There are a number of gentlemen by the name of William Burkitt who feature in what might loosely be termed the historical records. There was a William Burkitt (1650–1703), a clergyman in the Church of England and a devotional writer, whose life merits an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and another William Burkitt (1825-1906) who was a corn merchant who became a railway promoter. As worthy as these gentlemen may well be, there is a far more interesting William Burkitt in the form of the twentieth century serial killer, who was particularly notable in that despite killing three women, he was never convicted of murder, and was indeed twice released from prison to kill again.
Born in 1887 this William Burkitt was the eldest of nine children who later became a fisherman from Kingston-upon-Hull. He later served in the Royal Navy during World War I, at least to the extent that he was found to have deserted the HMS Hero in November 1914 and again from HM trawler Dinas in March 1915. Which was all very well, but it was on the 28th August 1915 that he turned up at his mother's house at Gillam Street in Hull and announced that "I have done Polly in". The Polly in question was his partner Mary Jane Tyler, commonly known as Polly, who was later described by The Times as "a married woman living apart from her husband". William's mother duly went to Derwent Avenue in Hull where she discovered the aforementioned Polly lying in a pool of blood. It was later established that she had been stabbed three or four times and that the fatal wound had severed the jugular vein in her neck.
Burkitt was later brought before the North and East Riding Assizes at York on the 23rd November 1915 on a charge of murder. During his trial Burkitt that they had been arguing over a photograph that Polly had found with his arm around another woman, and that the argument had led to a struggle during which he had inadvertently stabbed her, whilst the defence also produced evidence that Polly Tyler was herself a violent woman, who was described as "having been unfaithful to many men". In the event the jury deliberated for an hour, and duly found Burkitt not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, and he was therefore sentenced to twelve years penal servitude.
Burckitt eventually served nine years of this sentence, being given his ticket of leave on the 23rd November 1924, after which he returned to his former occupation and took up with an Ellen Spencer, who was another "married woman living apart from her husband". Less than a year later on the 3rd November 1925, Ellen's daughter Matilda Walkington, called at her mother's home but found no answer. She got hold of a neighbour, who broke down the door and found Ellen Spencer lying dead with a stab wound to the neck, which it was later determined had severed her jugular vein. The police were called and on his arrival PC Douthwaite noticed the smell of gas in the house. After further investigation he found Burkitt upstairs on a bed unconscious, although still alive, having apparently tried to gas himself.
Once more William Burkitt was charged with murder and duly appeared at York Castle on the 20th November 1925. There he testified that he had returned home from a voyage on the 29th October and had gone out and drunk seven pints of beer. Having then gone home to sleep it off he had been awoken when he felt Ellen's hand in his pocket. He then claimed to have struck her a number of times in an attempt to frighten her, apparently unaware of the fact that he held a pocket knife in his hand. The jury duly took note of these extenuating circumstances and once more he was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, only this time he was sentenced to a mere ten years penal servitude.
On his release from Dartmoor Prison on the 15th August 1935, William Burkitt then returned home to Hull to resume his old life and took up with an Emma Brookes who was of course, another "married woman living apart from her husband". This time round however wasn't until the 1st March 1939 that he appeared at his sister's house foaming at the mouth having apparently taken six hundred aspirins. She sent for a doctor, although Burkitt declined the offer of medical attention, explaining that "I've killed Emma" and ran off, being found later that afternoon floating in the Victoria Dock, presumably in an attempt to drown himself, from which he was removed and taken to Hull infirmary. In the meantime the police duly attended No 5 Pleasant Place in Hull where they found the fully clothed body Emma Brookes, although in this case it was later established that the cause of death was asphyxia, and that poor Emma had been strangled.
As Burkitt later admitted in court, he had returned home from sea on the 27th February when Mrs Brookes had begun taunting him about all the other men she had been seeing whilst he'd been away. It was at this point that Burkitt claimed that "Everything went black and when I came to I realized what I had done and was desperate". The jury took fifteen minutes to reach their verdict which was (of course) to find Burkitt yet again, not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.
However by now it was clear to even the densest member of the judiciary that a certain pattern was emerging. As the judge pointed out regarding the jury's deliberations in this case; "They did not know what you knew and what I knew, and they were not allowed to know that this was the third time that you had stood in the dock on the charge of murder." The judge noted that Burkitt had been responsible for the death of three women and that "Each time it has been the murder of a woman with whom you have been living. Each time the jury have taken a merciful view." The judge however concluded that "I can see in your case not one redeeming feature, and the sentence I pass on you is that you be kept in penal servitude for the rest of your natural life".
Burkitt later appealed against this sentence, although his appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal on the 15th November 1948. He was later diagnosed with an "incurable illness" in 1954 and released on parole to attend hospital in Hull, a decision which appears to have caused his sister some distress as she appealed for police protection which was not forthcoming. Burkitt did indeed abscond from hospital in in 1955 but was recaptured shortly afterwards. He died a year later in 1956.
- Man Who Killed Three Women from The Times, Thursday, May 18, 1939
- MurderUK: William Burkitt
- Charles Rickell, Yorkshire's Multiple Killers: Yorkshire Cases C.1915-2006 (Wharncliffe Books, 2007)