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The Murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell by the devious Emma Cunningham, 1857

 

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

Harvey Burdell was born in Herkimer County, New York, in 1811. As a young man he first obtained employment as a compositor and later took up the study of dentistry in his brother John’s office in New York. After mastering the profession he opened an office adjacent to his brother’s.

While Dr. Harvey Burdell prospered, he was penniless and was continually being sued by his relatives and others for non-payment of just debts.

In 1835, he was engaged to be married to a young lady whose foster parents were quite wealthy. After the clergyman and the entire wedding party had assembled, Burdell announced to the father of the prospective bride that the ceremony could not be performed unless a check for $20,000 was immediately forthcoming. The indignant old man informed the guests of the demand and Burdell was ordered from the house.

As the years rolled by Burdell amassed a fortune estimated at $100,000, among his possessions being a building at 31 Bond Street, New York.

Emma Hempstead was born in New York in 1816. She grew to be a very attractive young woman and was presumed to have married a George Cunningham in 1835. Four children were born to the couple. In 1852, Cunningham died and left $10,000 insurance to the widow.

In 1855 she leased Dr. Burdell’s Bond Street property, the dentist reserving a suite for offices on the second floor.

Living with Mrs. Cunningham were her four children, Hannah Conlan, the cook, and three roomers named George Snodgrass, Daniel Ulman and John J. Eckel, the latter apparently being extremely friendly with his comely landlady.

At 10:30 o’clock on the night of January 30, 1857, a gentleman residing at No. 36 Bond Street, was about to retire, when, above the noise of the rain beating against his windows, he heard the cry of “Murder!” After the one shriek, all was silent. He could not tell from whence the sound came and he finally retired.

At 8 a.m. the next day a boy proceeded to Dr. Burdell’s office to sweep the floor and light the fire, according to his usual custom. When he opened the door he beheld the butchered body of the doctor on the floor. He ran screaming from the room and notified the remainder of the occupants of the house, who were calmly eating their breakfast,

Apparently, Mrs. Cunningham became grief-stricken, but Eckel did not appear particularly disconcerted.

An inspection of the body showed fifteen different wounds, evidently made by a long, narrow dagger.

As the appearance of the room indicated that the doctor, who was a powerful man, had given his assailant a terrific struggle, it was concluded that a strong man had participated in the murder, although a subsequent investigation convinced the authorities that Mrs. Cunningham had probably instigated it.

On the day preceding the murder, a woman visited Burdell’s office, and shortly afterward he took her on a tour of inspection through the house in company with the cook. Mr. Cunningham was not at home at the time, but when she returned that evening she heard of the incident, and the following conversation occurred between her and Hannah Conklin, the cook:

Mrs. C.—Who was that woman, Hannah, you were showing through the house today?

Cook—That was the lady who is going to take the house.

Mrs. C.—And when does she take possession?.

Cook—The first of May.

Mrs. C.—He better be careful; he may not live to sign the papers!

Medical experts expressed the opinion that the dagger was wielded by a left-handed person. Mrs. Cunningham was left-handed. She and Eckel were taken into custody.

Shortly after her incarceration Mrs. Cunningham produced a marriage license showing that she and Burdell were married October 28, 1856, by Rev. Dr. Marvin.

It was the opinion of the authorities that she had some one bearing a striking resemblance to Burdell personate the doctor on this occasion, the object being that if the doctor should die suddenly, she, as his “wife” would demand her share of the property.

While in the Tombs awaiting trial, this woman conceived a remarkable idea. As the widow of Burdell, she expected to be able to procure one-third of the estate, but if she had a child she believed she could get the entire estate. She therefore informed Mrs. Foster, the matron of the prison, that she was in a delicate condition.

She was brought to trial but as the evidence was insufficient, she was acquitted. Eckel’s case was dropped without a trial.

After being released, Mrs. Cunningham continued her fight for the estate and continued to grow more “rotund.” As it was necessary to get some doctor into the conspiracy, she told Dr. Uhl that she would give him $1000 if he would procure a new-born child at the proper time, and make an affidavit that he attended her (Mrs. C.) during her confinement, and that she was the mother of the infant. The doctor pretended to enter into the conspiracy but he kept District Attorney Hall advised of all his movements.

Dr. Uhl then ascertained that a married woman expected to be confined about July 28, 1857, and he made arrangements to borrow the baby for a short time. Apartments were engaged at 190 Elm Street, where the child was born, and as soon as possible after its birth Mrs. Cunninghtm called, disguised as a Sister of Charity, and took the baby in a basket to her Bond-Street home.

She then became “very ill” and Dr. Uhl was sent for. After moaning and shrieking for some hours, the announcement was solemnly made that the child was born and that the mother was doing as well as could be expected.

But District Attorney Hall rudely interrupted the little play by appearing upon the scene with a policeman. Shortly afterward Mrs. Cunningham was truly confined—in jail, but was subsequently liberated without a trial.

P.T. Barnum engaged the mother and child and placed them on exhibition in his New York Museum for a short time.

In 1859, Mrs. Cunningham moved to San Francisco, where she married a retired sea captain. They resided on Geary Street near Kearny, next to the residence of Police Captain Douglass.

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