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Law and Order in LondonCrime and Punishment: William Burk
Posted on Aug 21, 2002 - 06:31 AM by Bill McCann

William Burk After an adventurous Seafaring Life as a Boy he became a Robber, and was executed at Tyburn on the 8th of April, 1723.


William Burk was born in the parish of St Catherine's, and near the Tower of London. Having reached the eleventh year of his age, he was guilty of some faults that required severe chastisement, which having received, he ran away from school and went to the water side, inquiring for a station on board a ship. A man observing his inclination took him down to the Nore, and put him onboard the Salisbury man-of-war. The mother, learning where her darling boy had gone, followed him on board the ship, and endeavoured to prevail on him to return, but in vain, for the youth was obstinately bent on a seafaring life.

In about a fortnight the ship sailed for Jamaica, and during the voyage had an engagement with a Spanish galleon, which she took, after a bloody and obstinate fight, in which young Burk was wounded. After this they met with another galleon, which they took without the loss of a man, but a woman, the only one on board, having the curiosity to look on the deck, lost her life by a chain shot, which severed her head from her body. The common men shared each fifteen pounds prize money on these captures, but some of the principal officers got sufficient to make them easy for life.

The ship was stationed for three years in the West Indies, during which time Burk learned the art of stealing everything that he could secrete without detection. At Jamaica there was a woman who had been transported from Newgate some years before, but having married a planter, who soon died, she was left in affluent circumstances, and took a tavern. Wanting a white servant, she prevailed on the captain to let Will attend her customers. The boy was pleased with his new situation, and might have continued in it as long as he was on the island, but he could not refrain from defrauding his mistress; but she herself had been a thief, and soon detected him. Thereupon he fell on his knees and begged pardon, which was granted; but he was ordered to depart the house immediately.

Alarmed at the danger from which he had escaped he seems to have formed a temporary resolution to live honestly in future, and with that view shipped himself for Maryland, where a merchant would have employed him but the captain he sailed with would not permit him to accept the offer. Hence he made a voyage to the coast of Guinea, where he had a very narrow escape of being murdered by the natives, who killed several of his ship mates. On the return of his ship from Guinea to England the weather was so bad that they were five months on their voyage, to the port of Bristol, during which they suffered innumerable hardships. Their provisions were so reduced that they were almost famished, the allowance of each man for the whole day being not so much as he could eat at two mouthfuls; and at length they were obliged to fast five days successively. However they reached the port in safety; and, not with-standing the miseries they had endured, the captain resolved on another voyage to Guinea, in which Burk accompanied him.

Having purchased a number of slaves they set sail for the West India islands, but during the voyage the negroes concerted a scheme to make themselves masters of the ship, and would probably have carried it into execution but that one of their associates betrayed them; in consequence of which they were more strictly confined than they had hitherto been. Burk sailed from the West Indies to England, where he entered on board a man of war and sailed up the Baltic, and afterwards to Archangel, to the north of Russia, where his sufferings from the extremity of the cold and other circumstances were so severe that on his return to England he determined to abandon the life of a sailor.

Being now quite out of all honest methods of getting his bread, he took to robbing passengers in and near Stepney; but he continued his depredations on the public only for a short time, being apprehended for committing the fourth robbery. He was indicted at the sessions held at the Old Bailey in February, 1723, for robbing William Fitzer on the highway, and again, on the same day, for robbing James Westwood; and being found guilty on both indictments he received sentence of death. There was something remarkably cruel in the conduct of this malefactor, for he carried a hedge bill with him, to terrify the persons he stopped; and one old man hesitating to comply with his demand, he cut him so that he fell to the ground. After conviction he became sensible of the enormity of his crimes, received the Sacrament with great devotion, and declared that if he obtained mercy from God it must be through the merits of Jesus Christ. He was executed at Tyburn, on the 8th of April, 1723,in the twenty third year of his age.

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