The chilling murder of little Aileen Ethel Dona Burke sent shockwaves across Monk Bretton in 1888. Alcoholism was at the core of the problems the seemingly happy and well-respected Burke family endured and it led to the shocking killing at the Norman Inn.

Below is the story from the book 19th Century Barnsley Murders which features many more shocking crimes.

Monk Bretton is a peaceful little village that has been occupied since medieval times, and is the site of Monk Bretton Priory, established in 1154. It is situated about 2 miles from Barnsley town centre. It has always been noted for being a quiet, restful place and so there remains quite a mystery as to why, in the nineteenth century, it became the place where two murders took place.

The first was committed by a man named Mr William Henry Emeris Burke in February 1888. At that time he was a 42-year-old surgeon with a very successful practice at Monk Bretton. He was also employed as the colliery surgeon for both the Monkton Main and Carlton Main collieries, a position he had held for the last ten years. Burke lived in the Manor House in the village with his wife, Katherine Jane, the daughter of The Reverend A. Lambert. As a consequence William Burke was well known to the inhabitants of the area and the people of the surrounding districts, being thought of as having a genial temperament and kindly nature. It would seem that this pleasant, middle-class doctor had it all; so how did he become embroiled in a murder that would rock the nation and cause questions to be asked in Parliament?

It seems that the happy married life the couple had enjoyed was marred due to the doctor’s addiction to alcohol. On several occasions his wife had left him for this reason and gone to stay with her sister, who was married to The Reverend J. Longley, of Grimesthorpe Vicarage, near Grimsby. Each time she had taken with her the couple’s two children, a little girl, Aileen Ethel Dona, born 1879, and a son, name unknown, born 1886. After a short while Burke would attempt reconciliation, promising to change, and she would agree to take him back, and they would return to their married life at Monk Bretton.

The latest reconciliation had just taken place, in January 1888, when Mrs Burke agreed once again to try to make the marriage work. On her return, however, she was soon made aware that during her absence her husband had indulged freely in alcohol while his professional work had been attended to by a locum. The doctor had promised to change if his wife returned to him, and for a while he endeavoured to pull himself together. They were both feeling that matters were improving when they attended a ball at Barnsley on 2 February 1888, but on their return home Burke told Katherine that he had to go out again, and she saw no more of him that night. His addiction was not helped by the close proximity to the Manor House of the nearby Norman Inn. It was a favourite drinking place for the doctor and he could often be found there chatting to the landlord, George Taylor, and other local men. On Saturday, 4 February 1888, he had been at the inn since noon, and at 6.00 pm he asked for a pen and some notepaper, which George Taylor supplied. Burke told George that he wanted to write a letter to his wife, but the landlord noted no difference in his behaviour. He remained in the public house until returning home around 8.30 pm, when Burke persuaded his wife to go to Barnsley that evening with him in their carriage. When she asked where they were going, he told her that they were going to take their beloved daughter, Aileen, whom he called ‘Topsy Chatterbox’, to see a pantomime. At that time Aileen was in bed, but somehow he urged his wife to wake her up and dress her in order that she might go with them to the theatre at Barnsley. Reluctantly the three of them entered the pony and trap, which had been waiting outside the house, Burke’s excited daughter sitting beside him. However, the trap had only gone a few hundred yards when it pulled up outside the Norman Inn and they all went inside. Burke called for some champagne, which his wife paid for.

They sat down in what was described as the inn’s best room, where the doctor proceeded to drink all the champagne himself. What transpired between the couple in the next two hours was unknown, but at 10.55 pm, Mrs Burke ran out of the room screaming at the top of her voice. Police Constable Francis Emsley, the local constable, was in the habit of calling in at the inn to make sure that it closed on time. He was in the passage when Mrs Burke told him, ‘The doctor has a revolver,’ and urged the constable to ‘take it from him’. PC Emsley was approaching the door of the room when he heard a shot fired, and as he opened the door he saw little Aileen fall onto the hearthrug. He then saw Dr Burke walk across the room and fire the gun into his own breast, falling back into a chair as he said, ‘I’ve missed.’ PC Emsley went immediately to the child and attempted to pick her up, but he found that she was already dead from the wound in the left side of her chest. Meanwhile, the landlord, having heard the disturbance, rushed into the room along with other patrons of the inn.

A message was sent to Barnsley for Dr Saddler, who quickly appeared on the scene. He saw Dr Burke seated on a long settle, apparently asleep. After confirming that Aileen Burke was indeed dead, Dr Sadler went to his colleague and he saw immediately that the wound was not fatal. Burke was removed to the Beckett Hospital and Dispensary in Barnsley, where, shortly after noon the following day, a bullet was extracted from his chest. In all the time he was in hospital, Burke never spoke to anyone about what had happened in the room at the pub that night, or what had caused him to shoot the daughter he loved so dearly. A police constable remained at the hospital with him. Meanwhile, Superintendent Kane and Inspector Gunn had proceeded in a waggonette to the Norman Inn. They told the landlord that they had orders to make a thorough search of the room. They found the gun, which was identified as a six-chambered revolver, with four of the bullets still left inside.

On Monday, 6 February 1888, an inquest was held at the Norman Inn for the dead child. The case had caused such a sensation in the area that there was quite a crowd waiting outside the inn at the appointed time, but if they hoped to see the prisoner they were disappointed, as he remained in the hospital. Solicitor John Carrington had been instructed to watch the case on behalf of his client, Dr Burke. The Beckett Hospital doctor stated that although Dr Burke was still at the hospital, his wound was not a serious one and there was every hope for his survival. The chief witness at the inquest was, of course, Mrs Katherine Jane Burke. She described how her husband had returned home on the night of the murder and against her wishes wanted to take the child to a pantomime in Barnsley. The little boy had wanted to go too, but his father told him that he was to stay at home. She described how most reluctantly she had taken the sleeping child out of bed and they had gone to the Norman Inn. Mrs Burke then described how she could see that her husband was intending staying at the inn, and so eventually she went into the other room and asked the village blacksmith to take the trap back to the Manor House. He agreed, and she returned back to the room where her husband and child remained. She stated that her husband seemed very excited and was talking wildly, which she put down to the alcohol he had consumed. Then she noticed Burke putting his hand into his pocket and, to her horror, saw him pull out a gun. She assumed that he was going to shoot her, and so she screamed and ran out of the room as quickly as she could to get help. Mrs Burke saw PC Emsley and entreated him to take the gun away from her husband. Then she heard the first shot, followed by a second, and entering the room with the constable, she saw her daughter Aileen on the floor. Dr Saddler told the coroner that the bullet had passed through the little girl’s heart and lungs, causing immediate death. He said that Dr Burke must have stood over her and placed the gun against her chest to shoot her. Consequently, there was a lot of blood spilled, whereas the wound to Dr Burke seemed only superficial and hardly bled at all.

PC Emsley identified a letter that had also been found in the room. He told the coroner that Dr Burke had pointed to the letter and had attempted to pick it up, but Mrs Burke got there first, saw it was addressed to herself and put it into her pocket. Later, after her husband’s arrest, she handed the letter to Superintendent Kane. While waiting for medical help to arrive, Dr Burke had asked for the dead child to be brought to him, and he kissed the little girl gently. The body of the child was then removed to her home and placed on the bed from which she had so recently been taken. The coroner summed up for the jury, and a verdict of wilful murder was given against Dr Burke. The body of Aileen Burke was interred the following day. On Saturday, 10 March 1888, a message was received by Superintendent Kane to say that Burke was in a fit state to be removed from the hospital. Superintendent Kane was waiting outside the ward and the doctor was arrested. They arranged for him to be taken before the magistrates at the West Riding Court at Barnsley the following morning and charged with the murder of his daughter. However, on the morning he was due to appear, the police surgeon Dr Blackburn judged that the weather was too cold, and due to the injuries that the doctor had sustained, it was agreed he would not attend. Two solicitors were present at the magistrates’ court in his absence, and the court agreed to put off the case until Tuesday, 27 March.

When Dr Burke was finally brought into court he looked extremely pale and was given a chair to sit in while hearing the evidence against him. Mr Williams, of Wakefield, acted as the prosecution, and the prisoner was defended by Mr Charles Mellor. Mr Williams opened the proceedings and stated that from the evidence brought before them it was clear that Dr Burke had shot the child and fully intended to take his own life. When it came to the crucial evidence of the letter written by Burke, there was disappointment in the court when Mr Williams stated that he was not going to read the letter out. He merely pointed out that it was written in a reasonably grammatical style, was punctuated correctly and gave the impression of being written by a person who was absolutely in his right mind. Mrs Burke repeated the statement that she had made at the inquest of the night’s events. George Taylor, the landlord of the Norman Inn, then gave his evidence and he told the magistrate that Dr Burke was in the regular habit of visiting his house. He said that on the day of the murder the prisoner had left the house about 8.30 pm and returned an hour later accompanied by his wife and daughter. Mr Williams then brought the court’s attention back to the letter. He asked the magistrates to allow the letter to be read, but Dr Burke’s solicitor, Mr Mellor, objected. He stated that as a wife, Mrs Burke should not have been called to give evidence against her husband in the first place. He pointed out that the letter had been addressed to her and should not be read out. Despite all his protests, the bench felt that it was crucial to the case and ordered that the letter should be read out. The letter was addressed to ‘Kitty Burke, Monk Bretton’, and contrary to Mr Williams’ pronouncement it seems disjointed and irrational, revealing the doctor’s probable state of mind. The letter also reveals the possible motive behind the couple’s unhappy marriage and the reason for his excessive drinking.

Dated 4 February 1888, it stated:

My wife Kitty,

At one time I loved you hard, but you have completely converted this into entire indifference by your actions, in that several times you ran away from me and left me. I now adore Mary, alias Mary Ann Taylor, née Woodcock. She has, for the sake of her children, discarded me, asking if I may say it, that this should be as clandestine as it was before. To this, after importunity and entreaty I begged to decline.

Now bid me goodbye, Kit.

W.H.E. Burke

AD [addendum]

Today have had one glass of sparkling Burgundy of our own, one and a half bottles of vin ordinaire [claret] and four two-penny worth of scotch whisky. This is all I have had to drink.

PS Kitty, may I write one word more, and that is, I know you loved me truly, but you threw my love.

Despite the implications that the letter was clearly intended as a ‘goodbye’ to his wife, Mr Mellor concluded the defence’s case by suggesting that the revolver was fired accidentally. He suggested that, appalled at what had happened, Burke then attempted to commit suicide. The magistrates deliberated and the prisoner was found guilty and was committed for trial. Many people felt disappointed at the outcome and felt that the committal had resulted in more questions than answers. Mainly they wanted to know why a respectable doctor would shoot the very child that he professed to love.

The Leeds Mercury summed up the general feeling about the case on 8 February 1888, when it attempted to appoint a reason for the purposeless crime: It was surely a premeditated crime. It was the husband and father who had abandoned himself to despair … Dr Burke had simply given himself up to the curse of drink. He had sunk himself beyond redemption in his passion for drink, and in an evil moment when the balance of the brain was gone, he shot his pet child with more callousness than he would have shot his dog. Horrified at his crime, he attempted his own life, without success, and now awaits a doom which will brand his name forever with the most shameful of all humiliations.

On Saturday, 5 May 1888, Dr Burke was brought before Mr Justice Mathew at the Leeds Assizes charged with the murder of his daughter. Mr West and Mr Harold Thomas conducted the case for the crown, and Mr Charles Mellor and Mr Barstow were for the defence. Significantly, Mr Whitaker Thompson watched the case on behalf of the woman mentioned in the letter, Mrs Mary Ann Taylor, although no other details about her were heard. Mr West outlined the case for the jury stating that due to his dissipation, Dr Burke had ‘injured his health and constitution and impaired his moral sense’. He said that although the motive was unclear, that undoubtedly Dr Burke was in the habit of carrying with him a loaded revolver. Mr West said that whilst it was obvious that the doctor was unhappy, it was unclear why he decided to shoot his daughter. He told the jury that they had to decide whether it was a clear case of murder, unless the evidence indicated to them that it had been an accident, or was a case for insanity.

The landlord gave his evidence and a member of the jury asked him if he knew of a reason why the prisoner should constantly carry a loaded gun. He told the court that the area around Barnsley was particularly wild and dangerous for any night journeys that the doctor had to undertake. He also spoke of the great affection between the prisoner and his daughter, which he had witnessed on several previous occasions. Dr Blackburn gave evidence that the child had died instantaneously and would not have felt any pain. He also stated that he had observed the prisoner during his stay in the hospital, and had witnessed no signs of insanity. This closed the evidence for the prosecution. Mr Mellor then addressed the jury for the defence. He stated that there was simply no evidence of any motive for the crime. He pointed out that if Dr Burke had wished to kill his wife or his daughter, that he could have done it more effectively and secretively at home. Mr Mellor then came out with a possible reason for the murder. He claimed that as the constable entered the room, in panic, as Dr Burke was taking the pistol out of his pocket, it went off accidentally, killing the little girl. He disagreed that the letter was coherent and stated that it seemed to him to be written by a man ‘sodden with drink’. No witnesses were called for the defence.

The judge summed up for the jury, telling them that if they thought the child had been killed accidentally, they must carefully weigh the evidence. There was little doubt that the child had been killed by her father’s hand, and they had to decide on the veracity of the police constable’s evidence. The jury retired and after fifty minutes returned to the court with a verdict of ‘guilty’. His Lordship then placed the black cap on his head and passed the sentence of death on Dr Burke. He told the prisoner to stand, and as the doctor got to his feet he said to him that drunkenness was no excuse for murder.

He said:

You have been convicted by the jury on overwhelming evidence of the crime of wilful 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 offence. The prisoner, who had been supported by two warders, was then removed from the court and afterwards taken in a cab to Armley Gaol. It was not long before petitions were sent to the Secretary of State asking for a commutation of the sentence. The case was held up by the Temperance Movement as a prime example of where drunkenness could lead. In an appeal, which Dr Burke wrote himself, he claimed that he had been drinking heavily for some weeks before the murder, and that he was also suffering from exhaustion and mental depression. Another appeal on medical grounds was sent by his solicitor, Mr John Carrington, which included more than 9,000 signatures. Many who signed the petition were from the medical profession and were from places as diverse as Manchester, Oldham and Cambridge.

This appeal stated that at that moment in time, it was their opinion that Dr Burke was very weak and ill and suffering from depression. His half-brother, The Reverend H.M. Kennedy, added his support for his brother, stating that he was suffering from depression when he committed the crime and that ‘if he is hanged there will be, from lack of sufficient enquiry, a terrible miscarriage of justice.’ The Reverend Kennedy stated categorically that his half-brother should have been locked up for his own safety a full two months before the event occurred. It was also revealed that as early as January 1887, Dr Burke had told a colleague, Dr Macaulay, of Leicestershire, that ‘Were it not for his children’s sake he would kill himself.’

Several people in Monk Bretton, and other places, had known of his threats to take his own life and of his unhappy marriage. When it became known on Monday, 21 May 1888 that the Home Secretary had respited Dr Burke, there were cries of outrage in the national press.It seems that the doctor’s health had broken down while he was in prison. Almost immediately after being admitted to Armley Gaol he was sent to the prison infirmary suffering from the effects of the gunshot wound. The prison medical officer, Dr Hawkins, found that the shot on the left-hand side of his chest had begun to heal, but there was still plenty of discharge coming from the other wound. Not surprisingly, in November 1888 Dr William Burke was struck off the rolls of the Medical Council. Matters continued until, just a year later, on Monday, 25 November 1889, when his Barnsley solicitor, Mr Carrington, received notification that his client was due to be set free. The letter stated: ‘Dr Burke will shortly be released from Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight due to his very delicate health.’ It seems that the wound he inflicted on himself ensured that both lungs had been seriously affected, and that he had been in the prison hospital for some time. However, before he could be released, the solicitor learned that he had died. An inquest was held at the prison on Friday, 29 November 1889, which stated that soon after his conviction Dr Burke was removed to the infirmary at Wormwood Scrubs. On 16 May 1889, he was removed to Parkhurst Prison to serve out the rest of his sentence. Once again, he was immediately detained in the hospital due to the effects of the gunshot wound, and that he had died that morning due to exhaustion. A telegram was sent to Mr Carrington to give him the information. But it was the next murder committed in Barnsley in the same year that was inevitably compared to the murder committed by Dr Burke. The comparison threw the nation’s press into a frenzy, and there were accusations that Dr Burke had received preferential treatment due to his superior status. Both were crimes of passion and both were committed with a similar six chambered revolver, but there the similarity ended.

Extract from 19th Century Barnsley Murders by Margaret Drinkall, published by Pen & Sword Books. Available Here

19th Century Barnsley Murders