I decided to go on a little adventure today, so I took a trip out to see the Our Most Holy Trinity Cemetery here in Brooklyn. It is way to hell out on the outskirts of Bushwick, located on the end of a desolate street. I’ve included a map of where it’s located, in case anyone is interested in seeing this strange little cemetery. It’s worth the trip–and if you are in Manhattan, you can take the L train directly there. (Or you can drive like I did, and end up getting hopelessly lost on your way home.)
While this little Roman Catholic cemetery is not nearly as huge or beautiful or just plain nuts as Green-Wood, it has one unique characteristic: almost all of the monuments are made out of metal.
According to the Our Most Holy Trinity Cemetery web site “…from the earliest days, stone monuments were not allowed because no distinctions were permitted to be made between the rich and the poor.”
I found this cemetery wonderfully strange and serene. There were no other people there besides me and a very bored looking security guard. I asked him if a lot of people visited, and he answered, “over 100 years old”. Then I asked him why there were so many Virgin Marys sunk in the ground and he replied, “people buried underground.” So needless to say, I quit trying to ask the security guard questions.
This was the headstone that gave me the idea to start writing this blog in the first place. I took this picture in February of 2013, when I first started exploring Green-Wood. As usual, I was wandering around aimlessly, and didn’t bother to keep track of where I had been. As a result, I have not been able to find this headstone again (of course). I’ll find you again one of these days, Edgar C. Dean!
Edgar C. Dean, 26 years old, sailed on the Steamship Pacific on January 23, 1856 from Liverpool. That much we can gather from the stone. I did some digging, but there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could find out about young Edgar or his family.
An 1855 census lists him as living with his father, two sisters and an Irish servant in downtown Manhattan. His occupation is listed as “seaman”.
His father, William E. Dean, was a printer. His business was located at 72 Frankfort Street, just down the block from Tammany Hall. As far as I can tell, the Dean family home was nearby on Church Street.
The ship that Edgar was lost on–the Steamship Pacific–was built in 1849. This ship was large, luxurious, and fast: in 1850 she broke the record for fastest transatlantic crossing.
She spanned 281 feet and was powered by two precision side-lever engines, each with a 95 inch cylinder traversing a massive 9 foot stroke. At full bore, she delivered 13 knots with all four boilers in service and consumed up to 85 tons of coal a day. The passenger compartments were just as impressive. They were spacious, finely trimmed and furnished with steam heat, an innovation of the day. The ship had many amenities to suit the passenger’s needs including bathrooms, smoking rooms, a barber shop and even a french chef in the kitchen. The reason for the elaborate extras was to compete with Britain’s Cunard line. The SS Pacific and her three sister ships, Atlantic, Arctic and Baltic, were financed by the US government and specifically built to win back America dominance in transatlantic traffic. Together they made up the new Collins Line – a small group of larger, faster, and more comfortable passenger vessels.
Here’s where it gets interesting: On January 23, 1856 the SS Pacific and all 189 people on board vanished without a trace. Most assumed that she had hit icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland due to the fact that it had been a particularly cold and iceberg-filled winter. However, five years later, a beachcomber walking on the shore of Hebrides Island in Ulst (Scotland) found a message in a bottle from a British sea captain who was a passenger on the ship.
The note inside read:
On board the Pacific, from L’pool to N. York. Ship going down. (Great) confusion on board. Icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss, that friends may not live in suspense. The finder of this will please get it published,
A message in a bottle. Six years later. Well how do you like that.
Harvey Burdell’s monument is hard to miss; it’s oddly modern-looking and standing by itself at the corner of Lanscape and Oak, just down the street from Horace Greeley. Turns out, this headstone was actually placed there in 2007 thanks to the efforts of writer Benjamin Feldman, who felt as though this was a story worth preserving. And it is–it’s nuts.
Harvey Burdell (1811-1857) was a dentist who moved to New York to start a practice with his brother in 1834. Their offices were located on Bond Street, which at the time was a kind of seedy part of town with a lot of brothels. According to Murder by Gaslight‘s excellent account:
“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 1854, Burdell met Emma Cunningham, a recent widow with 5 children. Emma and Harvey were an instant item, and vacationed together in Saratoga Springs that summer. In the fall, she found out that she was pregnant. Burdell forced her to get an abortion, and according to pretty much every source I’ve read, “may have” performed it himself.
Eventually, he leased Emma the building his offices were located in, at 31 Bond. She and her five children lived on the first floor, and she ran a boardinghouse in the building. Harvey maintained his apartment and dental offices on the second floor. Things seemed idyllic for a while, but then their relationship started to fall apart after Burdell started a fling with his cousin Dimis. He also had sex with a lot of his patients (including prostitutes) in his office upstairs, which upset Emma. They fought a lot, and he started avoiding her and discretely started to make plans to replace her as the landlady of the boardinghouse.
On the morning of January 31, 1857, Burdell’s dramatically disfigured body was found in his blood-drenched office. He had been strangled and stabbed fifteen times with a dagger.
Everyone in the household was questioned. Emma Cunningham produced a marriage certificate and claimed that she and Harvey had been secretly married. This, it turned out, was an elaborate scam: Emma had been married, but to another man who told the priest his name was Harvey Burdell (didn’t they check his I.D.?).
The police determined that the killer was left-handed. Emma was left-handed. She was arrested and charged with murder.
The trial began in May of the next year, and lasted only three days. It was a HUGE event at the time, pretty much the 1850s equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial. Every square inch of the courtroom was packed with onlookers, and the newspapers carried every sordid detail they could find.
Emma Cunningham was found not guilty, unbelievably enough. And now the story gets super weird. While in prison, she claimed she was not only married to Burdell, but pregnant with his child. This was not true, but she wanted to lay claim to his substantial estate, so she came up with a plan that is right out of The Young and the Restless: Emma attempted to convince a doctor to supply her with a stolen baby from Bellevue Hospital, and then she’d pretend to give birth to it. This doctor–Dr. Uhl–was no dummy. He went straight to the district attorney’s office and told them what was going on.
When the time came to “give birth”, Emma dressed up like a nun and smuggled the baby in a basket from Dr. Uhl’s office. She then returned home and had Dr. Uhl fake-deliver her baby as she cried and moaned behind a closed door like someone in labor. As soon as she was finished and Dr. Uhl came out the door to present the baby, federal agents charged in and arrested her for fraud.
I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. Crazy!
Emma Cunningham moved to California, where she eventually married again. (WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD MARRY THIS WOMAN?) She died in poverty in New York City in 1887.
By the way, it took me FOREVER to find Emma Cunningham’s headstone. I mistakenly thought it would be near Harvey Burdell’s grave and spent several hours (several idiotic hours) walking around that area. I could only find a few photos of it online, so I had to use the things I saw in the background as clues to where it was. I finally realized that I had been standing right next to this headstone when I went for a walk a few weeks back and stopped to look at a curious child statue at the rear of the Meyer family plot. Of course, I couldn’t remember where that was, which resulted in a lot more wandering. Now, I don’t mind wandering–after all, that’s what this whole blog is kind of about–but it was driving me crazy that I couldn’t find this headstone.
Well, long story short, I finally found it today:
And once and for all, here are some damned maps:
Oh, and on an entirely unrelated note, here is the curious child statue on the Meyer family plot:
I wander around Green-Wood Cemetery. I take pictures. I Google stuff.