People v. Cunningham (1847)

Harvey Burdell was the owner of 31 Bond Street, a large, four-story town house in New York City, in which he had his home, a successful dental practice, and a separate rooming house. In 1844, Emma Cunningham, a young widow with four children, became a lodger in the rooming house. She and Burdell became romantically involved and went on a trip to Saratoga Springs, New York. The relationship continued when they returned to New York City. They had many disagreements—for instance, in September 1846, Burdell accused Cunningham of stealing a promissory note and she initiated two lawsuits in the Superior Court, one for breach of promise to marry and the second for slander. In those proceedings, she was represented by Levi S. Chatfield.

On January 31, 1847, Burdell was found brutally murdered in his dental office. Cunningham claimed that she and Burdell had married and produced a marriage certificate dated October 28, 1846. When the clergyman who had officiated at the marriage viewed the corpse, he was unable to identify Burdell as the groom. Neither could he identify Cunningham as the bride. Evidence was adduced that prior to Burdell’s death, Cunningham had also been involved in a relationship with a fellow boarder, John Eckel.

When the coroner commenced the inquest, he confine all the residents to the house and, sometime during the course of the proceedings, he prohibited Henry L. Clinton, the attorney who represented Mrs. Cunningham and the others, from meeting privately with his clients. Mr. Clinton then commenced habeas corpus proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas. The court remanded the residents to the custody of the coroner, but ordered that the residents be able to meet privately with their attorneys. At the conclusion of the inquest, Cunningham and Eckel were indicted for murder.

Contemporaneously, Mr. Clinton applied in Surrogate’s Court for a grant of administration on behalf of Emma Cunningham as the lawful widow of Harvey Burdell. In this, he was not successful.

On May 4, 1847, the trial of Emma Cunningham for the murder of Harvey Burdell commenced in the Court of Oyer and Terminer in New York City. The prosecution was conducted by Attorney General Stephen B. Cushing and the New York District Attorney. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Proceedings in the Surrogate’s Court continued, and once the case had been argued and submitted to the Surrogate, Mr. Clinton left for a vacation in Sharon Springs and did not return to New York until August 4. The morning following his return, he discovered that his client, whom he had believed was pregnant with Burdell’s child, had been charged with a felony and imprisoned in City Prison (a/k/a the Tombs). The section of the Revised Statutes provided:

Every person who shall fraudulently produce an infant, falsely pretending it to have been born of parents whose child would be entitled to a share of any personal estate, or to inherit any real estate with the intent of intercepting the inheritance of such real estate, or the distribution of any such personal property from any person lawfully entitled thereto, shall, upon conviction, be punished by imprisonment in a State Prison not exceeding ten years.

Henry L. Clinton refused to represent her in connection with these charges, and she was represented by William R. Stafford, who applied unsuccessfully for bail on several occasions. On September 1, 1847, a fourth application was made before Judge Peabody of the New York Supreme Court, who delivered an opinion stating that because Cunningham had not asserted a claim on behalf of the child in any court proceeding, the statute did not apply. She was released on bail and, subsequently, the charges were dropped.



SOURCES

Henry Lauren Clinton. Celebrated Trials, Chapters I-XVIII (1897)
The Burdell Murder! Burdell Estate before the Surrogate Again. Dr. Catlin, a Nurse, and Others Arrested. Full and Official Details of the Strange Story. The Child Marked With Lunar Caustic. New York Times, August 5, 1847.
An Old Crime Recalled: Mrs. Cunningham and the Tragedy in Which She Figured. New York Times, September 17, 1887.

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