Dr. Harvey Burdell

A New York Puzzle

The murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell resembles in many of its aspects that of Benjamin Nathan. The two were equally barbarous, the intent of the assassin or assassins was deadly and merciless, both men were swiftly done to death in their own rooms in the dead of night; Benjamin Nathan had no time to utter the faintest cry, Harvey Burdell’s life was cut off in the midst of a word, one half of which alone escaped his lips; in each case there was not the slightest sign that the murderer had broken into the house. Suspicion, it is true, rested upon certain of the inmates, but if that suspicion was justified, the demeanour of the suspected persons, and the undisturbed coolness with which they underwent a trying examination, baffled all attempts to fix the crime upon any one person.

Of the two murders, Benjamin Nathan’s was the most difficult to solve. Robbery was alleged, but the murder was apparently without a motive. This can hardly be said as regards Harvey Burdell’s. The crime in his case possessed more features appealing to human interest. There was romance​—​perhaps not of a very elevated kind, but romance, notwithstanding​—​there was intrigue, there was a mercenary instinct, and last and most important of all, a woman, handsome and fascinating, loomed largely in the involved threads which the law failed to disentangle. The story, indeed, has all the materials ready to the hand of a writer of sensational fiction, and the wonder is that these materials have not been so utilized. But perhaps fictionists felt that the narrative, so much of it as became public, could not be bettered.

On the night of January 29th, 1857, at about a quarter to eleven, a Mr. Ross, walking along Bond Street, New York, saw in front of him, at 150 feet distance or so, a tall, stout, well-built man with a shawl about his shoulders. The man stopped at No. 31, opened the door with his latchkey, and went inside. “When I got about a house and a half or two houses on I heard the cry of ‘Murd​—​’ short like that, the word wasn’t finished,” said Ross afterwards.

About the same time a Mr. Strangman was in Bond Street near No. 31, but on the opposite side of the way. “I heard a sharp, stifled cry … the cry was loud and like that of a person in agony; it was a sort of a shrill cry,” so he described it. “I looked up and down Bond Street at the time and saw no person in the street.”

Mr. Brooks, living at 36 Bond Street, nearly opposite No. 31, also heard the sound. “The first syllable Mur was distinct but the der was prolonged and guttural,” he declared. “I was going to bed.… I instantly sprang on a chest of drawers and through the venetian blinds which were shut I could distinctly see this house (No. 31) … the night being very still, I thought I heard a noise as of shuffling on a floor.… I looked up the street in order to see if garotters were around; I saw nothing further.”

A man named Farrell was in Bond Street between ten and eleven o’clock, and coming to No. 31, he sat down on the doorstep to lace up his shoe. While he was doing this two men approached him, one of whom came on to the step, the other passing on. “In a half minute or so after the man went into the house I heard a cry of murder; I said to myself there’s a muss in this house.” Farrell’s idea was there had been too much drinking. “In probably a minute,” Farrell went on to say, “I heard the retreating step of the man who had gone in; when the noise was over I heard a door open; after the cry I heard a noise of a shaking as if something solid like a barrel had been turned down. In half a minute a man came to the door and opened it. I looked up and he said, ‘What are you doing there?’ The man was in his shirt sleeves. I thought he had been sent by the man who first went in to turn me off the step, and I took my shoe in my hand to three or four doors off. The man who went into the house had a shawl on. The sound I heard was like that of someone choking.”

The statements of these four men may be likened to a prologue to a drama, in this case one of the most perplexing and involved to be found in the annals of murder. The mystery might have been straightened out had it been in the hands of a competent coroner, but the official to whom was entrusted its investigation​—​called by the New York Tribune Mr. Coroner Dogberry, and not without cause​—​was a fussy dogmatic person, who did not seem to be able to distinguish between what was important evidence and what was not. He summoned a crowd of witnesses who had nothing to say that was material, and detained in custody, apparently on the whim of the moment, witnesses who had not the least intention of absenting themselves, witnesses whom at the instance of a higher court he had to release. The result was the accumulation of an overwhelming mass of so-called evidence through which one has to toil painfully in the task of sifting the wheat from the chaff. To make matters worse, it was the habit of the American reporter of the day to take down every word, even to the veriest trivialities, and during the coroner’s enquiry some 150 columns in the smallest type available appeared in the Tribune. A quarter of this would have sufficed.

From the outset one is faced by a multitude of discrepancies, irrelevancies and speculations which serve no purpose, and only produce upon the mind a feeling of hopeless confusion. Confusion in the Burdell case went far beyond the Nathan affair, bad as that was. In what we have termed the prologue we have four witnesses who speak to the same thing, but in a manner which suggests that their statements were as much imaginative as truthful. At the very moment Ross, after seeing the shawled man go into No. 31, heard the first syllable of, the word “murder,” Strangman was in Bond Street and heard the cry too, but he declares that he saw no person in the street. Brookes, living opposite, heard the whole of the word and other sounds, but saw nothing. Yet all this time Farrell was seated on the steps of No. 31; the shawled man had to pass him in order to enter the house, and the door was opened within a minute or so and Farrell told to move off. All this passed unnoticed by the others. What is still more extraordinary is that four persons should hear the cry of “murder” and do nothing. The impulse, surely, should have been to inform the police, but not one seems to have cared, and so the thing was allowed to drift.

At No. 31 lived Dr. Harvey Burdell, a surgeon dentist, a man some forty-six years old, portly, robust, and with a reputation which bespoke him a free liver, especially as regards women. The testimony of a dentist who knew him intimately was that he was a mercenary, selfish man of strong passions. He was easily excited, but was not a man who would be likely to attack another; he would cool down if a person spoke sharply to him. All the same he quarrelled with everyone with whom he came in contact; he quarrelled with his partners, he quarrelled with all his relatives and had law suits with most of them.

He was the owner of No. 31 Bond Street, and keeping one room for his own use he let out the rest, and the characters of some of the occupants were said to be somewhat questionable. He used his room for dentistry purposes and slept there on a sofa, getting his meals in cheap restaurants. In his employment was a rather remarkable Irish servant girl, whom he treated more like a dog than a human being. He did not provide her with a bed or anything to sleep upon. He paid her a small salary on which she supported herself as best she could. Besides English she could speak French, German, Spanish, and had a great passion for studying and learning languages. She slept sitting on a stool in the kitchen below the hall door, so if any person rang the bell or entered the house at any time of night, she would know it and attend them. This Irish prodigy appears to have been the discovery of one of the Tribune’s energetic reporters. She does not figure in the inquest, as from the fact that she was on duty all night she surely should have done, and most likely she belonged to one of Dr. Burdell’s former abodes, though it is not so precisely stated; maybe she was not at Bond Street at all.

In view of what happened on the night of Friday, January 30th, it is of the first importance to know who besides Dr. Burdell lived in the house. There were Mrs. Cunningham, a handsome widow with two daughters, a Mr. John L. Eckel, generally supposed to be paying court to Mrs. Cunningham, a young man of eighteen named Snodgrass who was extremely attentive to Mrs. Cunningham’s daughters, Helen and Augusta, the Hon. Daniel Ulman, and Hannah Coulan, Mrs. Cunningham’s cook. Burdell’s Irish servant we may discard as non-existent.

We take up the thread of the narrative somewhere about eight o’clock on Saturday morning. John Burchell, an errand boy employed at No. 31 Bond Street, went, as was his custom, to carry coals and make up fires, and left a scuttle of coals at Dr. Burdell’s door. The door was closed and the key outside, an unusual thing, said the boy. Later on he went into the doctor’s room to ask for instructions concerning the duties of the day, and caught sight of blood on the wall and on the cupboard door. He went a step or two further and saw his master lying face downward on the floor in the midst of a pool of blood. Terribly frightened, the lad ran away, told Hannah the cook what he had seen, and the two rushed upstairs to Mrs. Cunningham. Mrs. Cunningham began to cry and the boy was sent by Snodgrass to fetch assistance. By this time it was established that the doctor was dead.

Medical examination showed signs of strangulation. In addition, there were fifteen incised wounds on the body, chiefly about the neck and chest, the weapon in one instance having been used with such force that the heart was penetrated. All the wounds, declared the surgeon, appeared to have been inflicted with the same instrument, probably eight inches long, sharp-pointed, and about three-quarters of an inch in breadth.

There were no indications of robbery, no signs of the house having been broken into, no evidence that any outside person bore Dr. Burdell a grudge sufficiently bitter to suggest murder; the conclusion arrived at was that the assassin was someone residing within the house. The conduct of the inquest, indeed, was directed towards this end; from the very beginning the coroner made up his mind in regard to certain of the inmates. This bias led him to dig up everything bearing upon their antecedents, and to the introduction of a huge mass of irrelevant matter, the only effect of which was to obscure the real issue.

The movements of the occupants on the night in question appear to have been as follows: About ten o’clock Mrs. Cunningham sent her servant to bed and some time between ten and eleven retired herself, as did the others, with the exception of Mr. Ulman. The servant and two little boys slept in one attic, Mr. Snodgrass in another on the fourth floor, Mrs. Cunningham and her daughters occupied a room on the third floor, Mr. Eckel another room on the same floor, and Mr. Ulman in a third room also on this floor. None of these persons, according to their evidence, was disturbed during the night of the murder by any unusual noise or cry.

By the time the murder was discovered on the following morning, Mrs. Cunningham, her daughters, and Mr. Snodgrass had breakfasted. Mr. Eckel on that morning, left the house before breakfast to fulfil a business engagement, and Mr. Ulman, who did not board in the house, had not risen. He had come home the night before at half-past twelve, and he asserted he had heard no noise. Accepting the evidence of Ross, Strangman, Brooks and Farrell, already alluded to, the time the murder was committed is fixed at a quarter to eleven, and this was borne out by the coldness and rigidity of the corpse and the dryness of the blood with which its clothes had been saturated. Taking this important fact as established, the question naturally arises how came it that none of the inmates, who could only have just gone to bed at the moment of the murder, did not hear the cry which was so audible to four persons outside the house? The testimony of the occupants, however, remained unshaken and the matter must remain as it is.

The investigation into the mystery of the murder had not proceeded more than a few hours when the affair took a startling turn. Mrs. Cunningham declared that, on the evening of the 28th of October of the previous year, she had been secretly married to Dr. Burdell by the Rev. Mr. Marvine, her eldest daughter being one witness and the clergyman’s maidservant another, the marriage taking place at the house of the clergyman who performed the ceremony. Like every circumstance of this most extraordinary case, the story of the secret marriage was clouded by doubt. Mr. Marvine, who was called before the coroner, had no hesitation in identifying Mrs. Cunningham as the woman he had married, but was unable to identify the corpse of Dr. Burdell as that of the husband, although either at the time of the marriage or on the following day when the latter came to him for the marriage certificate his attention had been attracted by the peculiar appearance of the man’s whiskers, which led him to think that they were false. The clergyman’s maidservant also could not identify the dead body as that of the man whose marriage she had witnessed.

The further this matter was probed the more puzzling did it become. Mrs. Cunningham’s two maidservants stated, among other points, that Dr. Burdell for some time preceding the alleged marriage took his meals in the house which the lady occupied in part, as already mentioned, but from the date of the marriage he had not only discontinued doing so, but had refused to eat articles of food and beverages which she had sent to him from her table; he had not occupied the same sleeping apartments and had not appeared to regard or treat her as his wife. One of the servants went further than this, and made assertions as to an intimate association between Mrs. Cunningham and Eckel.

Eckel was said to have formerly been a butcher, and at the time of the murder was a dealer in hides and tallow in a somewhat extensive way of business, as he had three stores. A mystery attaches to Eckel which was not elucidated. He was completely bald and he had a fancy for wearing wigs of different colours which completely changed his appearance. The purpose of this eccentricity was not revealed, but it may have had some relation to the secret marriage, as will be seen later on. The Rev. Mr. Marvine’s inability to recognise Dr. Burdell as the man whom he married to Mrs. Cunningham and his remark that he fancied the man’s whiskers were false are certainly suggestive. However this may be, Eckel was undoubtedly on very intimate terms with Mrs. Cunningham, but all the ingenuity and redundancy of the coroner could not connect him with the death of Dr. Burdell. Yet, if the evidence of Farrell is to be depended upon, suspicion, indirectly, rested upon Eckel. This evidence is entitled to consideration.

Now from the second-story room door, where the murder was committed, down to the street door, were slight marks of fresh blood, in addition to marks upon the inside knob and upon the edge of the street door, at a height of about four feet from the floor. There was no blood on the outside door knob, the inference being that the murderer, while his hands were bloody, did not leave the house and close the door behind him. Farrell, it will be recalled, said that a man, whom he subsequently identified as Eckel, came to the door a few seconds after he (Farrell) heard the sounds which resembled choking, followed by a fall like that of a barrel. This man, Farrell said further, holding the door with his right hand on the inner knob and his left on the edge of the door, put his head out and, perceiving Farrell sitting on the steps, ordered him away fiercely and forcibly. The important point in connection with the murder is that Eckel’s hands, as described by Farrell, were just where the marks of blood were found. Farrell was severely cross-examined, but his testimony was not shaken, though doubt was thrown upon his story by what Brookes, Strangman and Ross told a reporter. In passing, it may be remarked that the reporters of the various New York papers vied with the coroner in raking up evidence, no matter from what source, and embellishing it with their own comments, thereby adding to the mountain of material for the bewildered readers to wade through. It is, however, interesting to put what Brookes, Strangman and Ross said against Farrell’s statement.

Ross’s version of what happened is that when he saw Dr. Burdell enter his house he (Ross) was at a distance of some twenty-five feet away, and that when he passed the door after Burdell had gone inside Farrell was not sitting on the steps, and that he had gone but forty feet or so on his way when he heard the cry of murder, then he turned and looked towards the house but did not see Farrell sitting on the steps. If this be true as to distance, the presumption is that while Ross was walking sixty-five feet or so, Dr. Burdell may have gone from the street door upstairs, reached his rooms, have been attacked and then uttered the cry of murder.

The question confronts us, Could all this have taken place in so short a space of time? The average man would easily walk sixty-five feet in less than a minute, yet the evidence went to show that Burdell went upstairs to the back room on the second story, took off his overshoes, laid aside his shawl and hat, sat down at his desk, and while sitting was stabbed. It hardly seems possible, and the only explanation is that Ross was mistaken in his estimate of the distances, and if so, he might have been mistaken in regard to Farrell.

What Strangman told the same reporter somewhat supports the hypothesis that Ross was in error. Strangman said he was several houses past No. 31 when he heard the cry. He immediately looked back but could see no one approaching. He did not look at any house in particular and he would not be likely to notice anyone sitting on a step on the opposite side of the street. He thought it was highly probable that Farrell may have been sitting there, although he did not notice him. Summing up the statements of Ross, Strangman and Brookes we arrive at this conclusion: Ross did not see Strangman in the street, Strangman saw neither Ross nor Farrell, and Brookes, looking between the blinds of his room on the other side of the way, did not see any one of the three. Having all this in view one is not justified in rejecting Farrell’s evidence as unworthy of belief.

The confusion which surrounds the stories of these four witnesses is, however, not to be compared to the complication of which Dr. Burdell was the central figure. The doctor appears to have been as talkative as he was mean, passionate and amorous. At the time of his death he was the possessor of about one hundred thousand dollars made in his profession as a dentist. He gave himself out as a bachelor, told several persons that he was not married, never had been, never intended to be, and least of all to Mrs. Cunningham, who, he contended, was endeavouring to entrap or force him into a marriage. He also said that he was in fear of her and of the people in the house, and that she was capable of doing anything to injure him. He made these assertions so recently as on the very day of his death, and he particularly begged his friend and late partner, a Dr. Blaisdell, to come and live in the house on that account. He also declared that he had made a will, and named some of his relatives and the amount of his bequests to them, but that he did not intend to leave Mrs. Cunningham anything. The will, it should be mentioned, was not forthcoming during the coroner’s enquiry and its conditions were consequently not established. No explanation as to what had become of the document was offered.

Whatever doubt there was as to the existence of a will, no doubt could be entertained respecting the leaving of No. 31 to a Mr. Stansbury. Burdell drew the lease on the day of his death, intending to sign it on the morrow, and he took advantage of the occasion to express his great gratification at the prospect of getting rid of Mrs. Cunningham and of the house. He protested emphatically that she dogged him, watched him, listened at his doors, entered his room with false keys, stole the key of his fireproof safe and had taken from it a note for 600 dollars​—​which she had given him in payment for a judgment against another party and which he had assigned to her.

Such relations as these, the Tribune remarked very justly, were very singular between man and wife, but the most striking evidence of all is against the hypothesis of a marriage and “in favour of the other hypothesis of a sham marriage between Mrs. Cunningham and Mr. Eckel or someone else personating Dr. Burdell,” is found in the fact that she commenced a suit for breach of promise against Dr. Burdell in the previous August or September, her complaint being that Dr. Burdell had criminally assaulted her. On October 22nd she dropped the suit, and on the 28th of the same month the alleged marriage was said to have taken place. To add to these contradictions we have Mrs. Cunningham’s lawyer, who was called as a witness, telling the coroner that several weeks after October 28th she again applied to him saying that she had it in contemplation to reopen or recommence the suit for breach of promise​—​in other words, that three weeks after her marriage she wanted to sue the man who, if she spoke the truth, must then have been her husband!

Whatever may have been at the bottom of this coil, it is not to be questioned that when Burdell accused Mrs. Cunningham of robbing his account the two were on very bad terms. On one occasion he called in policemen to arrest her, but that they dissuaded him from so doing. One of these policemen said at the inquest that on this occasion she used violent language towards the doctor and declared that “she would have his heart’s blood.” One of the women servants of Mrs. Cunningham also gave evidence of quarrels between Dr. Burdell and Mrs. Cunningham and her eldest daughter Augusta, and that the doctor told her (the servant) that in a dispute Augusta had once attacked him personally and had torn out some of his hair.

Viewing all the facts, bearing as they do upon mercenary and jealous intrigues within the four walls of the house of murder, it is clear that “motive” must play an important part in the solution of the mystery. Public opinion was in favour of the theory that Mrs. Cunningham had established herself in Dr. Burdell’s house hoping to entrap him into a marriage. Finding herself defeated in this object, she induced her paramour Eckel to personate Burdell in a sham marriage, either with the view of claiming her dower, a sum of between 30,000 and 40,000 dollars as Burdell’s widow in case of his natural death, or with her paramour assassinating him with that express object, and that the fact that Burdell on the day preceding the night of his murder had made a lease of his house, by the signing of which at the time appointed on the following day he would have dispossessed her and her family and thrown them on the world, hastened the catastrophe and caused his death to occur on the night in question.

Imagination proceeded to reconstruct the crime. It was held that the murder was perpetrated by the assassins the instant Burdell entered his rooms. They had not anticipated any outcry, and the single half-stifled utterance of the word “murder” revealed the deed at the time, the victim being nearly instantly dispatched with fifteen wounds, almost any one of which was by the doctors deemed fatal. It was conclusively proved that a strong smell of burning wool was perceived in Bond Street between half-past one and two o’clock on Saturday morning, and this was accounted for by the burning of the blood-stained clothes of the murderers. The knife, of course, was hidden or destroyed.

Of the inmates of No. 31, Mr. Ulman alone knew nothing. He was out at the time and when he came home all was over. It is difficult to believe that such a crime could have been committed without some of the inmates being cognisant of it, and it is not surprising to find that the jury returned a verdict to the effect that their belief was that Mrs. Cunningham and Eckel were the principals in the murder, and that Snodgrass either joined them in committing the act or was an accessory before the fact. They also found that Augusta and Helen, Mrs. Cunningham’s daughters, being in the house when the murder was committed, had some knowledge of the facts which they had concealed from the jury.

The trial commenced on May 6th, but only Mrs. Cunningham was placed in the dock, the case against Eckel and Snodgrass having been dismissed. The trial lasted three days, but the prosecution was unable to establish anything conclusive against the prisoner, and the jury, after deliberating for an hour and a half, returned a verdict of “not guilty.”

On her release, Mrs. Cunningham, in no way impressed by her narrow escape from being branded as a murderess, asserted her rights as a widow, based on the secret marriage which the murdered man had repudiated. She was entitled to claim a third of Burdell’s estate, but not satisfied with this she schemed to obtain possession of the whole and set about producing an infant heir. She first employed a Dr. Ahl as her necessary medical assistant, but Ahl played her false and disclosed the plot to the authorities. They took no steps, but allowed the ingenious Mrs. Cunningham a free hand, and disguised as a Sister of Charity she went to house where an infant from a hospital was in readiness and was handed to her by Dr. Ahl. The child was taken to 31 Bond Street and on the following day its arrival was announced. The joy of the “mother” was, however, speedily dashed, for a policeman appeared on the scene and she was taken into custody.

Her imprisonment was but of short duration. She was set free, and the child and its real mother found a home, while their attraction lasted, in Barnum’s Museum. All that one can say of Mrs. Cunningham is that if she had an active hand in the murder of Burdell she must be placed at the side of Maria Manning, Mrs. Pearcey, Catherine Wilson, Mrs. Gould, Gabrielle Bompard, and other abnormal women malefactors.