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