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