Emma Cunningham’s cell in the Tombs was far from the least comfortable accomodation in that storied Demotic edifice. With comfortable furniture and many meals brought in, there she schemed and plotted out a critical path to gain revenge and recompense for the wrongs done her by Harvey Burdell. My sweet prison cage at Green-Wood probably looks worse, but in fact is far more luxurious than Emma’s: I am in heaven when I sit in the secure area in the climate-controlled basement in the Cemetery’s executive offices that holds a trove of documents, images, and objects that relate in one way or another to the permanent residents in whose memory I do service each Wednesday. As a volunteer archivist I have the best of both worlds. I enjoy unrestricted access to a magnificent collection of historical detritus that the resident historian, Jeffrey Richman, has acquired for the Green-Wood Historic Fund over the past 17 years. Plus the freedom to stop and examine thoroughly any items that interest me as I sort and catalog the store-house contents.
Jack Horner must have felt just so, sitting in his corner, eating his Christmas pie. Over and over I stick in my thumb and pull out a plum, ripe fruit like the lantern slide about which I blogged in my New York Wanderer blog at
Emma Cunningham and Harvey Burdell are represented in good measure in the archives, but until a few weeks ago I had not come upon an item relating to either of them with which I was not already familiar. There I sat on a Wednesday in June, though, working on a catalog of the books that fill a gaggle of ramshackle cardboard boxes. Mind you, I paid attention in high-school science class. Lightning cannot strike inside a building, or so I thought. Maybe the steel cage drew it in, who knows? But the bolt that struck knocked me off my seat. I opened a slender, leather-bound book published in New York in 1859 and read with astonishment:
City and County of New York – State of New York; ss. – Alfred C. Hills, of the city and county of New York, being duly sworn, deposeth and saith, that he is the city editor of THE NEW YORK EVENING POST, and is the author of a book entitled “Matrimonial Brokerage in the Metropolis, published by Thacher & Hutchinson, of 523 Broadway, including Chapter XXXIII, which chapter is entitled “A New and Singular Chapter in the History of Mrs. Cunningham-Burdell, and that said chapter was published in the Daily, Semi-Weekly, and Weekly Evening Post, and copied by various newspapers of this country and of Canada.
The volume collected a series of articles written by the audacious city editor, investigating the practices of an industry that some called a thinly veiled form of prostitution. Emma Cunningham was not a quitter, and when her final ploy to get her hands on Harvey Burdell’s modest fortune failed, and the bogus baby scandal left her penniless, it was try, try again.
Emma Augusta Hempstead hadn’t much luck when it came to husbands. Her first, George D. Cunningham, was the scion of his family. His Presbyterian father, William Cunningham, Sr. operated a successful distillery on Front Street down where hipsters now wander among the loft buildings and art galleries of Dumbo. George took over the family business long before his father passed away and left the operation in trust for George and his siblings.
Better at attracting a wife twenty years his junior than he was at accounting and inventory, after a brief period of giving Emma the upper middle class life style to which she aspired, George started to fail. A spiral of financial setbacks left him with the same last chance as tens of thousands of East Coast Americans. Off George hied to California in 1850 to seek his fortune in gold. His adventure was short-lived, though and within the year he returned to New York via the isthmus, perhaps ill with a tropical disease. Emma and George moved to lower Tenth Avenue in Manhattan and a series of modest residences in Brooklyn, ending up in a small house near the mouth of the new Gowanus Canal on 4th Place. There George expired on June 1, 1854, leaving Emma with a $10,000 insurance policy and a lot of debts.
With five children and estranged from her own family by dint of having married a God-less Presbyterian distiller’s son, Emma needed a wealthy, new husband and needed one fast. Desperation overtook discretion, and she picked Harvey Burdell.
In the mid-1850s, Reverend Uriah Marvine pastured his flock at the Greenwich Reformed Dutch Church (located on the south side of Amos Street (now Tenth Street) from 1826-1863 before moving to its final location in the vicinity of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue). His parsonage at 732 Greenwich Street was not infrequently the site of small weddings, where his officiant’s fee supplemented his undoubtedly modest shepherd’s emolument.
At the Coroner’s inquest into Harvey Burdell’s death, Emma Cunningham astounded those present when from the folds of her mourning dress she produced a certificate of her marriage to Dr. Burdell, duly executed by Reverend Marvine. Why would she have murdered the man to who had agreed to provide for her and her children, whom she had agreed to love, honor and obey?
Her narrow escape from the Tombs courtyard gallows and the bogus baby debacle left Emma impoverished and still desperate for a means of support for herself and her children. Marriage to a suitable man remained a necessity, but her notoriety across America made the services of a competent marriage broker indispensable.
Under the alias C. Frank Fitzgerald, editor Hills presented himself as a bachelor visiting from St. Louis when he arrived at Mrs. Jesse Willis’ matrimonial parlor at 18 West 43rd Street in November of 1858. The establishment’s classified advertisements in the New York Herald attracted a customer base from far and wide.
From the January 27, 1859 issue of the Herald (quoted in this book) one gets a sense of the tenor that Mrs. Willis tried to maintain:
“Mrs. Jesse Willis will give introduction to ladies and gentlemen with a view to matrimony, at her office, 18 West Forty-third Street from 3 to 8 P.M.. Parties suited; references required. Gentlemen’s fees $1, ladies free. Letters from the country must be post-paid with return letter stamps. N.B. – all business confidential.”
“Fitzgerald” showed up for his first appointment with Mrs. Willis on time. It was understood that he was a wealthy young man, and the proprietress had promised to introduce him to a young widow “who was represented as possessing every desirable accomplishment.” After waiting for half an hour, the suitor grew impatient, and Mrs. Willis offered to introduce him to another widow who happened to be sitting in the next room.
Editor Hills had attended many days of Emma Cunningham’s trial for the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. Imagine his astonishment when Mrs. Willis led Emma in to meet him.
“Mrs. Cunningham gave Fitzgerald a piercing look, as if to satisfy herself whether she had ever seen him before. His self-possession, however, if shaken an instant upon the first recognition, had fully returned, and he bore her scrutinizing glances without any exhibition of anxiety.”
Emma quickly made clear her opinion of the office,
“ ‘Matrimonial offices,’ said she, ‘ are very common in Paris; people think nothing of it there. But some of our Americans have an idea that they are immoral. But that depends altogether upon how people make use of them.”
The two danced delicately back and forth over matters of propriety, while Emma lied about the length of her widowhood as well as her age. After a long interview, it had grown dark outside, and “Fitzgerald” thought it only proper to escort Emma outdoors. The two walked east to Fifth Avenue and then turned southward. As the couple passed the many palatial residences that still abounded on the Avenue south of the Croton Reservoir, Emma continued to lie through her teeth, remarking of her acquaintance with the owners. The masquerading newspaperman grew nervous as they approached Madison Square. He feared they might encounter an acquaintance who would blow his cover, so Hills bid Mrs. Cunningham adieu on the excuse of hurrying off to Brooklyn for an important engagement.
The pair arranged a second meeting for a week later at Mrs. Willis’, and when Hills showed up, he complained of not feeling well. Ever one to recognize an opportunity when it stared her in the mouth, Emma urged her new beau to take some sustenance at a restaurant where they could share a private room. Hills was no sucker though, and begging off once again, he handed Emma a five dollar note from his bankroll. She grasped it without hesitation, but before Hills left, Emma made one more unsuccessful attempt to convince him to go to a private place and let her “nurse” him back to health. Another appointment was set for the following Monday.
The third interview started in Mrs. Willis’ parlor, but soon the owner told the pair that she need the room for another client, and they were sent upstairs to a private room, complete with fireplace and bed. There Emma and “C. Frank” circled each other verbally, the fake St. Louisian finally offering to take Emma down south with him. Emma countered by urging her caller to buy and furnish an uptown New York house for her while she ministered to his every need.
Saying he’d think it over, Fitzgerald rose form his chair and started for the door, but Emma barred his way: “ ‘No, sir, you shall not go; you shall stay here with me;’ and so saying she seized him by the arm and hurled him back into the chair. Fitzgerald was astonished at her great muscular strength.” “ ‘There is power enough,’ thought he, “to overcome half the dentists in Bond street united.’ She handled him, in spite of his resistance, as a strong man would handle a child.”
After whirling her visitor around two or three times when he tried again to leave, Emma made a deal, accepting another banknote and a promise to meet again before allowing her quarry out of the room. Hills ran out to the hall and tried the door, but it was locked. Fumbling in the dark, he made his way to the basement stairs, and then back up to the now empty parlor. Thinking that Emma had meant to rob him, the fellow was relieved when Mrs. Willis entered the parlor and allowed him to depart unharmed.
By pre-arranged plan, during the entire length of his visit, the reporter had a friend stand watch outside of Mrs. Willis’ house. After Hills departed, his friend spied on Emma as she left the house and hailed an omnibus going downtown. The spy boarded the same car and observed Emma stepping out at White Street where she entered a lodging house in which rooms were let without board. It was quite a distance from the homes of her supposed Fifth Avenue friends. Emma was apparently conserving her pennies as she continued her quest.
Emma Cunningham and one or more of her children were spotted in several American towns through the late 1850s and 1860s. By 1870, though, she made it out to California where the San Francisco Morning Call of April 10, 1870 reported her last marriage.
Silver miner William Williams became her spouse, and they remained married until Emma was again widowed in 1883. Not long thereafter she made her way back to New York City, penniless again, and died four years later. A son or two may have accompanied her out west; Green-Wood burial files indicate that a close Cunningham relative wrote from Baja California in the early 1890s concerning Emma’s re-interment in the Cunningham family plot after first having been laid to rest in her niece Phoebe Morrell’s lot. There she lies today, in the peace and quiet that eluded poor Emma through most of her adult years. Certainly, though, not for lack of trying…