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


On Monday 7th May 1888, after all the evidence was given the case for the prosecution  of Dr. Burke closed at 12.10 pm.

Mr. West summed up the case for the prosecution as below:

The prosecution pretty much proclaimed that the shooting of his daughter was a willful act, and drunkenness was not an excuse.

The defense took that stance that Dr. Burke did not set out to kill his daughter. His judgement was impaired by the amount of alcohol he had taken that day. Mr Mellor pointed out that whatever went on between him and his wife was not taken into consideration as a wife could not testify against her husband, so her side of the story would never be known. The letter was the only indication of their relationship, which was under pressure from Dr. Burke’s drinking. But at the time of the shooting she was back living with him again, after leaving him and temporarily living with her sister. In fact they were on good terms right up to the right before the shooting, when Mrs. Burke came rushing out of the room and summons a police officer and telling him to go to the room her husband and daughter were in. Then two shots were fired.

It was pointed out that Dr. Burke might have thought that someone was coming in to take the pistol from him pulled it out and it went off by accident, shooting his daughter by accident.

Mr. Mellor’s speech went on of a half an hour, concluded that if the death of the child was not by pure accident it certainly was through negligence and certainly not willful.

The judge noted that it was unclear when exactly the shot was fired or whether it was a case of accidental shooting by a man who, despite having taken quite a quantity of alcohol was responsible for his actions

Sheffield Independent 07 May 1888