On the morning of January 31, 1857 the body of Dr. Harvey Burdell was discovered in his office at 31 Bond Street, strangled and stabbed fifteen times with the walls and doors “besmeared with blood,” according to The New York Times. A search of the building, owned by Dr. Burdell, revealed a bloody towel and shirt as well as a bloody knife. The lead suspect in the case would be none-other than his lover, Emma Cunningham. This is a tale rife with lurid details – one that captivated New York City in the mid-nineteenth century and still proves fascinating to twenty-first century New York.
Dr. Burdell was a successful dentist who catered to New York’s Society and amassed his own personal fortune through stocks and real estate. Burdell apparently also provided dental services to local prostitutes in exchange for “in-kind services.” Emma Cunningham was a widow in her early thirties with five children and she was bent on finding a new husband who was part of New York’s upwardly mobile class. She set her sights on Burdell, and their whirlwind courtship was well underway by 1855. She was pregnant by the fall of that year. But instead of the marriage proposal she had been awaiting, Burdell persuaded her to have an abortion.
Burdell leased 31 Bond Street to Emma, which she ran as a boarding house, with Burdell maintaining his own room and dentist office on the second floor. By 1857 their relationship was considerably strained, owning in part to Emma’s jealousy over Burdell’s young female cousin, a frequent house guest, not to mention his well-known trysts with female patients in his dental office. On the evening of January 30, 1857, at about 10:30 a neighbor heard the blood-curdling cry, “MURDER!” but could not tell where it came from.
Following the coroner’s inquest as well as some very damning testimony from maids and neighbors of 31 Bond Street, Emma Cunningham and John Eckel, a boarder at 31 Bond Street and her reputed lover, were charged with murder. Another boarder, George Snodgrass (supposedly the lover of Emma’s teenage daughter) was charged as an accessory. By this time Emma had produced an alleged marriage certificate for her and Burdell, thereby laying claim to his fortune. The crux of the case against Cunningham lay in the fact that the murderer was determined to be left handed, as was Emma. However there was no physical evidence connecting her to the crime and she and was acquitted; Eckel and Snodgrass were never tried. The New York Times, citing the incompetence of police and authorities to solve the murder, offered a $5,000 reward at what was, in their eyes, this gross miscarriage of justice.
But Emma was not done with scandal there. In order to re-enforce her claim as ‘Mrs. Burdell,’ not to mention the Burdell fortune, she feigned pregnancy and even staged a fake delivery with a baby of an indigent mother. The ruse was revealed, and the Surrogate Court invalidated her claim to marriage with Dr. Burdell. After seeing that her daughters were married, Emma moved to California and married in 1870. Widowed thirteen years later, she returned to New York where she died in poverty. She and Dr. Burdell are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery. 31 Bond Street was one of the many sites visited on a recent GVSHP walking tour. Click HERE to learn more about our upcoming programs.