The Most Celebrated Crime Of The 19th Century, The Murder Of Dr. Harvey Burdell


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No. 31 Bond street was in 1827 and 1828 the home of Timothy Woodruff, a builder, who in 1826 lived at 20 First avenue and in 1829 at 29 First street. Who occupied it from 1829 to 1830 has not been ascertained, but in the directory of the latter year, and down to 1841, it is given as the residence of Mary Sutherland, widow of Dr. Talmadge Sutherland, a physician, who in 1837 resided at 10 Park place.

In 1840 it was the residence of William Waring, who remained there until the late '40's. In 1851 it was occupied by Dr. John Lovejoy, a dentist. A few years later the house suddenly became famous as the scene of one of the most celebrated crimes of the nineteenth century, the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell, a crime that in point of sensational character and extent of interest excited in the community and throughout the country is not often paralleled.

 Dr. Burdell is described as "a fine looking man of forty-six, well proportioned, and of singularly youthful appearance." He possessed a high temper and seems to have quarreled, at one time or another, with about every one with whom he came in close contact. His exceptional skill was recognized in the profession to which he belonged, and he was a member of the leading medical societies of the city. He was also the author of several authoritative works on subjects pertaining to dentistry. He graduated from the Pennsylvania Medical College, at Philadelphia, and not long afterward went into partnership with his older brother, Dr. John Burdell, who was also a dentist. Their office was in a building that formerly stood on the corner of Chambers street and Broadway, south of old Washington Hall. After a few years they separated as a result of a rather acrimonious dispute, apparently over money matters, for the younger brother was grasping as well as hot tempered. Dr. Harvey Burdell then moved to 310 Broadway, near Duane street. This is believed to have been the northernmost of the row of three-story houses shown in the view of Masonic Hall (which was Nos. 314 and 2316 Broadway) in Valentine's Manual for 1855, page 296.

Dr. Burdell was there for only a short time, moving about 1841 to 362 Broadway, on the southeast corner of Franklin street. This house had been the residence of John S. Crary, and in appearance was much the same as the home of his brother and partner, Peter Crary, at 361 Broadway across the street, the second house below Franklin street. Dr. Burdell remained at 362 Broadway till 1852, when he bought No. 31 Bond street. A year or two later he employed a Mrs. Emma Augusta Cunningham as his housekeeper, his wife having divorced him some time before. Mrs. Cunningham was the widow of a once wealthy distiller, of Brooklyn. He was found dead in his chair one day, and she collected his life insurance amounting to $10,000. She had two adult daughters, Margaret Augusta and Helen, and a son named George W. who at the time of the murder of Dr. Burdell seems to have been about eleven or twelve yeas old. Mrs. Cunningham and Dr. Burdell soon quarreled and she was displaced, but in 1855 she came back.

In May, 1856, Dr. Burdell leased his house to her. For several years it had been a boarding house, and she continued it as such. Dr. Burdell occupied all of the floor above the parlors except the hall-bedroom, his office being the rear room and his bedroom the front room, but he took his meals at the Metropolitan Hotel, on the east side of Broadway, between Prince and Houston streets. It was said that "however prepossessing Mrs. Cunningham may have been when younger she is not at this time an extra-ordinarily attractive woman." Among her lodgers was a man named Eckel, whose character may be judged from the fact that he ended his days in prison. At the time of his death Dr. Burdell was the owner of No. 2 as well as No. 31 Bond street. He also owned real estate in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and in Herkimer County, New York, and was a stockholder and a director of one of the banks in this city. In all his fortune amounted to about $100,000.

On the morning of Saturday, January 31, 1857, at about eight o'clock, John J. Burchell, a youth employed by Dr. Burdell to take care of his office, came to perform his customary duties, and found Dr. Burdell dead on the floor. "Around him was a sea of blood." Blood was found on the floor and walls of the hall outside, and a later search discovered a bloodstained sheet and nightshirt in a storeroom in the garret. The victim's face was black, and his tongue protruded from his mouth. The boy gave the alarm and Dr. Francis, who lived, as we have seen at No. 1 Bond street, was called. Upon examining the body he announced that Dr. Burdell had been strangled by a cord or other ligature, and that there were fifteen "deeply incised wounds" in his body. The heart was pierced in two places, both lungs were penetrated, and the carotid artery and the jugular vein were both severed.

At the inquest, which followed immediately and continued for two weeks amidst tremendous excitement, Mrs. Cunningham stated on the witness stand that she had been married to Dr. Burdell on October 25, 1856, and produced a marriage certificate to that effect, signed by Rev. Uriah Marvin, one of the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church in Bleecker street, corner of Amos (now West Tenth) street. The Rev. Mr. Marvin was called as a witness, and at once recollected the marriage but was unable to identify either Dr. Burdell, whose corpse he viewed, or Mrs. Cunningham, who was brought before him. He did however, identify her daughter Augusta as one of the witnesses, the other being a servant girl in his own household. He further stated that as the party left the house the supposed Mrs. Burdell requested that no publication be made of the marriage. From other witnesses (of whom a large number were called) it was developed that Dr. Burdell had been in fear of assassination, and that Mrs. Cunningham had been heard to remark that "she had a halter around his (Dr. Burdell's) neck and he had to do what she wanted him to." The testimony of some of the witnesses, including servants and former lodgers, was sensational in the extreme, and exposed, to a considerable degree at least, the relations that had existed in the house for some time before the tragedy.

The Coroner's jury brought in a verdict to the effect that Mrs. Cunningham and the boarder Eckel knew more about the matter than they had disclosed. They were promptly indicted and tried for the crime, but although an adequate motive seems to have been abundantly proven there was no other evidence, direct or circumstantial, in any way justifying a conviction. In fact Mrs. Cunningham had an alibi, her daughters testifying that they both slept with her on the night of the murder! The verdict in each case was "not guilty."

Of the subsequent developments of the affair Haswell gives the following succinct and comprehensive account:

"If Mrs. Cunningham could prove marriage with the doctor she would be entitled to a wife's share of his estate, and if she bore a child to him she would obtain the entire control and enjoyment of its revenue. To attain this desirable end, it was indispensable that a child should be procured, and the woman forthwith commenced to exhibit the appearance consonant with her purpose, and at the assigned time a new-born infant was received from Bellevue Hospital, which she had obtained through the aid of an attendant physician. But he, while consenting to aid her in her scheme, disclosed the plan to the District Attorney, A. Oakey Hall, who, when her claim in behalf of the child was presented, exposed the fraud, and she and her daughters left the city.

" I was present at the examination of one of the daughters before the coroner, and I conceived a very decided opinion of the case, which, so far as the Coroner was concerned, was universally held to have been so very ill conducted that a presentation was made to the Governor, asking for the removal of such an incompetent official."

Mrs. Cunningham subsequently returned to New York under the name of Mrs. Emma Williams, and died here in 1887.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Most Celebrated Crime Of The 19th Century, The Murder Of Dr. Harvey Burdell
Researcher/Preparer/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of Books: Valentine's Manual of the City of New York 1917-1918 Edited by Henry Collins Brown; The Old Colony Press, Copyright: Henry Collins Brown 1917
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