Cunningham-Burdell Murder Case

The Cunningham-Burdell murder case scandalized and fascinated 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.


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.


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



Western Union on Display

I was walking downtown the other evening (enjoying the finally-spring weather), when I happened across a history display in the windows of a building! 60 Hudson Street was built to be the headquarters of the Western Union Company, and while it no longer holds that position, several of its windows have displays about the history of the company.


One window displayed telegraphs that had been sent through Western Union, and my favorite was this one, sent from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald.



Roscoe Conkling & Herman Melville

It’s easy to forget how many notable people spent part of their lives in New York City. Sure, we New Yorkers think our city is the center of the universe, but we forget how many others through the ages have been of the same opinion. This blog hasn’t been around that long, and we’ve already written about Alexander Hamilton’s grave, Edgar Allan Poe’s house, Dylan Thomas’s favorite bar, and a restaurant George Washington visited. Recently, near Madison Square Park, I stumbled across the stories of two other notable New Yorkers (okay, one probably has a more recognizable name than the other).


In the southeast corner of the park itself is a statue of Roscoe Conkling, New York congressman and mayor of Utica. Conkling was caught in a blizzard in Union Square while walking north towards 25th Street, and died a month later; his friends had wanted to erect a statue of him in that park, but:

Park officials believed Conkling not of a stature to warrant placement of this work alongside existing sculptures in the park of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Marquis de Lafayette.

So the statue found its home in Madison Square Park instead.


A few blocks away, at 104 E 26th Street, a plaque marks the location of Herman Melville’s New York residence. Melville lived there from 1863 to the end of his life; he’s buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Conkling died just 3 years before Melville — while Melville was living in his house on E 26th Street. It’s funny to think that they might well have passed each other on the street, or concurrently milled in Madison Square Park. Now both have memorials only a few blocks apart.


Location: Roscoe Conkling: southeast corner of Madison Square Park, Madison Avenue and E 23rd Street; Herman Melville: 104 E 26th Street, between Park Avenue S and Lexington Avenue
Nearest Public Transit: 6 at 23 St or 28 St; R/W at 23 St; F/M at 23 St
Cost: Free
Website (Madison Square Park)

Set in New York: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The main character of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francie Nolan, a daughter of Irish and Austrian immigrants who grows in poverty in early 20th-century Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Obviously, Francie‚Äôs Williamsburg looks quite different from today’s: birthplace of the hipster and now home to luxury high-rise condos. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ends in 1918, when Francie is 17 years old — almost a century ago.

Strikingly, many of the names of places and streets have stayed the same through the years, even as the structures around and along them have changed. But you can still find a few remainders of that era, from the church Francie would have attended to the subway station (then the “El”) where she would have boarded the train to Manhattan.

Continue reading “Set in New York: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith”

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.


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.

Continue reading “Cypress Hills Cemetery & The Evergreens Cemetery”

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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Fraunces Tavern Museum

Possibly the oldest surviving building in Manhattan, 54 Pearl Street was constructed in 1719 as the home of Stephen Delancey (Delancey Street was named after his son James), converted to the Queen’s Head Tavern in 1762, and later renamed Fraunces Tavern.


The Tavern is inextricably tied up in New York’s history; besides the connection to the Delanceys, it was the site of George Washington’s farewell dinner for his troops, and briefly housed government offices, before the capital of the United States moved to Philadelphia.

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