Once upon a time, there was a boarding-house at 31 Bond Street in New York City. The building was owned by a 46-year-old dentist named Harvey Burdell. Although he still kept his professional office at that residence, in recent months he had been taking his meals elsewhere, for reasons that will soon become obvious. The little band at his boarding-house, while a colorful and eclectic lot, could not be said to be one big happy family, at least from his perspective. In fact, the one thing uniting the residents was an intense distaste for Dr. Burdell. Admittedly, by all accounts the dentist was a cold, misogynistic personality with a taste for all that was sleazy and fraudulent in life, but the antipathy of the Bond Street crowd was still remarkable. It was not unusual for the boarders to cheerfully chat with each other about how much they would enjoy stringing him up.
|Contemporary drawing of 31 Bond|
The major figure at the boarding-house--indeed, in our whole story--was a personable 36-year-old widow named Emma Cunningham, who acted as general housekeeper at 31 Bond. She also looked after her five children, who ranged in age from nine to eighteen. She and Burdell once had a fleeting sexual relationship, but amour had since cooled. At the time our tale opens, the pair had turned to doing everything in their power to make each other miserable. Some time back, Burdell managed to swindle one of his brothers out of a legal judgment. (All of Harvey's dealings with his family appear to have been characterized by quarrels, litigation, and chicanery.) Wishing to keep his role in the proceedings as secret as possible, Burdell assigned the amount of the judgment to Mrs. Cunningham. Not long after this, he asked her for a note for the amount of this settlement. She did so, but--according to Burdell--soon stole it back from him. She denied the theft, countering by accusing him of backing out of a promise to marry her, not to mention bringing "females to the house for improper purposes." (Burdell was probably having an affair with a young cousin of his, Demis Hubbard.) Relations deteriorated to the point where they were calling the police on each other. After one brawl, Emma struck Harvey across the face in the presence of two of these officers. Burdell retaliated by telling the policemen that Emma could often be seen at the local "houses of assignation."
Mrs. Cunningham was so outraged by the dentist's attacks on her good name that she brought lawsuits against him for slander and breach of promise. She agreed to withdraw the suits when the dentist gave her a signed statement vowing to "extend to herself and family my friendship through life," and that he would never again "do or act in any manner to the disadvantage of Mrs. Emma A. Cunningham." He also promised to continue allowing her to live in her rooms at 31 Bond, for $800 a year rent.
A formidable and ingenious lady, was our Emma.
Next in importance among the boarders was John J. Eckel, a minor political operative in the world of Tammany Hall. When not engaged in his professional activities, Eckel found solace and entertainment in the company of his seventeen canaries. Another resident was an eighteen or nineteen-year-old named George V. Snodgrass. He had a great fondness for playing the banjo, execrable poetry, and Mrs. Cunningham's 16-year-old daughter Helen, not necessarily in that order.
Rounding out our little band was the Honorable Daniel Ullman, who had recently concluded an unsuccessful attempt to become New York's Governor. Ullman was a dignified, respectable man, which must have made him feel a sad outsider at 31 Bond.
So much for our cast of characters. The play itself debuted on the morning of January 31, 1857, when Burdell's office boy entered his employer's second-floor operatory at 31 Bond, only to find the room had been turned into a private slaughterhouse. Blood was everywhere, and lying crumpled on the floor was the battered, liberally gashed body of Harvey Burdell. The "New York Herald" eagerly gave its readers every sanguinary detail of the scene:
The condition of the room wherein the bloody scene was enacted bore evident traces of a long and desperate struggle having been made by the deceased ere he yielded to the knife of the assassin. The walls were smeared with gore, while the entire floor of the neighborhood of the spot where the body was found was one sea of blood. The mutilated condition of the body, and the number of wounds upon the corpse would lead one to think that there must have been more than one hand in the horrid butchery. Twice the steel had pierced the heart, twice the lungs had been reached with the deadly point of the stiletto, while the jugular vein and the carotid artery were both severed, and life's blood oozed from the gaping wounds."
Just for good measure, Burdell had also been garroted. In short, the dentist had died a very violent, messy, and--it can be presumed--extremely noisy death. Curiously, even though all the tenants of 31 Bond, not to mention two maidservants, had all been in residence since the evening before, no one claimed to have heard a thing. The trail of bloodstains that led all the way to the top floor? The unoccupied bedroom that was stained with spots of blood? The fireplace in this bedroom that contained the remains of recently-burned fabric? All news to them. The boarders professed to have been in complete ignorance of the fact that virtually under their very noses, their landlord had undergone a brutal struggle with some knife-wielding fiend.
When Emma Cunningham received the news that Dr. Burdell was no more, she dramatically announced that she was now--oh, the horror!--a widow for the second time. Yes, she told the world, she and Harvey had secretly become husband and wife the previous October. If Mrs. Cunningham--Mrs. Burdell?--could be trusted, apparently the endless quarrels, lawsuits, and occasional physical blows she had inflicted on the dentist had caused true love to bloom like a rose. For proof of her story, she had a marriage certificate and the testimony of her daughter Augusta, who had witnessed the ceremony. She stated that the wedding had been performed by the Rev. Uriah Marvine, spiritual head of the Dutch Reformed Church on Bleecker Street.
When asked if he could confirm Emma's remarkable news, Rev. Marvine could only verify that he definitely recognized Augusta Cunningham. In October 1856, she had accompanied an older woman--he could not say for certain who this was--to his house, where Marvine married this elder lady to a man who called himself Dr. Harvey Burdell. Was this man, in truth, the late dentist? The Reverend could not say. Marvine's servant, a young woman named Sarah McManinien, offered more definitive testimony. She was positive that the two women who came to the Reverend's home were Mrs. Cunningham and her daughter, and she believed the man was indeed Harvey Burdell.
Despite Emma's romantic revelations, everyone had a hard time ignoring the fact that, on the very day of the murder, she had been making dark predictions that Dr. Burdell would soon come to an untimely--and, as far as she was concerned, highly welcome--end. Plus, doctors who examined the corpse believed that Burdell's attacker had been left-handed. Mrs. Cunningham was a southpaw. And everyone agreed that her story of the marriage was decidedly fishy. Popular opinion asserted that the groom at Rev. Marvine's ceremony was really a heavily-disguised John J. Eckel. (Eckel was believed to be Burdell's successor in Mrs. Cunningham's bed.) The whole business was just shady enough for police to arrest Mrs. Cunningham and Mr. Eckel and throw them in the Tombs. George Snodgrass was arrested as well, although it is hard to see why. Perhaps the police didn't care for his way with a banjo.
The inquest kept New York entertained with accounts of the lively atmosphere that had prevailed at 31 Bond, particularly between Mrs. Cunningham and the late Dr. Burdell. Most shockingly for this 19th century audience, it emerged that Harvey and Emma's relationship deteriorated after she became pregnant by him. Burdell having rejected her desperate pleas that they marry, she subsequently endured an abortion that was unwanted, at least on her part. Several witnesses testified to Dr. Burdell's frequent and vehement denunciations of marriage and how he vowed he himself would never be drawn into wedlock. Another friend quoted him as calling Emma Cunningham "the most horrible woman he ever met." In fact, Burdell suspected the whole 31 Bond crowd of "foul play," and that on May 1st--the traditional moving day for New Yorkers--he would throw the entire lot of them out on the street. Contradictory evidence was introduced about where Harvey Burdell was on October 28, 1856--the day he supposedly married Emma Cunningham. Some witnesses placed him in New York on that date, others swore he was in Saratoga.
Although any direct evidence of their culpability appears to have been lacking, the end of the inquest brought a ruling against the three defendants, and they were ordered to stand trial in the spring.
Meanwhile, the investigation into Burdell's murder was temporarily eclipsed by the concurrent inquiry into the alleged Burdell/Cunningham nuptials. A hearing was held in the Surrogate's Court where Mrs. Cunningham-Burdell (as that lady now styled herself) asked that she be recognized as the legal widow of Harvey Burdell. Star witness at this hearing was the Reverend Marvine, who said that, after thinking things over, he had come to the conclusion that the two people he married in October 1856 were indeed Emma Cunningham and Harvey Burdell. Mrs. Cunningham's attorneys argued that the marriage had been kept secret at the insistence of Burdell. The implication was that the dentist had only agreed to the marriage as a way of settling Emma's legal claims against him. (There were also hints suggesting that Emma had enough damaging private information about Burdell that she was able to blackmail him into standing at the altar.)
At the end of the proceedings, the Surrogate announced that he would reserve his decision. He probably wished to see if the lady had indeed murdered Dr. Burdell before gifting her with what would well and truly be blood money.
Emma Cunningham stood trial in May 1857. The trial of John J. Eckel was scheduled to come next. (The charges against George Snodgrass had been dropped.)
The prosecution's case boiled down to this: Emma Cunningham was a bad, immoral woman who made no secret of her hatred for the defendant, and eager to get both his money and her revenge, decided to say it with a stiletto. The defense countered by saying that, yes, Mrs. Cunningham-Burdell had had her share of disputes with the late dentist, but then, who had not? Her lawyers stressed Burdell's shady past: How a previous engagement of his had been broken when he tried to pry $200,000 out of his prospective father-in-law. How he was in the habit of performing dental work on pretty young girls in return for sexual favors. His gambling habits. His unscrupulous lust for money. In short, Emma's attorneys made a convincing case that an impressive percentage of the population of New York had reason to see Harvey Burdell dead. Emma's alibi came in the form of her two daughters, who shared a bedroom with her. They both assured the jury that on the night of the murder, the three of them had slept the night through, without having the slightest idea that a particularly brutal murder was taking place around them.
However dodgy a character Emma may have been, and however many suspicions she may have aroused, when it came right down to it there was very little proof that she had committed murder. The jury really had no choice but to acquit her, and that is just what they did. After Emma was found not guilty, John Eckel, who had been charged with being her accessory, naturally was freed as well.
It was a popular verdict. Despite the negative revelations about Mrs. Cunningham's morals, the weak nature of the evidence against her, coupled with the overwhelming evidence of the vile character of the deceased, had earned her much sympathy. Many expressed the opinion that if the defendant didn't murder Burdell, she should have. The "New York Tribune" spoke for vox populi:
"The trial of Mrs. Cunningham-Burdell for the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell resulted, on Saturday evening, as everybody for days had known it must result, in a verdict of acquittal...She has been treated with great harshness not only by the ministers of justice but by the Press--unintentional no doubt, but none the less real. By whose cunning and address the finger of suspicion was first pointed toward her, we do not know: when the point is ascertained, we may be able to give a guess at the name of the real culprit."
At this point, most former murder defendants would have rested on their laurels and resolved on a quiet life. Our heroine, however, scorned such pusillanimity. She had great goals, and didn't hesitate to grab at them. During her weeks in prison, it occurred to her that even if she won her fight to be recognized as Mrs. Harvey Burdell, that would only entitle her to the widow's share of his considerable estate. If she had Burdell's child, the baby could lay claim to the entire fortune. Showing a touching trust in the inviolability of patient/physician relations, Emma took her doctor, David Uhl, into her confidence. Sometime in July or August, she explained, she was going to have a baby. As she was not pregnant, this presented her with a bit of a dilemma. Surely, she said in her most sweetly persuasive manner, he knew of some woman who would like to donate her baby for a good cause? She would be willing to give him $1000, if he could just perform the medical miracle of delivering Harvey Burdell's child.
This was all getting just too weird for Dr. Uhl. He took the whole story to the District Attorney, A. Oakey Hall. Hall was still smarting over his failure to convict Mrs. Cunningham, and saw the chance to get a bit of his own back. Besides, this sounded like great fun. Hall counseled Uhl to just play along, and he would be more than happy to take things from there.
Accordingly, the good doctor informed his interesting patient that he indeed could fulfill her dreams of insta-motherhood. A young married woman of his acquaintance had a husband who was prospecting for gold in California. Alas, she was about to expect a child that would be difficult to explain to her spouse once he returned. She would be more than happy to see the infant become the Cunningham-Burdell heir.
In reality, Uhl went to Bellevue Hospital, where an indigent woman, Elizabeth Ann Anderson, had just given birth to a daughter. She was persuaded to allow her newborn to be the star performer in this amateur theatrical production. Uhl then rented out a house, supposedly for this "California widow" and her inconvenient offspring. August 3 was selected as the time for Emma to become a mother. On that day, the baby girl was brought to 31 Bond, discreetly hidden in a basket. Emma, along with a doctor and nurse she had bribed into participating in the charade, was waiting in the room selected as the birthing chamber. This happened to be the former bedroom of Dr. Burdell, where his mangled corpse had been laid out for burial. Mrs. Cunningham was clearly one of the last of the romantics.
As soon as all the players had gathered, detectives rushed in and arrested the whole lot of them, including the baby. This last action inspired Emma to utter one of the great lines in true-crime history:
"Don't touch my dear baby--this is the child of Harvey Burdell!"
Alas for her dreams of motherhood, the DA had taken the precaution of decorating the child with lunar caustic, which made it easy to prove Emma's entry into the Inheritance Sweepstakes was a ringer.
This little escapade was too much for Emma's lawyer, Henry Clinton. He washed his hands of her, although he continued to maintain his sincere belief that she was innocent of murder and that she was the genuine widow of Harvey Burdell. Even more damagingly for Mrs. Cunningham, her failed plot caused the Surrogate Court to turn on her, as well. They came down against the disputed marriage and barred her from receiving a dime of Burdell's estate. The decision's obvious subtext was that if she could fake a pregnancy, she was certainly capable of faking a marriage. Ironically, if Emma had just not tried to get too cute, the Court may well have ruled in her favor.
Emma wound up not facing any other penalties for her deception, thanks to one technicality. As she had not yet actually tried to claim Burdell's estate for "her" baby, a judge ruled that she could not be charged with attempted fraud.
After her release, Emma soon faded from public view. In 1867, it was reported that she was living in Northern California, where she was the owner of a successful silver mine. In 1870, she married a William Williams, who died in 1883. Soon after her husband's death, the twice (thrice?) widowed Emma returned to New York, where she was said to be "poor and evidently friendless." She found refuge in the home of a niece, Phoebe Morrell, where she died in September 1887. She now lies in New York's Green-Wood cemetery, only a few hundred yards away from the resting place of Harvey Burdell. I doubt either of their spirits is pleased by the proximity.
John J. Eckel joined a wholesale liquor business run by an old colleague of Burdell's, Alvah Blaisdell. Unfortunately, greed led the pair to become involved with the notorious "Whiskey Ring" that made headlines during the Grant administration. In 1869, they were convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to several years in prison. Eckel died in his cell later that year.
The only people who directly benefited from the murder of Harvey Burdell were Mrs. Anderson and her baby. P.T. Barnum hired the child to make regular appearances at his American Museum, (posed next to a wax figurine of Emma Cunningham,) at what we are told was a handsome salary for such a young play-actor. As the old saying goes, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
All in all, it's hard to think of another murder case where the victim was so completely upstaged. The question that kicked off our story, namely, "Who killed Harvey Burdell?" was, in the end, almost forgotten.