Gallows fate for father-of-five who brutally murdered wife

Brunswick Street, where the murder took place
Brunswick Street, where the murder took place
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Historian Keith Johnson looks back at a Preston crime from yesteryear...

In January 1865 Stephen Burke, a 40-year-old tailor, lived with his wife Mary and their five children, in a cottage house in Brunswick Street, Preston.

The home was a melancholy picture of the horrible effects of drunkenness and destitution. With barely any household requisites or furniture, the couple shared a small dirty bed in the front bedroom of their house with their five children.

On 30th January, 1865, the attention of townsfolk was focused on the plight of the Burke household. At around seven-thirty in the morning, the rather distraught 12-year-old daughter of Burke aroused a neighbour and informed her of the traumatic happenings of the night.

Within minutes a police officer had broken his way into 31 Brunswick Street and discovered the body of Mary Ann Burke. The dead woman appeared to have bled profusely and over her left temple was a frightful wound.

Within weeks Stephen Burke was on trial at Lancaster Assizes before Judge Mellor, accused of his wife’s brutal murder. It was unfortunately necessary to call his 12-year-old daughter as the key witness.

She revealed how her father had arrived home late in the afternoon of 29th January and had punched his wife who then fled into the street.

Later in the evening she was once again the victim of her husband’s fury, as he punched her and poked her in the eye. Then, according to the youngster’s testimony, the mother returned at 9 o’clock and went to bed with the younger children of the family. About an hour later the accused went upstairs with the daughter following. Once again he thumped his unfortunate wife and sat down on the bedside. At about midnight the father ordered the daughter to fetch a bedstock from the back bedroom to stoke up the fire with.

Some four hours later the girl was awakened from her fitful sleep by the sound of her father beating his wife over the head with the bedstock. As her mother screamed and moaned, her father then ordered the daughter to fetch a candle. She put her shawl around her shoulders and dashed downstairs and made for her ‘Uncle Edward’s’ house at 53 Brunswick Street.

Alas, on a cold winter’s night, her cry for help fell on deaf ears and she spent the next three hours huddled in a neighbour’s lobby, trembling with fright.

As the trial further unfolded, it was revealed that Burke had, since Christmas, been continually drinking.

Quarrels had taken place between the couple and the wife, who only 10 weeks before her death had given birth to their fifth child, had been a constant victim of his flashes of temper.

The defence claimed he was suffering from ‘delirium tremors’ brought on by his over-indulgence in alcohol and had no deliberate malice in his actions.

It took the jury little time to reach a verdict of guilty against Burke. His Lordship Judge Mellor then donned the black cap, and proceeded to pass sentence of death upon the prisoner. It was only then that the prisoner seemed to realise the seriousness of his situation and was removed from the dock in a fainting state.

During the weeks prior to his execution, the condemned man conducted himself in a very becoming manner and was well aware of his terrible crime. On his last day he had a tearful reunion with his children and his brothers.

With morbid curiosity, many persons from Preston and neighbourhood walked the whole distance to the county town, to witness the fearful engine of strangulation. As noon approached on 25th March, 1865, some 7,000 people had gathered outside Lancaster Castle to view the gruesome proceedings and experienced executioner, William Calcraft, despatched Burke into eternity with clinical efficiency.

The final act of the sorry affair was performed a few days later when the body of Burke was interred in the grounds of Lancaster Castle, in an area reserved for murderers.