Back in 1857, they were the hottest names in old New York. Harvey Burdell and Emma Cunningham — the violent, rapacious and brutally murdered society dentist and his scheming and probably murderous mistress, mutual antagonists in the most lurid true-crime drama of the age.
For well over a century, the pair, essentially disowned by their families, lay interred in unmarked graves a few hundred yards from each other in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, their whereabouts known only to a few history buffs.
No longer. Yesterday, before a rapt if small audience of retrospective voyeurs, two sparkling granite headstones were unveiled: Harvey Burdell, 1811-1857. And Emma Augusta Hempstead Cunningham, 1818-1887. “May God rest her troubled soul,” reads the inscription.
The stones — and Mrs. Cunningham’s epitaph — are the doing of an amateur historian sufficiently obsessed with the case to spend the last seven years writing a book about it.
“It’s not a question of honoring them,” Mr. Feldman, a thin, ponytailed man with the bearing of a merry undertaker, said after the graveside service, news of which was published yesterday by AM New York. “It’s a question of what in Hebrew is called ‘t’chiyat ha-metim’ — raising the dead. You enlarge all of us when you bring these stories back to life.”
And what a story. In their ever-spiraling battle of bad faith and faithlessness, the two lovers managed to embody many of the ills of the age: the rampant vice and political corruption, the straitened economic and sexual circumstances of women and the destabilizing influence of new wealth on traditional social structures.
The tale, as lovingly told by Mr. Feldman in his book, “Butchery on Bond Street,” boils down to this: Harvey Burdell was a dentist of humble background who built a thriving practice in his four-story townhouse at 31 Bond Street, midway between the vice dens of the Bowery and the glitzier honky-tonk of lower Broadway. In his spare time, Dr. Burdell, who was divorced, enjoyed gambling, sexual predation and real estate swindling.
Emma Cunningham was a young widow with five children and was desperately seeking a man who could support her and her brood in the manner to which she had grown accustomed. She had been married to a distiller who had squandered most of his family’s fortune.
No one alive knows precisely how Emma met Harvey, but once they got together, in or around 1854, things got pretty intense. They returned from a whirlwind trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with Mrs. Cunningham pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby. He did not. She had an abortion, possibly performed by him.
Nothing if not persistent, Mrs. Cunningham insinuated herself into the dentist’s household as the landlady of the rooming house he ran out of his building. They continued their dalliance. She claimed he raped her twice, according to court papers.
“It was not a comfortable relationship,” Mr. Feldman observed.
Mrs. Cunningham tried everything to get Dr. Burdell to agree to tie the knot. She had him arrested for breach of promise to marry. In secret, she did marry a man who told the minister he was Harvey Burdell, but who was almost undoubtedly an impostor.
Three months after the ceremony, on Jan. 31, 1857, Dr. Burdell was found dead in his dental clinic. More precisely, according to The New York Daily Times, “the body was lying upon the floor, shockingly mutilated, and surrounded with clots of blood, and the door and walls of the room besmeared with blood.”
Not to be outdone, The New York Herald described 6 of the 15 stab wounds. “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,” it said, according to Mr. Feldman’s book.
Then the case really took off. The coroner’s inquest was held in Dr. Burdell’s office, with witnesses testifying in the chair where his patients had recently sat. A recommendation that one of the dead man’s eyeballs be excised and his retina examined for traces of what, or whom, he saw in his dying moments was proposed and discarded. Mrs. Cunningham threw herself on the open coffin and cried, “Oh, I wish to God you could speak and tell who done it.”
More than 8,000 people tried to cram into Grace Church on Broadway at 10th Street for his funeral. Soon after, she was charged with the murder. There being no witnesses, and her lawyer arguing successfully that a member of the weaker sex afflicted with rheumatism was incapable of such a brutal attack, she was acquitted. (Mr. Feldman said he believed that Mrs. Cunningham had a prominent role in the murder even if she did not commit it herself.)
Set free, Mrs. Cunningham tackled her next mission: obtaining Dr. Burdell’s estate, estimated at $80,000. But her claim to be carrying his child was proven false when she was caught taking delivery of another woman’s baby to call her own. And her insistence that she had married Dr. Burdell similarly unraveled in the face of testimony that another paramour had been seen buying a toupee and false whiskers the day of the wedding in order to resemble Dr. Burdell.
Emma Cunningham died a pauper at the age of 69. Harvey Burdell’s murder was never solved. Both were eventually forgotten, until Jeffrey I. Richman, the historian of Green-Wood Cemetery, read an account of the case and included it in a book about the cemetery. Mr. Feldman bought the book in 2000, and fixation was born. Mr. Feldman and the cemetery split the $6,500 cost of the grave markers.
Yesterday, as a large spider crept across Emma Cunningham’s tombstone in the crisp sunlight, Mr. Feldman recalled his excitement when he first read the twisted tale of Harvey Burdell and Emma Cunningham.
“The interplay between them,” he said, “is one of the most hideous, dysfunctional, psychopathic couplings between man and woman that I’ve ever read. I knew I had to see their graves appropriately marked.”
Content retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/19/nyregion/19headstones.html