Harvey Burdell & Emma Cunningham

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.”

Emma Cunningham
Emma Cunningham
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.

Harvey Burdell
Harvey Burdell

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.


 NEW YORK DAILY TIMES, August 5, 1857
NEW YORK DAILY TIMES, August 5, 1857

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: