By Kathi Kresol
Margaret Burke led a hard life. She moved to Rockford around 1883, bringing her only surviving child William to the city from Janesville, Wisconsin. Mrs. Burke had buried two husbands and ten children in her 60 years. William’s father had died in a freak accident inside an ice house in Green Bay, leaving his widow destitute. Mrs. Burke worked hard cleaning houses and doing laundry for others, barely scraping enough money to support herself and her son.
When questioned later, her neighbors would speak fondly of Margaret. She impressed them with her positive outlook. One neighbor stated that Mrs. Burke always claimed life was sweet.
Anyone else might not have seen her life quite that way. The neighbors all knew Margaret’s 23-year-old son, William. They had overheard the arguments, seen the bruises left on the old woman’s face, and had heard William come in at all hours of the night. Despite her cheery disposition, they knew that William made Margaret’s life a living hell.
When they tried to speak to Margaret about her son’s behavior, she always brushed it off. She would say that William would have spells and wouldn’t know what he was doing. The neighbors knew the truth behind the poor woman’s excuses. They had heard her pleading with William not to drink and visit the houses of ill repute.
No one believed that William would really hurt his mother, of course. So they were surprised to see the police breaking down the door of the Burkes’ house on April 29, 1893. They knew nothing of the events that had unfolded earlier that day.
Sheriff Burbank was at his usual post that morning when he heard a commotion outside of the courtroom. There was a scruffy man who was obviously intoxicated attempting to enter. The sheriff stepped forward to intercept the man. The man instantly recognized the sheriff and began to sob: “I killed her….I killed my best friend! Why did I do it?” the man stated as the sheriff moved him further from the door.
The sheriff began to question the young man and realized who it was that stood before him. He decided to take the man to the jail and offer him some coffee. While he was attempting to sober the man up enough to get a statement, Sheriff Burbank sent two of his deputies over to the family’s cottage on Court Street to ask Mrs. Burke to join them.
The deputies did as they were asked. They knocked on the door but got no response. They decided to enter the house and found the door unlocked. As soon as the two men opened the door, they realized from the smell that something horrible had taken place inside the cottage.
When they finally entered the home they found Margaret on her bed with a blanket pulled up over her head. They pulled the cover back and were shocked to find that Margaret Burke had been shot in the chest at point blank range. She had been dead for almost a week and the body was badly decomposed.
William would later tell the sheriff that he feared that the townspeople would rise up and lynch him when they realized what he had done to his mother. When asked why he would do such a terrible thing to his own mother, William claimed that he had no memory of the killing. He also claimed that it was the whiskey that made him do all kinds of bad things.
William Burke’s trial would make headlines all over the United States. William’s defense was handled by the Andrew Brothers Law Firm. They felt they had a great case for insanity. State’s Attorney Frost, on the other hand, believed that William knew exactly what he was doing when he killed his mother.
The defense team brought forward many men who knew and worked with William. They all testified that he had always been odd but that his violence had increased with his rapid addiction to whiskey.
The prosecution called a multitude of doctors who had interviewed William. They all testified that William knew what he was doing was wrong. They brought forward the fact that William had written a note and hung it on the door that stated that Margaret would be away for a time. The prosecution also read back William’s confession allowing the jury to hear the details from William’s own mouth.
State’s Attorney Frost also shared another shocking claim. Margaret was not to be William’s only victim. She was the first name on a list of six individuals that William wanted dead. Four of the names were police authorities that William felt had treated him badly. William stated that he hadn’t acted on killing the others yet because “the Almighty God had not given him the courage to do that.”
William was found guilty of the murder and sent to the penitentiary in Aurora. The debate over William’s sanity would reappear and within a few years, he was transferred to a hospital for the criminally insane. R.
Kathi Kresol is a local author and historian who has researched Rockford’s past for over a decade. Kathi also serves on the Board of the Rockford Historical Society and will be joining other board members and volunteers for the Rockford Historical Society’s Annual Cemetery Walk. The walk will be at Greenwood Cemetery this year and will take place on Saturday, June 17 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Please visit the website at rhsil.org for more information.