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The Hanging of Stephen Burke: The Last Public Execution at Lancaster Castle

The story of the brutal murder of his wife that resulted in the last public hanging ever carried out at the infamous Lancaster Castle's "Hanging Corner"

Stephen Burke Brunswick Street, Preston
Brunswick Street, Preston, Photo's taken in 1958

Stephen Burke, a 40-year-old tailor who lived in a terraced house at 31 Brunswick Street, Preston with his wife and their five children. It was a bleak existence, their home had almost no furniture, the couple had a small dirty bed in the front room that they shared with their fived children.

On the morning of January, 30th 1865, at approximately 7.30am the terrified daughter of Stephen Burke woke up the neighbours, telling them of a violent disturbance that had occurred at the family home during the night between her parents.

Shortly after the police arrived at Brunswick street and forced their way into number 31 where they made the disturbing discovery of the body of Mary Ann Burke, she had suffered a severe wound to the head. Stephen Burke was arrested at the scene.

Within weeks Stephen Burke was put on trial at Lancaster Castle, accused with the brutal murder of his wife, Mary Ann Burke.

His 12-year-old daughter was called upon as the main witness to the crime, she gave evidence to the court explaining how her father had repeatedly attacked her mother throughout the evening of 29th January, 1865.

The final and fatal assault on his wife took place in the early hours of the morning when he repeatedly beat her around her head with a bed-staff (a wooden club that is used in the repair or manufacture of beds).

His daughter explained that once the police had arrived she fled to her Uncle Edward's house at 53, Brunswick Street to tell him what had happened, he never answered the door. The petrified 12-year-old spent the next three hours hiding in a neighbours lobby, trembling with fear.

It didn't take the jury long to find Stephen Burke guilty of the murder, with the charge being read “you maliciously, feloniously and of malice aforethought killed and murdered your wife, Mary Ann Burke.”

His Lordship Judge Mellor donned the black cap and passed the sentence of death upon Stephen Burke: “The sentence of this court is that you shall be taken from here to a place from whence you came and there be kept in close confinement until the date of execution, and upon that day that you be taken to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul.”

Hanging Corner Lancaster Castle
The area of Lancaster Castle known as Hanging Corner

With nothing more than morbid curiosity, many people from Preston and the surrounding area of Lancaster walked a distance of around twenty five miles to Lancaster Castle, to witness the public execution of Stephen Burke. 25th March, 1865, at roughly midday, over 7,000 people had gathered together outside Lancaster Castle to witness the hanging of Stephen Burke.

The hangman, William Calcraft, the country's official 'Executioner to Her Majesty' travelled all the way from London to carry out the public execution.

William Calcraft, the extremely experienced executioner, appeared on the gallows several minutes before the hanging was scheduled to take place, rope in hand and checked that everything was in order.

Stephen Burke was then escorted from his cell and accompanied by the Rev. R. Brown of Lancaster who was there to assist in his spiritual journey.

Once the condemned man was on the on the platform which was situated in a part of the castle grounds, known as 'Hanging Corner', Calcraft took control.

Shot Drop Hanging Platform
An example of a short drop hanging platform, similar to that used to execute Stephen Burke

Placing a white hood over the head of Stephen Burke, he secured his hands behind his back, tied his feet together and made a final adjustment of the rope, before swiftly removing the bolt which opened the trapdoor and Burke fell through the hole feet first to his death, this was called the short drop method, this was designed to not be a large enough drop for the prisoner to break their neck, forcing them to die by strangulation, which was a slower and more painful way to die.

Several days following the execution of Stephen Burke, his body was placed into the grounds of Lancaster Castle in an area that was reserved solely for the bodies of murderers to be buried in unmarked graves.

This was the last public hanging ever held at Lancaster Castle, however there has been a total of 213 hung there over the years, giving the town the nickname of the Hanging Town.

If you enjoyed reading this story make sure to check out our story about Meg Shelton, the Fylde witch of Woodplumpton.

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