the physiological effect of alcohol on the brain. Usually, drunkenness is merely regarded as a vicious habit; scientifically, it is a reduction of mental capacity due to deterioration of the brain tissue.

Dr. Burke’s half-brother Rev. H. M. Kennedy made the case that insanity ran in Dr. Burke’s family, but did not elaborate. The public did not believe that he was insane, drunk maybe but not mentally ill. In the below letter to the Sheffield Independent of June 8th 1888, E A Rymer of Monk Bretton could not believe that as a doctor over three large collieries and hundreds of patients under his care that he never appeared insane to any of them. There may have been a grain of truth in that, as he would have hid his drinking until it got to the point that he could not stop and hired a locum doctor to look after his patients.

His fellow doctors, who signed the petition were of the opinion that he was, ill weak and suffering from depression at the time of the shooting of his daughter. He as a physician understood his illness but not enough to prevent the sad episode from unfolding.

Sheffield Independent 08 June 1888 (Wilson, The Pathology of Drunkenness, pp. 1–2.) 2013, Oxford University Press

Indignation Meeting at Monk Bretton

The cross at Monk Bretton, depicted above was the scene of a meeting held there in May 1888. The gathering of locals and was called in protest to the hanging of a man called Richardson, who was not granted the clemency that Dr. Burke was.The biggest issue of the crowd is that Dr. Burke because of his position received preferential treatment because of his position in society.  Richardson from a working class background was not so lucky and he hanged for his crime on the morning of 28th May 1888. Both prisoners were held at Armley Gaol, one walked to the gallows the other sat alone in his cell.

Sheffield Independent 29 May 1888
Sheffield Daily Telegraph 29 May 1888

Emily visits her brother in prison

In late May 1888 Emily crossed the Irish Sea, made her way to Leeds, Yorkshire to visit her half brother, William. Earlier that week he received a telegram from the home office re-spiting the death sentence. He expressed his gratitude, but was far from happy, not only had he the death of his daughter to morn and regret but that was not all he had to contend with.

Emily visit with her brother carried the news that their brother Richard was on his death bed. He had been suffering from chronic Brights Disease, an serious kidney ailment. At the time it wasn’t treatable and at the age of only twenty three it had all but consumed him. At the time of Emily’s visit he did not have long to live. At that time Emily was only nineteen, not fully an adult, but she was by no means a stranger to the hardships of life. In her short lifetime she had lost both parents and a niece, had stones thrown at her, had to flee her home and take refuge in a church vestry. Her half brother  suffered the same trials, in his early life too.

Leeds Times 26 May 1888