Date: January 30, 1857
Victim: Dr. Harvey Burdell
Cause of Death: Strangling and Stabbing
Accused: Emma Cunningham
|Dr. Harvey Burdell|
Though his dental practice was thriving, Harvey Burdell made most of his money in banking and real estate speculation. While successful and highly regarded uptown, Burdell was also well known in the Bowery where he often went to gamble and visit brothels. He was also known to service the dental needs of prostitutes working in his Bond Street neighborhood and to take his fee in trade.
In 1844 the Cunninghams moved to a townhouse on Irving Place in Manhattan and became part of upper middle-class society. But George Cunningham was not the businessman that his father had been and in 1846 a series of business reversals and foreclosure drove the Cunninghams back to Brooklyn. Amid their growing poverty, George and Emma had five children. Out of desperation, George Cunningham joined the gold rush to California in 1849. He failed at this as well and returned to Brooklyn where he died in poverty in 1854.
Emma, now a 33-year-old widow, inherited property and life insurance benefits worth $10,000. She knew the money would not last long or allow her to live the life she desired, so Emma, still quite attractive, went looking for another husband. She had several other suitors but set her sights on Dr. Harvey Burdell. The following August she joined Burdell at the upstate resort of Saratoga Springs. That fall Emma and Harvey were still together and Emma determined that she was pregnant. Burdell persuaded her to have an abortion, and may have actually performed the operation himself.
By 1857 the relationship between Emma Cunningham and Harvey Burdell had grown strained to say the least. Emma was intensely jealous of Burdell’s 24-year-old female cousin, Dimis Hubbard, who was a frequent house guest. She was also, no doubt, aware of his trysts with female patients in his dental office. They had frequent arguments and Burdell no longer ate at Emma’s table, preferring to take his meals at the nearby Lafarge House.
About half past ten o’clock on the night of January 30, 1857 the man living at 36 Bond Street heard a blood-curdling cry of “Murder” but could not tell where it came from. The following morning, the boy hired to start the fire in Dr. Burdell’s office opened the office door to find the doctor’s mutilated body lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood with blood spattered more than five feet up the wall.
The body was examined and it was determined that the doctor had been strangled with a garrote and stabbed fifteen times with a long slender knife. News of the murder travelled swiftly through the streets of New York and throughout the day a morbidly curious crowd surrounded 31 Bond Street. The coroner was called in and an inquest that would last two weeks was begun in the house.
Witnesses from outside the house included Burdell’s former business partner Alvah Blaisdell who said Burdell had asked him to sleep at 31 Bond Street because he feared violence from Emma, John Eckel, George Snodgrass, and Emma’s oldest daughter Augusta. Dimis Hubbard herself testified, claiming that her cousin had planned to end his deal with Emma Cunningham and replace her with another landlady. This was borne out by one of the maids who related this conversation with Emma Cunningham:
“Who was that woman, Hannah, you were showing through the house to-day?”The coroner also established that the knife wounds indicated that the stabber was left handed. Emma Cunningham was left handed. Emma Cunningham and John Eckel were charged with murder; George Snodgrass was charged as an accessory. All three were taken to the Tombs prison.
“That was the lady who is going to take the house.”
“Then the doctor is going to leave it, is he?”
“And when does she take possession?”
“The first of May.”
“He better be careful; he may not live to sign the papers!”
“Oh I wish to God you could speak, and tell who done it.”
Before the murder trial began, the issue of the authenticity of Emma Cunningham’s marriage to Harvey Burdell was taken up. Since Burdell died without a will, the outcome would have a significant impact on the distribution of his rather sizeable estate. Burdell’s blood relatives had already begun maneuvering and the matter was still unresolved when the murder trial began.
|Emma Cunningham's Trial|
The prosecution’s case was a rehash of the testimony presented at the inquest, telling the story now familiar to anyone who read New York City newspapers. They also did everything they could to thoroughly tarnish the reputation of Emma Cunningham.
The defense attacked the circumstantial evidence and did a hatchet job on Harvey Burdell, specifically his dalliance with Dimis Hubbard, the “kept mistress of her own blood cousin.” Assuming the authenticity of Emma’s marriage to Burdell the defense asked why she would murder a husband with a steady and sizable income. They also posited many others who wished Burdell dead.
Though the judge did his best to suppress negative testimony on Burdell’s reputation, the defense did their job well. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
Eckel and Snodgrass were never tried.
Verdict: Not Guilty
In the matter of Emma’s marriage to Harvey Burdell, Burdell’s blood relatives hired prominent attorney and future presidential candidate Samuel Tilden to represent their interests. But it was Emma herself, and not Tilden’s oratory, that defeated her claim. While still in the Tombs, Emma claimed she was pregnant with Harvey Burdell’s baby. This fact, if true, would increase her claim on his estate from approximately one-third, to 100%. Emma, in fact, was not pregnant, though she continued this claim after she was acquitted and released.
She realize that, for her plan to work, she would need an accomplice. She confided with a Dr. Uhl who agreed to help her and, when the time came, to supply her with a baby to present as Harvey Burdell’s heir. Dr. Uhl, however, went straight to the district attorney.
When the time came for Emma to “give birth,” Dr. Uhl told her he had procured the baby of a woman who had become pregnant after her husband went to California. She now planned to join him and needed to give up the baby. In fact, the district attorney had gone to Bellevue hospital and borrowed the baby of an indigent mother. Emma, dressed as a Sister of Mercy, carried the baby from Dr. Uhl’s office in a basket.
The ruse was played out, with Emma faking delivery by screaming behind a closed door. But when Dr. Uhl emerged with the baby, policemen entered the room and charged Emma with fraud. The charge was eventually dropped but it was enough to invalidate her claim of marriage in the eyes of the Surrogate Court.
After seeing that her daughters were taken care of, Emma left for California. She married again in 1870 and was widowed again thirteen years later. She moved back to New York where she died in poverty. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, a few hundred yards from Harvey Burdell.