Sentence Commuted

No doubt the intervention of medics and the Church helped Dr. Burke’s case greatly. His sentence was commuted from the death sentence to life in prison. At the same time as Dr. Burke was on trial for the murder of his daughter, so was a man called William Richardson for the murder of another man. Richardson, who also gained public sympathy did not have the weight of the church or Doctors behind him hanged. It must have come as blow to Dr. Burke as he also spoke out against Richardson’s sentence.

Hi fellow medics, “after careful consideration” came to the conclusion that his action was that of a “drunken lunatic”, “without ‘malice aforethought'”, and not of a murderer. Six months later his name was “erased’ from the Register.

“Mr Burke’s kindness and charity to the poor were warmly praised…”

As Richardson hanged and Dr. Burke reprieved, there was great public outrage in Monk Bretton and the surrounding villages, the home of both men. It seemed unfair that Richardson suffered the full penalty of the law, where Dr. Burke was commuted to life in prison, advised by the Home Secretary to her Majesty, Queen Victoria. It did not seem fair to the locals that Dr. Burke was spared, due to his higher position in society to Richardson who hung. It might have been a cold comfort to him that his wife and remaining child did not have to suffer the stigma attached to the relatives of the executed. His wife, Katherine Jane Burke with her young son left Monk Bretton and went to live with relatives, far away from constant reminders of their loss.


Sheffield Independent 19 May 1888

Marshall, John. “General Council Of Medical Education And Registration. Session 1888.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 1457, 1888, pp. 1229–1232. JSTOR,

Huddersfield Daily Examiner 02 June 1888


When William Henry Emeris Burke was brought to trial at the Barnsley Assizes in March 1888 he was barely clinging on to life. He had shrunk greatly in size, aged decades and was disinterested in what was going on around him. “His cheeks were hollow, his features wan and worn, and only the deeply set dark eyes reflected the man as he was formerly known”, was the description given by one newspaper.

Dr. Burke sat through the hearing, bewildered as if it were happening to someone else. After his daughter’s death he had lost the will to live. When the judge donned the black cap and delivered the death sentence he remained silent. When called upon to to defend his position against the penalty of death Dr. Burke did not break his silence. He was duly transported back to Armley Gaol, where he awaited his demise.

While sitting in his cell as the moments of his life ticked towards an end, he seemed to have a change of heart. On May 18th 1888, he wrote to his solicitor, Mr. Carrington:

Perhaps it was due to the fact that he did not want to cause his family any further pain, if he were to hang, Dr. Burke decided to join in the case being made towards a review his sentence. A petition of 9000 names, mostly fellow doctors and clergymen, as he father was and brothers were men of the cloth, was delivered to the Home Secretary in the hope of reprieve.

It had never come up in court how depressed the doctor was in the lead up to the shooting of his daughter. Nowadays it would most certainly taken into account, but in 1888 such disorders of the mind did not carry the same gravity as they do now. His brother Rev. H. M. Kennedy, stated that Dr. Burke should have been put in “protective custody” for his welfare. He also made the point that the one person that ‘witnessed’ the shooting of little Aileen did not give evidence. Mrs. Burke, under law could not give evidence at her husband’s trail. It could have made the difference between life and death if she did. Even to the general public the fact that Dr. Burke’s wife could not give evidence at her husband’s trial seemed absurd, as the outcome would have been a lot different no doubt. The below letter from an old school friend of Mrs. Burke’s highlights the same:


Barnsley Chronicle, etc. 31 March 1888

Barnsley Chronicle, etc. 19 May 1888

Sheffield Independent 07 May 1888

The Last Days of William Henry Emeris Burke

On this day 130 years ago, solicitor of Barnsley, Yorkshire received an intimation that his client Dr. Burke, was to be released from prison. Dr. Burke, Emily’s older half-brother, had served a year and a half of his life sentence, commuted, from the death penalty for the murder of his daughter. It was clear that his health was in rapid decline, and possibly would not live for much longer.

Parkhurst Prison


Barnsley Chronicle, etc. 31 March 1888
Yorkshire Evening Press 26 November 1889

27 May 1874 – Leicester Guardian – Leicester, Leicestershire, England

The Tatler 18 March 1903

Dublin, November 1919

November 11th 1919 marked a full year since the Great War ended. It was almost a year since the beginning of another, the War of Independence. To an onlooker, it might have been hard to believe there was any conflict at all in most part of the country, apart from Munster and Dublin. There were plenty reports in the newspapers, telling of guerilla warfare such as ambushes and arson attacks on the authorities.

In the wake of the Uprising of 1916, when martial law war was declared, then relaxed when thing quietened down. But on July 5th 1918  – Sinn Féin, the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League have all been proclaimed as illegal organisations by the Lord Lieutenant and banned. From time to time the papers contained notices such as the below reiterating the ban.

At the time Emily was living in Dublin at the time at an address in Ranelagh, away from her home in Achill. She had found employment in her old profession as a nurse, the previous year on the outbreak of Spanish Flu. She was in serious debt, having to work all the hours she could to save her home. She had little time to take part in political activities, but it did not stop her selling flags for the listed organisations, as an act of defiance as much as a support to them.

Sinn Fein Headquarters at 6 Harcourt Street
Irish Times 27 November 1919

Freeman’s Journal 30 November 1920