A Victorian love affair gone wrong?

Analyzing The trial of Emma Cunningham.

“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?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And when does she take possession?”

The first of May.”

“He better be careful; he may not live to sign the papers!”

                                                           – Housemaid Hannah at Emma Cunningham’s trial 


In the midst of a changing world ushered in by the industrial revolution, a shocking trial took place in New York City, USA. Members of the jury gathered to deliberate whether the beautiful young woman in front of them was  a cold blooded murderer. 

Emma Cunningham -background 

1835 was a very lucky year for Emma Augusta Hampstead of New York City. An attractive young woman, she had just married the very rich George Cunningham. Not much is known about their marital life, however, one would like to think it was a good and happy life. 

Fast Forward to 1852. George Cunningham died , leaving Emma Cunningham as she was now known, lonely, attractive and ;owing to his $10,000 life insurance policy, a very rich woman indeed. 

Life was going well for Emma, well, relatively that is. This was ofcourse, till she was arrested, pending trial for murder. 

The Facts of the case:

  1. Harvey Burdell was a famous dentist in New York City. 
  2. However, he had a rather unsavory reputation as a crook and as someone who didn’t pay debts. 
  3. He lived and practiced in a townhouse on 31st Bond Street.  He rented rooms of this townhouse to  other tenants. 
  4. In 1855  Emma Cunningham became a tenant in his townhouse. 
  5. Emma allegedly developed an intimate relationship with him and allegedly also with John Eckel, another tenant in Dr Burdell’s townhouse. 
  6. On 31st January 1857, Dr Burdell’s body was found by his servants. 
  7. He had been stabbed 15 times by a left handed person. 
  8. Since Emma lived in the house and was also left handed, she was one of the suspects. 
  9. She was soon arrested and imprisoned till her trial would be completed. 
  10. The police believed that she had murdered Dr Burdell with Eckel’s help. 

Emma’s trial

On 6th May 1857, a courtroom trial began to determine Emma’s guilt. The Judge and the jury prepared themselves to hear Mr  Oakley Hall -the prosecutor and Mr Henry Clinton -the defense lawyer and the trial, though short, was indeed a battle of the wits for both of them.

What did Emma  and the defense contend?

Emma, from the day she was arrested, proclaimed that she and Dr Burdell were married and that she was expecting his baby. Since their marriage was a happy one with a baby on the way, it made no sense for her to murder him. 

The trial and the verdict.

For Mr Hall, a tough task lay ahead. Dr Burdle’s unsavory reputation had made it very difficult to convince the jury that the doctor was the innocent party in all of this. Moreover, with Emma’s baby bump growing every day, it was difficult for the jury not to sympathize with her. 

As such, on 9th May, 1857, Emma was declared not guilty and walked out of the jail with a new lease of life. 

The story continues

While Emma did walk out a free person, the story was not yet over. Not much survives of the original trial records, but it is known that Dr Uhl, who was one of Emma’s doctors while she was in prison, was suspicious of her pregnancy. He voiced his opinion regarding the same to Mr Hall. 

One must remember that this was a very different time. Emma had not allowed the doctor to physically touch her and examine her, a normal routine in those times. . She would simply talk about her symptoms and the doctor would prescribe medicines or treatment. Therefore, it is probable that Emma would not have actually been pregnant. 

Mr Hall’s hands were tied. He could not compel the doctor to touch and examine Emma without her consent. Yet, the good prosecutor wouldn’t give up so easily. 

Hall asked the police to keep an eye out on Emma’s house and on 27th July 1857, the police caught a nun carrying a baby in a basket, on her way to Emma’s house.

Emma was quick. She dropped claims of being pregnant or even of being Burdell’s wife. It was believed that their marriage  certificate was forged and that John Eckel, Emma’s supposed lover, had pretended to be Burdell to get the license. 

As double jeopardy prevented Emma from being tried again for the same crime, Emma was safe. She  left New York City and spent the rest of her life in California, away from the limelight. 

My thoughts on Emma Cunningham’s trial.

I do understand that this was a time where forensic was not so advanced, and perhaps Emma actually was the killer, nonetheless, I find it a bit strange that she was apprehended just because she was left-handed. 

The few resources I referred to, all directly mention her imprisonment. Surely, the police could have spent some extra time in confirming her culpability. 

I do think the fact that she was a young, rich, beautiful woman, with rumors of being intimate with two men, must have had an effect on the minds of the police and perhaps that’s why Emma had to pretend to be a respectable woman, who was married and pregnant…maybe she thought this would give her a fighting chance instead of anyone already having made up their mind about her guilt. 

I also find rumors about her and John Eckel having an affair to not have any substantial basis. Was she actually having an affair with him? Or was this just a rumor which did nothing but sully Emma’s reputation more?

I do believe that Emma’s story needs a bit more revisiting and looking through. Was she really an innocent woman with more than one affair? Or was she a jealous widow and a cold blooded killer? One may never know, but it is fantastic to wonder…


  1. https://law.jrank.org/pages/2547/Emma-Cunningham-Trail-1857.html 
  2. https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/emma-cunningham-trail-1857 
  3. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-desperate-would-be-housewife-of-new-york-140748/ 

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.


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