Murder Mystery NYC Diaries - Case #3: The Murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell

Murder mysteries have a unique way of bringing out the secrets people have tried so hard to bury. In our outdoor immersive theater performances, actors must work with audiences, allowing them to pull such secrets from their characters to further the plot.

Our Murder Mystery NYC Diary entries are back this week, with a case that will leave you second guessing your dentist on your next visit. If you needed your teeth examined in the 1800s, you went to see Dr. Harvey Burdell in New York City. He was massively successful… up until the day he died. The wealth Burdell had spent most of his life acquiring however, would put him on the path toward his demise. Investments can be tricky, especially when they lead to murder mysteries!

Dr. Harvey Burdell

On the morning of January 31st, 1857 Dr. Burdell was found a bloody mess on the floor of his office, after his cleaning boy had come by to sweep. Seeing the body on the floor, the boy immediately ran to the boarding house upstairs for help. Strangely enough, none of the borders seemed to have a reaction, save for one Emma Cunningham. Many questioned why this border had become so overwhelmed with grief over the death of her landlord. No one other than Ms. Cunningham knew that the pair had been married, until a marriage license appeared. With this secret union, and the revelation that an insurance policy had been taken out on Dr. Brudell, suspicion of foul play fell on the grieving Ms. Cunningham.

Burdell was a well built, powerful man, so any attempt on his life had to be quite a struggle. The doctor was nearly torn apart with stab wounds and police had found evidence of strangulation marks across his neck. Surely someone—a boarder, or a passerby—had to have heard something so brutal! One recorded witness, man living a few houses down, claimed to hear the word “Murder!”being shouted into the night, but thought nothing of it. If someone almost a block away was able to hear the doctor’s cries, wouldn’t those living in the house notice something? Of course they would… unless this was an inside job.

Stab wounds can be a very telling cause of death. Obviously they denote what sort of murder weapon to look for, but they can also reveal important details about the murderer. In this case, these stab wounds revealed that the murderer's dominant hand had been their left. Initially, police assumed the perpetrator was a man. When the investigation concluded that no male border was left handed, Ms. Cunningham was immediately arrested and put on trial, in a court case that would rival the OJ Simpson trial in terms of popularity and media coverage.

Ms. Cunningham was found not guilty, with the defense arguing circumstantial evidence, and tearing down the prominent image of the doctor.

Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!

For the introduction to this series, click here.

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