Cunningham-Burdell Murder Case

The Cunningham-Burdell murder case scandalized and fascinating 1850s New York society. Emma Hempstead Cunningham was a widow with five children and Dr. Harvey Burdell a dentist with a thriving practice when they met and began a tumultuous relationship. In January 1857, Burdell was found horrifically murdered on the floor of his office. Not long after, Cunningham appeared with the claim that they’d been secretly married and she was the heir to his estate. Instead, she was rewarded with murder charges.

Cunningham was a landlord, and Burdell her tenant; both lived and worked at 31 Bond Street in NoHo, an area that no more than a decade prior had been a tony residential neighborhood, home to the Astors and other elite New York families. By the late 1850s, though, the area was on a downward slide. The property of 31 Bond Street still exists, but not, alas, the house: the building that’s currently standing there was built in 1900, long after both Burdell and Cunningham were deceased.

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Though Cunningham was ultimately acquitted of murder, the taint of the case stuck with her for the rest of her life. She died in poverty in 1887, thirty years later. Both Cunningham and Burdell were buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. For a long time, the graves were unmarked, but headstones were erected for both in 2007. The amazing resource Find A Grave provides latitude and longitude for the location of Cunningham’s grave, and section/lot information for Burdell’s.

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(Sources: New York Times, Smithsonian, Murder by Gaslight)

–Ellen

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Cypress Hills Cemetery & The Evergreens Cemetery

There’s an area of Brooklyn and Queens that, by my count, contains at least ten distinct, contiguous cemeteries and at least two public parks. I’m not sure of their origin, except that several seem to have been established around the same time. Were they originally more distant then merged together as their boundaries grew? Or was this simply viewed as a good spot for a cemetery?

At any rate, I saw only two of them on my visit — my first visit, that is; if nothing else, I want to return to see Harry Houdini’s grave in nearby Machpelah Cemetery! And I suspect the others have hidden historical gems as well.

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First on my itinerary was Cypress Hills Cemetery, where I had a vague notion of attempting to find three notable gravesites: those of artist Piet Mondrian and of the “spiritualist” sisters Margaret and Kate Fox. I failed in both attempts, since the cemetery map I found online was not very detailed and signs on the lots didn’t seem to line up with it. After a while, I gave up and just wandered.

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Trinity Church and Cemetery

There are any number of fascinating cemeteries in New York City, but Trinity Church’s three cemeteries may have the highest proportion of familiar names — and if you’re a Revolutionary War buff or a Hamilton fan, the original, downtown cemetery easily takes the cake. (The uptown Cemetery & Mausoleum has some very interesting people as well… but that’s a subject for another post.)

The Trinity Church you can see today is the third on this spot; the original building was built in 1696 but, unfortunately, burned to the ground in 1776. However, the nearby St. Paul’s Chapel is part of the parish of Trinity Church, and may be the second oldest surviving building in Manhattan, after Fraunces Tavern. (It, too, is the subject for another post.) The current Trinity Church was completed in 1846, making it still quite distinguished in age.

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‘Into the Veil’ at Green-Wood Cemetery

I like events.  I am not always a free wanderer by nature – when I visit new locations, I like to have something of a goal in mind, and then let the wandering happen as part of my comings or goings.  So as part of the background research for this blog, I ended up browsing the “events” sections of the various locations I wanted to visit.  And that was how I ultimately stumbled upon Into the Veil.

(Sorry, guys, no pictures in this one – the few I took were too dim or blurry to be of any use. It is very hard to capture the appropriate spookiness of a cemetery after dark without it looking like an old-timey photo of a “ghost”. Which, while appropriate in this case, is not actually visually useful.)

Green-Wood Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark and a Revolutionary War historic site, founded in 1838. It is sprawling and hilly, a known destination for bird-watchers, and has been a filming location for Flight of the Conchords, and the three best Law & Orders. It really is a beautiful park space, if you don’t mind the gentle disquiet of so many dead buried beneath you. (Like Washington Square Park, but actually advertised as a burial site, thus, with fewer acrobatics.)

Into the Veil is an event run jointly by the cemetery and by “hidden gem”-seekers Atlas Obscura. We queued up after dark and were admitted into the cemetery with a map and a self-provided flashlight. The map in question did not cover the park’s entire 478 acres (more than twice the size of Governor’s Island), but had marked out a designated area where guests could find various events, such as bands, live theatrical performances, or tarot card readings. Beyond the suggestions of the map, which did not give times and only the thinnest of navigational directions, attendees were allowed to explore freely.

My companion and I, who had not bothered to bring flashlights, and decided that maps were “for suckers,” immediately wandered off the suggested paths and found ourselves exploring the cemetery as a whole, stumbling upon all kinds of statuary. It was a gorgeous night, a day or two away from full moon, and the grounds were brilliantly illuminated, so it was a pleasant stroll back to the sanctioned activities, which at that point were lit by the largest collection of tealights I have seen in my life. Half the fun was traveling through the dark to follow clusters of tealights or the faint strains of music to a party locale. We got drastically veered off course at one point*, following a parade of bagpipers.

*We got drastically veered off course at several points, this was just the best one, because of the bagpipers.

In spite of the occasional cocktail tables provided by local bars, everything was tinged with a distinct air of spookiness.  Green-Wood opened up a few mausoleums and some of its other famous highlights as event spaces for the night.  There was a band playing under cover of neon lights at the back of the Catacombs.  A drum circle raged joyously but ominously in the center of the always creepy Circle.  (The Circle is even creepier at night ringed by tealights, while drums beat.  Of all the times in the evening I joked that we were about to meet our untimely demise at the hands of something supernatural, this was the time that I meant it.)  The biggest crowd of the most drunken revelers could be found at Sylvan Water, stretched out on the thoughtfully provided blankets, watching circus acts performed across the water, backlit by a mausoleum.

The event concluded at midnight, though was tough to accurately police a speedy exit, so our night petered out pleasantly atop one of the hills, under a full moon so bright it felt like waiting for the sunrise, while bagpipers gathered behind us to lure in a crowd for one last mournful parade.

-Casey

Location: Main gate at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street, with gates at Fourth Avenue and 35th Street, Fort Hamilton Parkway, and Prospect Park West
Nearest Public Transit: R train at 25th St
Estimated Timespan: 1-3 hours
Cost: Free (Note: Into the Veil and other tours and events are largely not free)
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