Burke the Burglar

His name was Valentine Burke. He was an old-time burglar, with kit and gun always ready for use. His picture adorned many a rogue's gallery, for Burke was a real burglar, and none of your cheap amateurs. He had a courage born of many desperate jobs. Twenty years of his life Burke had spent in prison here and there. He was a big, strong fellow, with a hard face and a terrible tongue for swearing, especially at sheriffs and jailers, who were his natural born enemies. This account of his conversion is a true one, just as Mr. Moody told it. [D. L. Moody was a well-known preacher around 100 years ago. ]

Moody was young then, and not long preaching. He came down from St. Louis to conduct revival meetings, and the 'Globe Democrat' announced that it was going to print every word he said — sermon, prayer, and exhortation. Moody said it made him quake inwardly when he read this, but he made up his mind that he "would weave in a lot of Scripture for the 'Globe Democrat' to print, and that might count, if his own poor words should fail."

He did it, and his printed addresses from day to day were packed with Bible texts. The reporters tried their cunning at putting blazing headlines at the top of the column. Everybody was either hearing or reading sermons. Burke was in the St. Louis jail waiting trial for some piece of daring. Solitary confinement was wearing on him, and he put in his time railing at the guards, or cursing the sheriff on his daily rounds. It was meat and drink to Burke to curse a sheriff. Somebody threw a "Globe Democrat" into his cell, and the first thing that caught his eye was a headline like this:


It was just what Burke wanted, and he sat down with a chuckle to read the story of the jailor's discomfiture.

"Philippi!" he said, "that's in Illinois. I've been there."

Somehow the reading had a strange look, out of the usual newspaper way. It was Moody's sermon of the night before. "What rot is this?" asked Burke. "Paul and Silas — A great earthquake — What must I do to be saved?" Has the 'Globe Democrat' got to printing such stuff? He looked at the date. Yes, it was Friday morning's paper, fresh from the press. Burke threw it down with an oath, and walked about his cell like a caged lion. By and by he took up the paper, and read the sermon through. The restless fit grew on him. Again and again he picked up the paper and read its strange story. It was then that something, from whence he did not know, came into the burglar's heart, and cut its way to the quick.

"What does it mean?" he began asking. "Twenty years and more I've been a burglar and a jailbird, but I never felt like this. What is it to be saved anyway? I've lived a dog's life, and I'm getting tired of it. If there is such a God as that preacher is telling about, I believe I'll find it out, if it kills me to do it."

Away towards midnight, after hours of bitter remorse over his wasted life, and lonely and broken prayers, the first time since he was a child at his mother's knee, Burke learned that there is a God who is able and willing to blot out the darkest and bloodiest record at a single stroke. Then he waited for day, a new creature, crying and laughing by turns. Next morning, when the guard came around, Burke had a pleasant word for him, and the guard eyed him in wonder. When the sheriff came Burke greeted him as a friend, and told him how he had found God after reading Moody's sermon. 'Jim,' said the sheriff to the guard, 'You had better keep an eye on Burke; he's playing the pious dodge, and the first chance he gets he'll be out of here.'

In a few weeks Burke came to trial; but the case, through some legal entanglement, failed, and he was released. Friendless, ex-burglar in a big city, known only as a daring criminal, he had a hard time for months of shame and sorrow. Men looked at his face when he asked for work, and upon its evidence turned him away. But poor Burke was as brave as a Christian as he had been as a burglar, and struggled on, wanting much to find steady work. He went to New York, hoping, far from his old haunts to find peace and honest labour; but he did not succeed, and after six months came back to St. Louis, much discouraged, but still holding fast to the God he had found in his prison cell.

One day there came a message from the sheriff that he was wanted at the courthouse, and Burke obeyed with heavy heart. "Some old case they've got against me,' he said; 'but if I'm guilty I'll tell them so. I've done with lying." The sheriff greeted him kindly. 'Where have you been, Burke?' "In New York." 'What have you been doing there?' "Trying to find a decent job."

"Have you kept a good grip on the religion you told me about?" "Yes", answered Burke, looking him steadily in the eye. "I've had a hard time, Sheriff, but I haven't lost my salvation."

It was then the tide began to turn. 'Burke,' said the sheriff, 'I have had you shadowed every day you were in New York. I suspected that your religion was a fraud; but I want to say to you that I know you have lived an honest, Christian life, and I have sent for you to offer you a deputy-ship under me. You can begin at once'.

He began. He set his face like a flint. Steadily and with dogged faithfulness the old burglar went about his duties until men in high business began to tip their hats to him and to talk of him at their clubs. Moody was passing through the city, and stopped off an hour to meet with Burke, who loved nobody as "the man through whom he was converted". Moody told how he found him in a closed room upstairs in the courthouse, serving as trusted guard over a bag of diamonds. Burke sat with the bag in his lap and a gun on the table.

"Moody," he said, "see what the grace of God can do for a burglar. Look at this. The sheriff picked me out of his force to guard it." Then he cried like a child as he held up the stones for Moody to see.

There is no more beautiful or pathetic story than that of Burke's gentle and faithful life and service in the city where he had been the chief of sinners. How long he lived I do not recall, but Moody told me of his funeral, and how the rich and the poor, the saints and the sinners, came to it; and how the big men of the city could not say enough over the coffin of Valentine Burke. And now, by grace, Moody and Burke have met above.


The original leaflet came from: GOSPEL PUBLICATIONS, P.O. BOX 432, HASTINGS, N.Z.