Harvey Burdell – 1857

By | February 14, 2017

A prison doctor believed the pregnancy was nothing more than a well-placed cushion


Harvey Burdell’s photo in a newspaper of those times


Dentist Harvey Burdell was a wealthy man who owned a mansion in New York. He had been born at Herkimer, New York, in 1811 and moved to New York City after qualifying as a dentist. He rented out parts of his home and his tenants included Emma Augusta Hempstead Cunningham (1816-1887) and John J. Eckel.

Reportedly, Cunningham was sexually active with both Burdell and Eckel. Despite his social standing, Burdell was not the most honest of men and had been accused of embezzlement, welshing on his debts and in 1835 had demanded $20,000 from his fiancée’s father to go through with the wedding. The furious father threw Burdell out of the house and cancelled the nuptials.

On the morning of 30 January 1857 Dr Burdell’s servants found his body in his home office. He had been stabbed 15 times and strangled. An investigation revealed that the attacker had been left-handed. Emma Cunningham was left-handed and she was arrested and charged with the dentist’s murder. About 8,000 people attended the funeral and Cunningham melodramatically flung herself on Burdell’s coffin during the ceremony.

In prison awaiting trial Cunningham suddenly claimed to be Burdell’s wife, and also to be pregnant by him. She produced a marriage certificate “proving” that they had married on 28 October 1856. Eckel resembled Burdell and the police suspected that he had impersonated the dentist at the wedding ceremony. If acquitted, Cunningham would be entitled to Burdell’s estate worth $100,000.

The trial began on 6 May 1857 and Cunningham testified that she had had a happy, if brief, marriage. The witnesses were divided — some painted a different picture featuring violence and some a portrait of domestic harmony. As the trial progressed Cunningham’s baby bump increased in size but a prison doctor told the prosecutor that he believed the pregnancy was nothing more than a well-placed cushion, having been refused permission to physically examine her. Burdell’s reputation for dishonesty counted against him and on 9 May 1857 the jury acquitted Emma Cunningham.


31 Bond Street, New York City USA


Friday 30 January 1857


The authorities were suspicious of Cunningham despite the acquittal and staked out 31 Bond Street, where she still lived. On 27 July 1857 the police stopped a nun with a basket at the door. Inside the basket was a baby, which Cunningham had paid $1,000 to adopt. Cunningham confessed that she had never been pregnant and never been married to Burdell but her acquittal for his murder made it virtually impossible for her to be brought to justice. She left New York for California and spent her days running a vineyard.


Supposedly, the mother of the baby in the basket rented it to P.T. Barnum for $25 a week for public display.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *