Monday, October 08, 2012

The Murderer in My Backyard

31 Days of Halloween continues with the thrilling and sensational tale of How I Found a Murderer in my own Backyard!

As I alluded to yesterday in my post on Poe sites in New York City, I happened to find a pretty incredible grave while walking in Green-Wood Cemetery. Now I walk in Green-Wood a lot, since I live across the street from it, and I thought I knew it pretty well.

This discovery was doubly exciting because, while I knew of the existence of this grave, I hadn't yet gotten around to hunting for it, and I actually wasn't looking for it at all yesterday. So I was amazed when suddenly, as I turned the corner on Oak Avenue, there it was! I didn't even see it -- my keen-eyed companion did.

"That's a cool gravestone," he said.

In response I gasped and exclaimed, "Oh my god do you know who that is!?! It's Harvey Burdell!"
Now that's not a name you come across every day. But for NYC history buffs, especially those like myself who value sensational thrills above nearly everything else, it's kind of awesome. Because Harvey Burdell was one of the city's most famous Victorian-era murder victims.

And his murderer rests in the same cemetery!

See!? Chills! Thrills!

It's all here!

Here's the story... picture it, New York, 1857:

Harvey Burdell was a dentist who lived in a town house at 31 Bond Street when his landlady, a gold-digging widow named Emma Cunningham, decided she was going to marry him. He was, at least financially, a stable, secure guy -- who wouldn't want that? The fact that Budell was a total womanizer and reputedly traded dental work for sex didn't faze her. She wanted a husband and made her intentions known. But Burdell wasn't about to buy the cow. From all accounts he liked his life just fine the way it was.

Well -- on January 30th, 1857, screams were heard coming from Burdell's office. No one bothered to investigate and the next morning his hired boy arrived at work to find the dentist dead in his own chair, strangled and stabbed and covered in blood.

A sensational trial ensued, naturally. Evidence piled up against Cunningham -- forensics suggested the killer was left-handed, for instance, and she was also left-handed -- but her lawyers used the "weaker-sex" defense and said no woman ever could've committed such a horrible, bloody crime.

It looked like Cunningham was going to get away with it. She was even able to produce a phony marriage certificate proven she and Burdell had secretly been married before his death, and it looked like she'd be able to cash in some insurance money with it. Though she spent some time in the Tombs while awaiting trial, she was ultimately acquitted.

But she got greedy.

After getting out of jail, Cunningham tried to fake a pregnancy to get even more cash out of the settlement and even went so far as to approach a doctor and ask for a baby she could pretend was hers. In a soap-worthy set up, she even staged a fake delivery, screaming behind a closed door for the benefit of the neighbors. But the doctor sold her out. He "delivered" her ... right into the hands of the police!

Cunningham was charged with fraud, her marriage claim to Burdell was invalidated, and she died in poverty and alone. And now? Now she is buried in the cheap seats in Green-Wood, in an impossible-to-find grave in a public lot, next to a bus station.


Undine said...

Oh, good heavens. The Burdell killing is one of my favorite--if I can use that word--true crime cases. I wasn't aware Green-Wood figured in it. (And how can that cemetery stay in place with all the bodies that must be turning over in it?)

You know, Emma Cunningham is one of my favorite murderesses. I don't doubt she was in on Burdell's killing, but, by God, the fake baby saga almost had me rooting for her to pull it off.

Andrea Janes said...

Ha ha, I know! The fake baby/fake birthing scheme was so "Days of Our Lives" I can't help rooting for old Emma a little bit, too!