History Mysteries

Murder of Harvey Burdell

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Dr. Harvey Burdell was a prominent New York City dentist before he was brutally murdered in 1857. He was said to have been a difficult man with a quick temper, but an able dentist. He both lived and worked in his home at 31 Bond St., which was also kept as a boarding house. He made plenty of money for himself and was worth roughly 100,000 dollars (a large sum for the time) at the time of his death. However, there were rumors that he was stingy when it came to paying back debts. But for all of his faults, there seemed to be no one with a good reason to kill him, or at least not good enough for a jury to find them guilty of it.

On January 30, 1857, at around 8:00 a.m., a young servant of Dr. Burdell's entered Harvey's room to find him dead on the floor. The doctor was covered in blood and there was blood on the floor around him and on the walls of the hallway outside of his room. Further investigation uncovered a bloodied sheet and shirt inside of a storage room. The examination of Harvey Burdell's body revealed that he had been stabbed fifteen times by a left-handed person. There were also ligature wounds on his neck, suggesting that he had also been strangled. There was only one person close to Harvey that was left-handed and could've committed the murder. Her name was Emma Cunningham.

Emma Cunningham came to work for Dr. Burdell as a housekeeper around 1854. She was given some rooms in his home for her and her children. She was the widow of a relatively wealthy man, but had spent all of the money that had been left to her, which amounted to 10,000 dollars. In 1956 the doctor began leasing the house to Emma, while he kept his rooms there. She maintained a boarding house with the rest of the rooms and one of her tenants was named John Eckel. There were rumors that Cunningham had a sexual relationship with John Eckel and also with Harvey Burdell and that things may have been tense among the three.

Emma was arrested for the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell along with her supposed lover, John Eckel, who was thought to have been an accomplice. She and John were brought to trial soon after and a courtroom drama that would become the trial of the century ensued. Once in jail, Emma told the authorities that she had been married to Burdell and that she was bearing his child. Testimony from some witnesses said that the pair had disliked each other, others said that they got along well.

Rumors and hearsay were the order of the trial and it got even fishier when a doctor revealed to the prosecutor that he believed that Emma was faking her pregnancy. However, she forbade him to examine her, so his suspicions could not be put to the test. If it had turned out that she was indeed married to the doctor and bearing his child, she would have inherited his 100,000 dollar estate. So there was at least motive to lie about that. Nonetheless, Cunningham and Eckel were both found not guilty of the murder by a jury of their peers.

After the trial, police kept an eye on Emma and caught her in an attempt to buy a baby and pass the infant off as her and Burdell's child. At this point, she was forced to admit defeat in the case of the estate. This lie brought about further suspicion concerning the murder, but she had already been acquitted, so she could not be tried again. If Emma was indeed the killer and Eckel was in on it, they both got away with murder, if not, the killer managed to cover his or her trail well and was never even arrested. The murder remains unsolved.


Emma Cunningham, retrieved 9/1/09, sthweb.bu.edu/shaw/anna-howard-shaw-center/biography?view=mediawiki&article=Emma_Cunningham

Medina, Miriam, September 1, 2003, The Most Celebrated Crime of the 19th Century: The Murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell, retrieved 9/1/09, thehistorybox.com/ny_city_crime_19th_century_dr_burdell_article00427.htm

More about this author: Shelly Barclay

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