Dressed to Kill

By the autumn of 1856 Emma Cunningham had all but given up on Harvey Burdell making good on his marital promises. One of her boarders, a bearded, balding fellow named John Eckel, was all too eager to lend a sympathetic ear to his landlady. Eckel was a bachelor, like Burdell, a middle-aged man with little penchant for domestic life. Many an evening he would invite Emma into his bedroom, where he kept a cage of songbirds among his other furnishings. Think Gangs of New York and the scene where a visit is paid to an office, perhaps a politico’s in Tammany Hall, with a gilded cage adorning the premises.

Though Eckel lived downtown, his business was divided between a tanning establishment on Stanton Street and a bone-boiling and tallow-rendering yard in the abattoir district on the East Side above 42nd Street. Few traces remain in that area of its noxious history, even though for fully a century before the early 1950s construction of the United Nations headquarters, the bleat of cattle at the East River docks and the smells of packing houses filled the blocks along First Avenue, from 42nd to 49th Streets.

My blog about New York City history The New York Wanderer, contains a two-part article about the district entitled “Dressed to Kill,” at

Dressed to Kill – Part 1

Dressed to Kill – Part 2

The articles recount the history of the neighborhood in which Eckel operated his factory at the corner of 45th Street and First Avenue. Take a look at the William Perris map of the area from the mid-19th century included in Part 2 of these articles: John Eckel’s establishment is noted by name on the map. Although the other photos and stereo cards in my work date from much later years, you can still get a wonderful sense of the industrial flavor of an area that today bears no resemblance to its not-so-distant past.

After Emma was acquitted, Eckel was freed on a write of nole prosequi, but he, too, hardly kept his head low. Prosecuted by the Republican-controlled Metropolitan Sanitary Commission during the 1860s for alleged malfeasance in the operation of his uptown operations, Eckel turned to his Bond Street neighbor Alvah Blaisdell for a different business opportunity. Blaisdell and Eckel had both been “friends” of Harvey Burdell, and Eckel was admitted into Blaisdell’s wholesale liquor business after the Civil War. The scandals of the Grant presidency filtered down to their level, though, and the pair were prosecuted for bribery and alleged evasion of the federal liquor stamp tax. Eckel died in the Albany Penitentiary in 1869.

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