It’s a Mystery: “Motive is the mercury of any case”
By Ellen Horan
The year is 1857. The place is New York. Government corruption is rampant. Tammany Hall is already firmly in power. Irish immigrants, heavily courted by Tammany politicians, make up a large segment of the Tammany membership. Originally a patriotic and charitable organization, by the 1850’s under the aegis of one Boss Tweed, it is synonymous with machine politics, profiteering, graft, and fraud. And, by all accounts, the Irish were most helpful in implementing the practice of exchanging votes for benefits, which quickly became the organization’s backbone. The Civil War is four years away and the Underground Railroad, a network aiding fugitive slaves to reach sanctuary, is being undermined by all manner of evil forces. A significant urban development is the entry of a press accessible to the populace at large, with its detailed accounts of all manner of heinous crimes, the grislier the better. And while New York was considered the center of American popular fiction, newspapers were king during this time period. The New York Times, founded in 1851, played a large role as “The Paper of Record” during the murder investigation at 31 Bond Street.
Some great fictional successes of the age drew elements of style, character, plot, and message from metropolitan police reports. It is noteworthy that the founding father of detective fiction, Edgar Allen Poe, used a celebrated New York crime as the basis of The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842). Poe lived for a time on farmland that is now West 84th. He wrote his famous poem “The Raven” (1845) while living at 85 Amity Street (now West 3rd). As has oft been said, “Give or take, there are eight million stories in the Naked City. And a lot of them are mysteries.”
No surprise, the genesis of 31 Bond Street was a yellowed newspaper page the author found while perusing the bins at a vintage print shop in SoHo. It contained an etching of a crowd assembled on the cobblestone steps of a town house on a tree-lined street in New York City. The caption said, “31 Bond Street”, the date was 1857. At the time, Bond Street was one of the most exclusive streets in the city. Upon research, this clipping turned out to be about the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell, a wealthy dentist and land speculator who lived at this address. It was the biggest crime story of the first half of the 19th century, occupying the front pages of every major newspaper of the time and traveling across the ocean.
When the novel opens, it is February 1, 1857. Dr. Burdell’s errand boy John, a ragged urchin of twelve, is fighting a blinding rainstorm to get to his master’s house on Bond Street in time for his morning rounds. Dripping into his bowl of bread and milk, he is privy to Hannah, the cook, being put through the wringer by the “housemistress” Emma Cunningham.
“Why hasn’t the boy taken Dr. Burdell his breakfast?”
“The doctor hasn’t rung for his meal yet, Ma’am, that’s why,” she said.
“What time did he return home last night?” asked Mrs. Cunningham
“I was asleep in the attic, Ma’am. I do not keep track of my master’s comings and goings.”…
“…Have John take Dr. Burdell’s breakfast upstairs, now.” …She gathered her skirts and departed the kitchen.
It is important to note that there is a very Upstairs/Downstairs quality to this exchange, at least on the part of Emma Cunningham. One has a premonition that there is more to it than meets the eye. Horan’s subsequent description puts it into perspective:
Emma Cunningham had arrived at 31 Bond Street the previous October with her two daughters and twenty trunks. It was common for a bachelor like Dr. Burdell, to lease the upper part of his townhouse to a widow who would oversee the housekeeping and the servants.
In the mid-nineteenth century, such a “housemistress” who often shares the master’s bed, apparently without the clergy’s blessing, has an ambivalent status, at best.
Unfortunately for John, it is not his master’s breakfast tray but his body that dominates the morning scene. He finds Dr. Burdell in his office, normally locked from the inside, stabbed more than a dozen times and with his throat cut. He is dispatched post-haste for the Law.
The first to arrive is Police Captain George Dilkes who does some preliminary questioning of the household while awaiting the, often tardy, always full of himself, City Coroner, Edward Connery:
“Catch me up,” Connery said with authority; as City Coroner, he was the elected official in charge of the crime scene: besides attending to medical matters and an autopsy, it was his job to call a coroner’s jury to the house. The jury, pulled by lots, would interrogate anyone with knowledge about the victim to piece together evidence at the scene.
Dilkes led Connery to the main staircase.
“Who else lives here?”
“The victim is a dental surgeon, unmarried, about forty-six years old. A housemistress lives on the two upper floors, with her daughters. The cook sleeps in the attic. A servant girl was dismissed yesterday, and there is a carriage driver who drove Dr. Burdell last night, but doesn’t live here.”
They entered the room where the body lay…. A pool of blood spread several feet in diameter around the corpse…
“This is a bestial crime,” muttered Connery. …”Let me speak to the woman of the house.”
On the third floor, Emma Cunningham sat by the window in her bedroom. She was lost in a reverie, almost a stupor…It had been several hours since the trauma. The Police Captain entered along with Coroner Connery and several officers. They crowded in, an imposing presence in her floral bedroom.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” said Captain Dilkes. “We will be placing you under detention in your room while we conduct a full inquest.”
“Detention?” asked Emma. “Why?” Connery looked her over carefully. She had been described as a widow but was remarkably youthful, seeming not much older than her teenage daughters, who were huddled on an overstuffed ottoman by the fire….
“I need to ascertain how a man came to be viciously massacred while so many people were home. You haven’t told us everything, now, have you?” asked Connery.
“I have told the officers everything,” Emma replied, her voice tinged with alarm. “I was sleeping, and did not hear a thing.”…
She clutched a paper in her hand. Pale and shaking, she lifted it and offered it to the Coroner. It was a scroll wrapped with a blue satin ribbon.
He looked it over, his eyes darting across the words…. ”Is this yours, Ma’am?”
“Yes, it is mine…. This is my marriage certificate and I am Harvey Burdell’s wife.”
As it turns out, Emma is well aware that this revelation is a double edged sword for her. It all but labels her Prime Suspect. In the ensuing melee, she has had the presence of mind to send John for a solicitor she knows to be ambitious and slightly unorthodox. He is Henry Clinton, a young criminal lawyer and no stranger to bloodshed. Moreover, it is soon revealed that in Clinton’s view, “calling a jury to the scene of a crime was an antiquated custom, descended from English law, no longer suited to crime in modern cities.”
As for Coroner Connery, “there was no greater obstacle to justice than the reckless ambition of an incompetent man.” Clinton cannot wait to take the case and thus pit himself against the illustrious and equally ambitious District Attorney, Oakey Hall. He knows Hall well for they had tried many cases from opposing sides of the bench. One of the few dandies in the legal profession of the day, the newspapers dubbed him, “The Elegant Oakey.” He flourishes a cane that is strictly for show, wears a flowing cape, and a silk cravat in fuchsia. Shark, it turns out, is an equally apt description for the stylish D.A. who has ties to Tammany and is out for blood, Emma Cunningham’s. The ensuing trial is courtroom drama at its finest, with Clinton more than a match for Hall.
The Case of the People vs. Emma Augusta Cunningham, otherwise called Burdell, commenced on May 5, 1897, three months after the body was discovered. Oakey opens and heaps his venom on the accused by opening the pages of history and entering her in a world class line-up of Femme Fatales:
“Dr. Burdell is dead, but the woman who was his deadly enemy sits before you, a veiled picture of sorrow…. You ask , can it be possible that one of the fair sex, upon whom God has placed his seal of purity, should become a midnight assassin and embrace hate, revenge and jealousy? I answer you, yes—it is possible. When we open the pages of history, we perceive that crime knows no sex. …This woman, Emma Cunningham, pursued Dr. Burdell with a fiendish hate, jealousy and revenge until her knife found repose in his heart.”
Hall paced back and forth in his colorful garb, wound up in his Shakespearean lather.
Once Hall has concluded and returned to his seat, the spectators remained hushed in anticipation. Clinton does not disappoint:
Although I am accustomed to addressing juries in capital cases, I have never before risen to address a jury where the prosecution—the District Attorney—has given us such an unjust and ungenerous opening beyond all conscience and tact.
With low-key rhetoric, he appeals to the intelligence of the jury. He does not elaborate upon the technical details or the virtues of the defendant. He asks that stories of infamous females and backstairs gossip be put aside.
Our District Attorney has overstepped all bounds of decency by ransacking the classics, both sacred and profane, with a view to selecting demons—female fiends if you will. According to Mr. Hall’s account, this woman is the agent of the monarch of hell himself…”
In the end, he appeals to their honor.
…I am convinced that you will act upon the law, you will act with your—conscience—in other words, gentlemen, you will act as men.
Horan alternates deftly between the present and flashbacks that illuminate the complex inner lives of her characters and the feel of the times. Emma is as much social climbing temptress as damsel in distress. Burdell had a dark side that makes him both villain and victim. They meet on the veranda of the Congress Hall Hotel in Saratoga Springs. An almost penniless Emma plays the respectability card with consummate ease. But Burdell senses her underlying desperation. They are characters motivated by social class and survival in a world ruled by wealth and national uncertainty. Their pragmatic agenda puts them on a collision course. Burdell is an indifferent lover; Emma is focused on the end not the means. Neither heeds the warning signs in their paths. It is the stuff of mystery and illusion.
There is a pivotal subplot involving Burdell’s Negro driver Samuel, his Indian friend Katuma, and the young errand boy John. Their scenes are reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. In 31 Bond Street, the engaging mix of fact and fiction calls to mind Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. The ending is as captivating as it is bittersweet.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.