November 19, 2013
Click on the pins within the document to learn about some of the doctors’ findings.
In the last century, there are few events that have been studied with greater scrutiny than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But, that is the problem, according to author and History Channel personality Brad Meltzer.
“Put together all of the official investigations, commissions, reports, official reinvestigations, independent reviews of the evidence, journalistic inquiries, reenactments, documentaries, movies, literally thousands of books (fiction and nonfiction), not to mention countless off-the-wall and over-the-top websites, and you’ve got a situation that’s a perfect breeding ground for confusion, differing interpretations, allegations and refutations,” he writes in his latest book, History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.
There have been those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, that there were two shooters on that fateful day in Dallas, November 22, 1963. Others have tried to pin the blame on the Soviets, the CIA and the mafia.
One natural place to look for answers is the president’s autopsy. Medical professionals at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, examined Kennedy’s body just hours after he was pronounced dead, drawing what conclusions they could from his wounds about the cause of death and location of the assassin. In Dallas, the president’s staff had hurriedly loaded his casket onto Air Force One, while city officials squabbled over a state law that required the autopsy to be performed in Texas. Just nine minutes after Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on the plane it was wheels up.
President Lyndon Johnson gathered the Warren Commission, a group of Congressman and other prominent officials, a week later to investigate Kennedy’s assassination. The investigators, out of respect to the president’s legacy, saw neither the photographs nor the x-rays from the autopsy, though the decision to keep such medical evidence private has often been questioned. (In 1966, the Kennedy family donated these official images to the National Archives, where they remain sealed from the public.) One of the only visuals left for the group’s consideration was this descriptive autopsy sheet, or “face sheet,” which the pathologists filled out in the autopsy room, marking the figure with the two bullets’ entry and exits points. The doctors referred to these notes when writing the more detailed autopsy report.
(Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
August 28, 2013
Early in the afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt entered the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Prison in Washington, D.C. Behind her filed three other who had plotted to kill President Abraham Lincoln. A sweltering sun beat down on four freshly dug graves and four pine coffins. Only the day before, Surratt had learned that she would be the first woman to be executed by the United States government.
Veiled and dressed in black, she swooned after a few steps. Two soldiers and two priests helped her to the gallows. The hangman bound her arms and legs. She complained that the ropes chafed. They would not hurt long, he replied.
As the 42-year-old widow listened to her jailer read her death sentence, her younger son, the Confederate spy John Surratt, was hiding at a Catholic priest’s residence in a village northeast of Montreal. The federal government had offered $25,000 for his capture.
Mary and John Surratt were America’s most famous mother-son criminal partnership until Ma Barker’s boys shot up the Midwest some 60 years later. Many denounced her as the temptress who, in President Andrew Johnson’s words, “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. Others insisted she was the innocent victim of the national hysteria that followed Lincoln’s death. And some despised John as a coward who left his mother to die for his crimes.
Both were guilty of plotting against the president.
She was born Mary Jenkins in the early 1823 and spent most of her life in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a tobacco-growing region east and south of Washington that had a long tradition of slavery. During several years in a Catholic boarding school, she converted to that faith. As a teenager, she married a Prince George’s man named John Surratt, who was ten years her senior.
After failing at farming, the Surratts built a crossroads tavern, then added carriage and blacksmith shops and accumulated a half-dozen slaves. John became the postmaster—an employee of the federal government—and gave his name to Surrattsville. Mary increasingly managed the business as he drank more and more. When he died, in 1862, she became the proprietor in name as well.
As the Civil War raged, she and her family remained proudly loyal to the South. Her older son, Isaac, joined the Confederate Army in Texas. Her younger son, John Jr., only 18, joined the Confederate secret service and succeeded his father as postmaster. Her daughter, Anna, helped with the tavern, which became a key communications link for Confederate spies after John—like other postmasters in Southern Maryland—began inserting northbound messages from Richmond spymasters into the U.S. mail.
Special messages and cash required hand delivery, and John was adept at clandestine work. “I devised various ways to carry the messages,” he recalled after the war, “sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy.” He dismissed the federals he evaded as a “stupid set of detectives” with “no idea whatever how to search a man.”
John loved the game. “It was a fascinating life to me,” he said. “It seemed as if I could not do too much nor run too great a risk.” Federal forces detained him in November 1863, for undocumented reasons, but only for a few days. John’s adventures were no secret to his mother, whose tavern served Confederate agents and couriers every day.
In the fall of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, handsome scion of America’s leading theater family, began connecting with Confederate agents in Southern Maryland. Soon he met with John Surratt and confided a daring plan to kidnap Lincoln and exchange the president for Confederate prisoners of war. Perhaps, he implied, Lincoln might even be bartered for an honorable peace between North and South.
At the same time, Mary leased her tavern to a neighbor and opened a boarding house in Washington. She may have had economic reasons for the move, but her new home was well located to aid secret activities. Like her tavern, her boarding house became a way station for Confederate agents.
John Surratt and Booth enlisted six men to help them. Most notable was David Herold, who could help with escape routes; George Atzerodt, who could manage the inevitable crossing of the Potomac River, and Lewis Powell, who went by the name Lewis Paine, was a Confederate Army veteran with a taste for violence. He was taken on to subdue the towering and still-strong president.
Through the first three months of 1865, Mary came to know the conspirators as guests in her home. Her favorite was Booth, who came by most frequently, sometimes just to see her. They made an odd pair—the dashing young actor and the middle-aged landlady, often described as stout, who attended daily Mass—but they shared a fiery commitment to the Southern cause in the face of repeated battlefield defeats.
On March 17, Booth, John Surratt and their men armed themselves and set out to kidnap Lincoln as he traveled to a performance for wounded soldiers at a hospital on the outskirts of Washington. When Lincoln’s schedule changed and put him elsewhere, they retreated to Mary’s house, boiling with frustration.
They gathered for a second try in early April—except this time, Booth dropped any pretense of kidnapping. The goal was to murder the president and at least three other Northern leaders: Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward and General Ulysses Grant.
Booth enacted his part in the plot on the night of April 14, when he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theater. He and Herold fled to Southern Maryland, with Booth aching with a broken leg he suffered when he leapt from the president’s box to the Ford’s stage. At Seward’s house in Washington, Paine attacked the secretary of state, his two sons and an army nurse, leaving all four grievously injured before he made his escape. Atzerodt, assigned to kill Johnson, lost his nerve while drinking at the vice president’s hotel and slunk into the night. Grant’s unexpected departure from Washington that afternoon foiled any attempt on his life.
Some two weeks before the assassination, John Surratt had left Washington on a mission to Richmond. From there, he carried Confederate messages to Montreal, moving on to Elmira, New York, where he investigated the prospects for an uprising at a large prison camp. He would always claim that on the evening of April 14, he was far away from Washington.
Within five hours of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward, federal investigators followed a tip to Mary Surratt’s boarding house. Under questioning, she revealed nothing. When agents returned two days later, her vague responses confounded them again—until a bedraggled Lewis Paine stumbled to her door. Both he and she were arrested. They would never know freedom again. Atzerodt was captured on April 20 in northwest Maryland; Herold surrendered on April 26, when Union troops surrounded the barn in Virginia where he and Booth had sought refuge. Booth took a bullet in the neck and died of the wound.
By then the federal authorities had four others behind bars: Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, accused of being part of the kidnapping scheme; a Ford’s stagehand named Edman Spangler, accused of aiding Booth’s flight, and Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg as the assassin made his way through Southern Maryland to Virginia. Barely three weeks after the first arrests, all eight of the conspirators went on trial. Four of them—the more fortunate four—would go to prison.
With a Confederate army still under arms in Texas, the government insisted that a state of war justified trial before a commission of nine Union Army officers. Public attention focused on the four who were accused of taking part in the assassination—most intensely on Mary Surratt, the lone woman among them.
Prosecutors highlighted her close ties to Booth and her actions on April 14. On that day, she met Booth at her boarding house and then rode to Surrattsville, where she told the tavern manager to expect visitors that night and to give them whiskey and rifles that had been hidden for the kidnapping attempt a few weeks before. When she returned home, she met with Booth again a scant hour before the assassination. That night, Booth and Herold rode to Surrattsville and collected the guns and whiskey. By aiding their getaway, the prosecution contended, Mary Surratt showed foreknowledge of the crime.
The nine commissioners found her guilty of abetting, concealing and assisting the conspirators, but differed over her sentence. They recommended to President Johnson that she be executed, but five of the nine urged him to grant clemency because of her sex and age.
With a black veil concealing her face throughout the trial, Mary became a blank screen on which the public could project its attitudes. Was she an innocent woman of piety suffering for her son’s crimes, or was she a scheming, vengeful harpy? Johnson entertained no doubts. He ignored last-minute appeals to spare her life, and sent her to the gallows with Herold, Paine and Atzerodt.
John Surratt stayed in Canada while his mother stood trial. That September he assumed the name of John McCarty, dyed his hair and put on some face makeup (tricks he might have learned from Booth) and boarded a mail ship for Britain. In Liverpool, he hid at another Catholic church, then moved through France to Italy. In early December, he enlisted as John Watson in the Papal Zouaves in Rome. The zouaves’ mission was to resist Giuseppe Garibaldi’s crusade to create an Italian republic.
But in Rome, John Surratt’s luck ran dry. In April 1866, a fellow zouave from Baltimore, who may well have followed him in pursuit of the reward money, told American officials of Surratt’s real identity. American and papal bureaucracies took seven months to work out the diplomacy niceties, but he was finally arrested in early November—when he managed a last escape, this time to Naples, whence he made his way to Egypt under the name Walters.
On November 23, 1866, John stepped off the steamship Tripoli in Alexandria and into the harbor’s quarantine hall. Four days later, American officials arrested him. A U.S. warship carried him to Washington in chains. He arrived on February 18, 1867, still wearing his zouave uniform.
His trial, in the summer of 1867, was as sensational as his mother’s and involved much of the same evidence. But one crucial factor had changed: With the war over, he faced a civil jury, not a military commission. Some jurors hailed from the South or were Southern sympathizers.
The defense could not deny John’s deep involvement with Booth but insisted that he was not in Washington on the day of the assassination. Several tailors from Elmira testified that they saw the defendant in Elmira on April 14, wearing a distinctive jacket. Thirteen prosecution witnesses countered that they saw him in Washington that day, and prosecutors brandished railroad timetables showing John could have traveled from Elmira to Washington to join the plot, then fled to Canada.
Two months of trial produced a hung jury: eight votes for acquittal and four for conviction. When prosecution blunders prevented a retrial, John walked free.
Surefooted in wartime, John struggled in the postwar world. He made a six-month journey to South America. He taught school. He tried public lecturing, boasting of wartime exploits but denying a role in the Lincoln assassination, but gave that up, too. In the 1870s, he joined the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, a Chesapeake Bay shipping line. More than forty years later, he retired as its general freight agent and auditor.
When John Surratt died, at age 72, in April 1916, a new war engulfed the world because an assassin had murdered Austrian Archduke Ferdinand two years before. Fifty-one years after Lincoln’s murder, few noted the passing of the last surviving member of America’s family of conspirators.
Editor’s Note, August 29, 2013: Thank you to commenter Jenn for clarifying that John Surratt was found not guilty of plotting to assassinate Lincoln. We’ve changed the headline to reflect that.
David O. Stewart has written many historical books and articles. His first novel, The Lincoln Deception, about unraveling the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, was released today and is now available for purchase.
Andrew C.A. Jampoler, The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2008; Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, New York, 2005; Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln Basic Books, New York, 2008; Edward Steers, Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln;University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2001; William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1988.
July 22, 2013
The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.
The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.
We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods.
June 17, 2013
Along the Los Angeles beach between Venice and Ocean Park, a small group of mourners wandered aimlessly, occasionally dropping to the sand to pray—unable to stop their tears. “Aimee is with Jesus; pray for her,” they chanted. A Coast Guard cutter patrolled just offshore as deep-sea divers plunged into the water. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist, faith-healer, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church and builder of the Angelus Temple, was believed to have disappeared during a swim on May 18, 1926. In the hours that followed, rescuers were sparing no effort to find her.
“God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.”
Already, one young church member had drowned herself in her grief. Soon after that, a diver died while trying to find McPherson’s body.
In the coming days, her followers would dynamite the waters of Santa Monica bay, hoping to raise her body from the depths. Yet the blasts surfaced only dead fish, and the passing time merely gave rise to countless rumors. She’d disappeared to have an abortion. Or plastic surgery. Or an affair. As the days turned to weeks, McPherson’s body, much to the chagrin of police and the California Fish and Game Commission, remained missing. Soon, witnesses were coming forward to contradict the report, given by McPherson’s secretary, Emma Shaeffer, that the evangelist had vanished shortly after entering the water.
There were accounts from a detective in San Francisco that McPherson was spotted at a railway station there. “I know her well by sight,” the detective said, “and I know that I am not mistaken.” A ransom note delivered to McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, demanded $50,000 for the safe return of her daughter and warned, “Mum’s the word—keep police away.” Meanwhile, some faithful church members, convinced that the evangelist was dead, clung to the belief that she would be resurrected by supernatural powers.
Newspaper headlines trumpeted alleged McPherson sightings in cities across the United States. Another ransom letter surfaced—this one promising to sell the evangelist into “white slavery” unless a half-million dollars was paid in cash. Convinced her daughter was already dead, Minnie Kennedy threw away the letter. By the summer of 1926, no woman in America commanded more headlines than the vanished “Sister Aimee.”
The woman at the center of this media storm was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 to a religious family on a farm in Ontario, Canada. But unlike her Methodist parents, she questioned her faith at a young age and began to rebel against her “tambourine-thumping Salvation Army” mother by reading novels and attending movies.
Yet when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution made its way into Canadian schools, Aimee rebelled again—this time, against evolution. (In 1925, she would support the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial.) Before her 18th birthday, she married an Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple, became pregnant, and set off for Asia on an evangelical tour. But the young couple contracted malaria, and Robert succumbed to the disease in August 1910. Aimee gave birth one month later to Roberta Star Semple and returned to the United States.
In 1912, she married an accountant, Harold Steward McPherson, but after giving birth to a son, Rolf McPherson, and trying to settle into a life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island, Aimee felt a sudden calling to preach the Gospel. In 1915, she ran out on her husband, taking the children, and hit the road in a Packard touring car (“Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted on the side), preaching in tent revivals and churches across the country.
As a female preacher and something of a Pentecostal novelty, Aimee Semple McPherson learned to whip up crowds by speaking in tongues and delivering faith-healing demonstrations in which crutches were tossed aside and the blind were made to see. By 1922, she was breaking attendance records set by the biggest evangelical names at the time, such as Billy Sunday, the former baseball star. In San Diego, more than 30,000 people turned out for one of her events, and the Marines had to be called in for crowd control. There, McPherson laid hands on a supposedly paralyzed woman who rose from her chair and walked. The audience reached a frenzy.
The constant travel began to take its toll, and McPherson decided to settle down in Los Angeles, where she raised funds to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. She packed the 5,300-capacity building in services held seven days a week. Her style was light-hearted and whimsical at times, yet she spoke and sang with power and passion.
By the spring of 1926, McPherson had become a phenomenon—a household name across America. So it came as a surprise to the faithful on May 18, 1926, when McPherson did not arrive at the temple to preach the scheduled sermon and her mother stood in. By the next day, the entire nation was in shock at the news that Sister Aimee had disappeared and likely drowned.
But the prayers of many were soon to be answered: After a month of mourning and unending rumor, McPherson turned up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a small Mexican town just south of Douglas, Arizona. She claimed to have walked across the “burning sands” of the desert to flee kidnappers and then collapsed. She was taken to a hospital, and in a phone call with the staff, Minnie Kennedy confirmed her daughter’s identity by telling them of the location of a scar on her finger and of her daughter’s ability to provide the name of her pet pigeon.
Once she’d recovered from her “state of collapse,” McPherson gave a bedside interview, saying she’d been lured to a car after swimming and taken across the border by three Americans, including a man named Steve and a woman named Rose. She’d been drugged and held in a Mexican shack for weeks, she said, and her captors had planned on keeping her until they’d received a ransom of half a million dollars. But she foiled the plan, she claimed, when she sawed through the ropes that were restraining her and staggered 20 miles through the desert to Agua Prieta.
Minnie Kennedy rushed to Arizona to reunite with her daughter. “My God, Sister McPherson is alive,” she told followers. “Run up the flag on the temple and send out the word broadcast. The Lord has returned his own.”
When McPherson came home, a throng of more than 50,000 showed up at the train station to welcome her. In a massive parade featuring airplanes that dropped roses from the skies, the evangelist made a grand re-entrance. But despite the attendance of Los Angeles officials and dignitaries, not everyone was thrilled. The Chamber of Commerce viewed the event as “gaudy display,” and Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes called for an investigation into the evangelist’s account of a kidnapping.
Within two weeks, McPherson voluntarily appeared before a grand jury as newspapers continued to trumpet accusations of fraud, accompanied by witness “spottings” in Northern California. Gaining the most traction was a story that centered on the fact that Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer at the Christian radio station KFSG (owned by McPherson’s church) disappeared just when McPherson did. The two worked together on McPherson’s regular broadcasts. Police were dispatched to a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Ormiston had been seen with an unidentified woman during McPherson’s disappearance. (Ormiston admitted to having an adulterous affair at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, but denied that the stranger known as “Mrs. X” was her.) After dusting the cottage for fingerprints, however, police found none that matched the evangelist’s.
The headlines, gossip and innuendo continued throughout the fall, until a judge determined that there was enough evidence to proceed with the charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice against McPherson. A jury trial was scheduled for January the following year. However, Keyes had begun to determine that some of his witnesses were unreliable, and he decided to drop the charges.
The kidnapping remained unsolved, and the controversy over a possible hoax went unresolved. Critics and supporters alike thought McPherson should have insisted on a trial to clear her name; instead, she gave her account of the kidnapping in her 1927 book, In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life. She would be mocked in the media for years, but the scandal did not diminish her popularity.
McPherson continued to build her church right up until her death in Oakland, California, in 1944, from what the coroner described as most likely an accidental overdose (Seconol was found in the hotel room where she died) “compounded by kidney failure.” The Foursquare Gospel Church was worth millions at the time, and today claims nearly 9 million members worldwide. But when Aimee Semple McPherson’s estate was sorted out, the evangelist had just $10,000 to her name.
Articles: “Divers Seek Body of Woman Preacher,” New York Times, May 21, 1926. “No Trace Found of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, May 29, 1926. “Cast Doubt on Evangelist’s Death in Sea,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1926. “Bay Dynamited to Locate Body of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1926. “Faithful Cling to Waning Hope,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1926. “$25,000 Reward for Evangelist’s Return,” Boston Globe, May 29, 1926. “Kidnap Hoax Exposed,” The Baltimore News, July 26, 1926. “Los Angeles Hails Aimee McPherson,” New York Times, June 27, 1926. “Evangelist Found: Tells Story of Kidnapping,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1926. “Missing Woman Pastor Found in Douglas, Arizona,” Boston Globe, June 23, 1926. “Aimee Semple McPherson,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson. “Aimee’s Life,” “Aimee’s Message,” “Aimee’s Religion,” by Anna Robertson, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/robertson/asm/background.html. “Sister Aimee,” The American Experience,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/sister/filmmore/index.html
June 13, 2013
In the early evening of January 30, 1857, a middle-aged dentist named Harvey Burdell left his townhouse at 31 Bond Street, a respectable if not truly chic section of Manhattan, and set out for a local hotel. Burdell had recently been taking his dinners there, even though he had a cook on his household staff. His relationship with one of his tenants (and a regular at his table), Emma Cunningham, had become strained. Burdell had accused Cunningham, a
34-year-old widow with four children, of stealing a promissory note from his office safe. She in turn had had Burdell arrested for breach of promise to marry, which was then a criminal offense.
Cunningham had become increasingly suspicious of Burdell’s relations with his female patients and with his attractive young cousin, also a resident of 31 Bond Street. Earlier that day, she had grilled one of the housemaids:
“Who was that woman, Hannah, you were showing through the house to-day?”
“That was the lady who is going to take the house.”
“Then the doctor is going to leave it, is he?”
“And when does she take possession?”
“The first of May.”
“He better be careful; he may not live to sign the papers!”
This conversation, which Hannah repeated to police and in a courtroom, would come back to haunt Emma Cunningham. On the morning of January 31, Harvey Burdell was found in his home, stabbed 15 times and strangled for good measure.
She was born Emma Augusta Hempstead in the mid-1810s in Brooklyn. When she was 19, she met and married George Cunningham, a businessman some 20 years her senior, and the two lived in relative style in a rented house near Union Square in Manhattan. But he proved to be less than adept at handling money, and by the time their fourth child was born they had moved back to Brooklyn to live
among relatives. When he died, Emma Cunningham inherited his property (meager), accounts (empty) and a life-insurance policy worth $10,000. She knew that wouldn’t be enough to support her family indefinitely, especially not if she wanted to move back to Manhattan and live as a proper lady.
Using a portion of the money to outfit herself in the latest fashions, the widow Cunningham set about finding a new husband—one who would ensure that she and her children could remain among the ranks of New York’s upwardly mobile middle class. At that time, love, legitimacy and security were difficult to come by for any woman not born into privilege. Emma Cunningham’s search would prove to be more desperate than most.
How and where her path crossed Harvey Burdell’s is unclear, but in the summer of 1855 the pair jaunted to the resort of Saratoga Springs to promenade. By that autumn Cunningham was pregnant and expecting a proposal of marriage; she instead had an abortion, almost certainly at Burdell’s urging, and possibly performed by the dentist himself. She moved her children into 31 Bond Street not as lady of the house but as a tenant,
paying rent to Burdell.
Still, she behaved as though she and Burdell were man and wife—ordering the food, hiring the maids, dining at his table. The breach-of-promise suit, brought in 1856, was a final attempt to get Burdell to legitimize their relationship, which Cunningham had become increasingly anxious to do as she noticed the attentions he paid to other women. The two fought constantly, with neighbors reporting later that shouts and crashes came from 31 Bond almost nightly. Burdell refused her demands for marriage, telling a friend that he would not marry “the best woman living.”
Found among Burdell’s papers after his death was a document that read:
In consequence of the settling of the suit now pending between Emma Augusta Cunningham and myself I agree as follows:
1.1 I extend to herself and family my friendship through life.
1.2 I agree never to do or act in any manner to the disadvantage of Mrs. Emma A. Cunningham.
His associates took this declaration to mean that he and Cunningham had reached some kind of agreement, and so were shocked to learn that Cunningham, two days after Burdell’s body was discovered, presented to the coroner’s office a marriage certificate. Not only was she Burdell’s grieving widow, devastated by his death and horrified that anyone could have such animosity toward her beloved, she announced, she was also the sole heir of his $100,000 fortune and the Bond Street townhouse. She was soon indicted on charges of murdering him.
The press painted Cunningham as a money-hungry schemer. She was sleeping with at least one of the other boarders, it was alleged, and allowing one of her lovers to engage in immoral acts with her 18-year-old daughter. Household staff and neighbors came forward with stories of lurid sexual escapades and elaborate plots to ruin the good name of the dentist who had worked so hard to rise to the ranks of the professional class.
At her trial, the prosecution relied on physical evidence: The murderer was almost certainly left-handed; Emma Cunningham was left-handed. What more was there to debate?
Cunningham’s attorney, Henry
Clinton Lauren Clinton, pointed out that while his client (whom he discouraged from taking the witness stand) did indeed lead with her left hand, so did who knows how many others across the city. What’s more, he said, Cunningham, by this point in her mid-30s, was an aging woman suffering from rheumatism. Burdell had 12 inches of height and a hundred pounds on her—even if she’d wanted to, how could such a delicate creature commit such a physically demanding act?
Clinton’s portrait of Burdell and his relationship with Cunningham was much darker than the initial press accounts. It was confirmed that Burdell had been engaged once before and, on the day of the wedding, demanded a check for $20,000 from the bride’s father, whereupon the marriage was called off. He regularly engaged in sexual activity with his dental patients, preferring girls in their late teens. He owed gambling debts and was parsimonious to the point of cruelty, almost starving his servants. He’d been especially abusive, the defense claimed, to Mrs. Cunningham. Court papers alluded to a variety of sexual assaults, verbal abuse and humiliation. The abortion she’d been convinced to undergo in the fall of 1855 was not her last—several others had occurred in the dentist’s chair. One newspaper claimed to have obtained, from a secret cabinet in Burdell’s office, a jarred fetus—a result of Cunningham and Burdell’s relations.
Whether persuaded by Clinton’s presentation or the fact that there was no physical evidence linking Cunningham to the murder, the jury acquitted her in less than two hours. The wicked woman, the press exclaimed, had gotten away with murder.
There was still, though, the matter of Cunningham’s marriage to Burdell. More than one member of Burdell’s inner circle had challenged the marriage certificate as a fake, and the Surrogate Court was investigating Cunningham’s activities in the months leading up to the murder trial.
Not believing her assertion that Burdell had sworn her to keep their marriage a secret, especially from his own attorneys,
court-appointed State’s Attorney Samuel J. Tilden (future governor of New York and presidential candidate, who was representing the Burdell family) presented to the court a seemingly outlandish scenario: Cunningham was having an affair with another of Burdell’s tenants, John J. Eckel; she had hired a minister who knew neither Eckel nor Burdell and disguised Eckel in a fake beard to match Burdell’s real one, and then she had married Eckel, who forged Burdell’s signature on the marriage certificate. The press took the idea to its logical conclusion: Eckel and Cunningham, drunk on lust and greed, had conspired to murder Burdell and live together ever after on the dead dentist’s dime. (Eckel was never charged with murder, but his case was dismissed.)
Cunningham’s every move was publicly scrutinized—the New-York Daily Times spoke to neighbors who claimed she “constantly had several women in her house; that she would sit in the front parlor, in company with one or more of them, with the blinds and windows open; and thus exposed to the gaze of the over-curious public, would talk to them in the most violent and boisterous manner, gesticulating and preforming various fantastic feats, laughing in triumph, shaking her fist, &c.”
Men of all ages were reported to be entering the house at all hours of the night. Anyone living in New York at the time would have caught the insinuation—the area around Bond Street, being next to some of the city’s most notorious theaters, was widely recognized as a center of prostitution. While there is no evidence Cunningham ever engaged in prostitution, the newspaper coverage had inclined the obsessed public to believe she was that kind of woman.
With a Surrogate Court decision expected in late August, eyebrows were raised as Cunningham began to appear in court looking noticeably fuller around her midsection. Yes, she said, she was pregnant with her late husband’s child. No, she demurred, she would not submit to an examination by any physician but her own.
From her initial pregnancy announcement, whispers grew to the effect that Cunningham was padding her gowns with pillows and faking exhaustion and other symptoms of the condition. In early August, she appeared in public with an infant, hoping to silence the rumors that she’d been anything other than a devoted wife and mother.
Alas, it was not to be, and Cunningham found herself once more in the Tombs and on the front page of every newspaper in the city. While she swore the baby was the product of her marriage to Burdell, she had in fact purchased the baby for $1,000 from an indigent woman, in a plot engineered by District Attorney Abraham Oakley Hall, who had been skeptical of her pregnancy from the start. The would-be mother went so far as to stage a birth scene at her home: “About half past ten o’clock both physicians entered, and in due form Mrs. Cunningham was ‘brought to bed,’ ” reported the New-York Daily Times. “A fictitious afterbirth had been prepared, and a large pailful of lamb’s blood. The bloody sheets of Mrs. Cunningham’s bed and the placenta, stowed away in a cupboard, completed this mock confinement, which had also been systematically accompanied with imaginary pains of labor.”
After Cunningham presented the baby as her own, Hall produced the baby’s mother, and noted a series of small marks that had been made on the infant in the foundling hospital where it had been born. With that, Cunningham’s quest to get what she thought Harvey Burdell owed her was finally put to rest, though baby’s mother did find a way to capitalize on the situation—cutting a deal with showman P.T. Barnum to exhibit the child at his downtown Manhattan museum, where visitors could pay 25 cents a head to gaze upon the infamous infant.
Disgraced and virtually penniless, Cunningham fled to California—where she eventually wed and placed her daughters in respectable marriages. She returned to New York in 1887 to live with a cousin but died that year, an event marked by a small notice in the New York Times. The murder of Harvey Burdell was never officially solved, though modern scholars agree Cunningham was likely involved.
What she wanted from Harvey Burdell was not just his wealth, but also his attention. And in a small way, she has it—in 2007 Benjamin Feldman, a lawyer and historian researching the case, partnered with
persuaded Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to erect two stone markers, one for Cunningham and one for Burdell, to stand side by side for eternity, just as Cunningham, throwing herself onto Burdell’s coffin before at his packed funeral, exclaimed she wanted.
That she got it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to Harvey Burdell. One of his last conversations about Cunningham was with a cousin, who recounted it on the witness stand:
Q: Did he speak very highly of her?
Q: Did he tell you that she was a rich widow?
A: Yes. He said she was lady-like. He said that to have a public outbreak with her, he feared, would injure his business; he said she was a cunning, intriguing woman, and that she would resort to anything to carry out her plans.
Books: Clinton, Henry Lauren. Celebrated Trials (Harper & brothers, 1897); Feldman, Benjamin. Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics and the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-bellum New York (Green-wood Cemetery Historic Fund, 2007); Sutton, Charles. The New-York Tombs: Its Secrets and Mysteries (A. Roman & Company, 1874)
Articles: “The Bond Street Murder: Indictment of Eckel and Mrs. Cunningham,” New-York Daily Tribune, February 23, 1857; “The Widow Burdell Before the Surrogate,” New York Daily Times, March 13, 1857; “Mrs. Cunningham: Is the House Haunted,” New York Daily Times, August 8, 1857; “The Burdell Murder!!: The Burdell Estate Before the Surrogate Again,” New York Daily Times, August 5, 1857; “The Burdell Murder: Scenes in Court. Eckel Discharged,” New York Daily Tribune, May 11, 1857; “A Lurid Tale Revived in Granite,” New York Times, September 19, 2007.