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

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).

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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.

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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.

–Ellen

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)

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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Continue reading “Trinity Church and Cemetery”

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.

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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.

Continue reading “Fraunces Tavern Museum”

‘Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesman, Scoundrel’ at the NYPL

There are just a few days left to see the NYPL’s Alexander Hamilton exhibit, “Striver, Statesman, Scoundrel,” which closes on December 31st. Though it’s a modest one, contained in one small room off the lobby of the Schwarzman Building, it’s still worth visiting for history (or musical) buffs, especially since the NYPL’s exhibitions are generally free!

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The exhibit displays a selection of its holdings, including some interesting pieces — such as Hamilton’s draft of George Washington’s farewell address. There aren’t, however, a large number in Hamilton’s own hand. Some of the pieces are from people associated with Hamilton, such as Aaron Burr and the Schuyler family.

Fans of Hamilton the musical will recognize the title of this screed by the founding father:

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And, of course, the famous duel with Aaron Burr takes up a good amount of real estate, including the whole back wall, which reproduces an artist’s depiction of the fatal shot.

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While you’re at the Schwarzman Building, you can also check out an exhibition called “A Writer’s Christmas” — definitely on my list for sometime between now and when it closes on January 8th!

Ellen

Location: NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 476 Fifth Avenue (main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 41st Street)
Nearest Public Transit: B/D/F/M at 42 St-Bryant Park
Estimated Timespan: For just the Hamilton exhibit, 15-20 minutes
Cost: Free
Website

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Favorite St. Patrick’s Cathedral fact: when the cornerstone was laid, in 1858, the church was so far outside the “city” that it was ridiculed as “Hughes’s Folly.” If I ever have access to a time machine, my first stops will be to various points in New York’s past; I’d like to see the time when Midtown was nothing but wilderness and no one thought the city would ever extend so far north.

Now, of course, St. Patrick’s is the epitome of an urban church, sandwiched between Rockefeller Center and Madison Avenue, surrounded by luxury shopping. (The Manhattan flagship location of Burberry is a block away.) Unlike downtown Trinity Church — only a decade or two older than St. Patrick’s — which sticks out like a 19th century oasis among the modern buildings, the imposing, almost ostentatious cathedral seems to fit right in with its surroundings and the Midtown crowds.

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Unsurprisingly for a church with a ~150-year history and many wealthy patrons, St. Patrick’s is stuffed with ornate art, from stained glass windows to elaborate altars lining the north and south walls to sculptures, such as a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà (according to my tour guide, 3 times the size of the original, necessitating some changes in the figures’ arrangements). There are altars dedicated to a number of saints, including one with an unorthodox aesthetic commemorating Elizabeth Seton, an early American saint (and a New Yorker).

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Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, known as the first American saint
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The Pietà

St. Patrick’s is open to visitors every day, including public masses. They also offer guided tours on most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (check the schedule), or by appointment for larger groups. If you can time your visit for a guided tour, I recommend it, since guides can take you into the high altar and the crypt — both otherwise closed to visitors.

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A view of St. Patrick’s from the high altar, looking west
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“In this crypt lie the remains of the archbishops of New York – Requiescant in pace”

So — worth a visit? If you’re Catholic and the cathedral is personally, religiously meaningful to you, definitely. If you’re going more for the history or art, there’s certainly plenty of both to be had. For a short-term trip to New York, though, I don’t think this is a necessity on your schedule.

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Ellen

Location: 5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
Nearest Public Transit: E/M at 5 Av/53 St; 6 at 51 St; B/D/F/M at 47-50 Sts – Rockefeller Ctr
Estimated Timespan: Tour takes approximately 1 hour
Cost: Free ($5 suggested donation)
Website

The Merchant’s House Museum: “Manhattan’s Most Haunted House”

The Merchant’s House Museum is a perfect place to get yourself in the mood for Halloween; it’s reputed to be “Manhattan’s most haunted house,” according to the New York Times. In fact, few people who put together a list of haunted places in New York City seem to be able to resist it. For example:

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The house at 29 East 4th Street has come up a couple times in my reading lately. First, a couple months ago, I read Henry James’s Washington Square for the first time, and learned not long afterwards that James allegedly based his heroine, Catherine Sloper, on a real historical Village resident, Gertrude Tredwell. Then I read Footprints in New York, which went into some detail about Gertrude’s life and the house in which she lived (from birth until death).

During the week leading up to Halloween (and once a month the rest of the year), the Merchant’s House hosts candlelit ghost tours. I’m a raving skeptic, but also a sucker for a good ghost story, and this house has plenty of them. The tours take place after dark, most of the rooms lit with nothing but candles and the guides’ flashlights as you learn about the possible ghostly inhabitants, including Gertrude, her father, and several of her siblings.

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The ghost tour is a bit light on the history, focusing instead on recounting visitors’ and staff members’ strange experiences and the results of various paranormal “investigations.” But they’ve made the house effectively atmospheric — enough to make this skeptic shiver once or twice. I’ll just have to go back in daylight to fill in the gaps.

Ellen

Location: 29 East 4th Street, Manhattan
Nearest Public Transit: N/R at 8 St – NYU; 6 at Astor Place; B/D/F/M at Broadway-Lafayette St
Estimated Timespan: Candlelit tours take 1 hour
Cost: General Admission: $13; Special Events/Tours: Prices vary
Website