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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Ripening of a Sociopath

by Benjamin Feldman,
Author of Butchery on Bond Street
©2008 All rights reserved by author

Imaginery wedding bells pealed to the rhythm of the New York Central's wheels, lulling Emma Cunningham to sleep as she and her daughter Helen headed back to New York at summer's end. Their visit to Saratoga had been a successful one, by all accounts, and if her luck held, a beautiful golden circle would soon grace the fourth finger of Emma's left hand. The ringing in Harvey Burdell's head was entirely different, though; a devilish pain of suspicion and greed had begun to creep around in his skull. The dentist's intentions and Emma's wishes were far, far apart. According to the testimony of his closest male friends at the inquest into Burdell's death conducted some eighteen months later, while publicly suing for Emma's affection, Burdell was privately telling the same men of his deep aversion to the female sex and utter distaste for matrimony. Emma had high hopes of consummating her second marriage and securing a stable financial future for herself and her large brood. Unfortunately, Harvey Burdell had other things in mind.

After having amassed tens of thousands of dollars in assets and risen to the top of the dentistry profession over a twenty-year career in New York, Burdell had also grown wealthy through his directorship of the Artizan's Bank, the Webster Fire Insurance Company, and from various real estate investments on Bond Street, along the thriving Arthur Kill waterfront in Elizabethport, New Jersey, and in his native upstate Jefferson County. The elegantly dressed dentist was undoubtedly eager to see and be seen in Saratoga with his colleagues from the Bank's board of directors, and the more successful of his many patients and Bond Street acquaintances who frequented the Village in summertime. Having a beautiful, mature and respectable woman on his arm was an essential part of the act.

By 1855, Dr. Harvey Burdell was a well-known figure among the upper middle class set that shuttled between Manhattan and Saratoga Springs during the warmer months of the year. A brilliant and shrewdly calculating medical man, Dr. Burdell had come to New York to join his older brother John Burdell in dental practice in 1834. Harvey Burdell first located his clinic near City Hall, at 21 Chambers Street, only a few dozen yards from John's home and office at 69 Chambers Street. After two years, Harvey moved even closer to John, setting up shop next door at 67 Chambers Street (The address given for Harvey Burdell in the contemporary directory may in fact reflect the two brothers practicing from the same clinic space). They remained together in partnership for five years, until John's personal and professional life were destroyed by a series of hideous perfidies. An English apprentice, Thomas Gunning, who came to live and work with the brothers in 1839, created havoc in the clinic as well as in John's boudoir.

Though somewhat inconsistent with several contemporary accounts and extant genealogy records, an article published in the New York Dental Recorder at the end of 1857 furnishes plentiful detail about the family dynamics of the Burdell brothers' childhood. The account paints a sorry picture of young Harvey's personality that presaged both the future torrent of fratricidal warfare among the several Burdell siblings and their respective offspring, as well as Harvey's untimely and violent death. Though other published synopses of Harvey's early life insisted that he lost his father while still a toddler, the Dental Recorder implied that Harvey's parents were separated when the lad was nine or ten years old. About 1820, Harvey was said to have moved with his father to the Jefferson County village of Sackett's Harbor, New York where after being schooled for a couple years, the boy was apprenticed to a printer in neighboring Oswego. His formal education, ended, and Harvey became financially independent of his father. Parental supervision of the young man's moral and ethical development ceased forthwith.

Left to his own devices, the energetic youth worked as a compositor for a couple of years and then was said to have accepted an invitation from his older brother John to move to New York and learn the dentistry trade in the late 1820s. A term supposedly followed at a Philadelphia medical school, and thereafter Harvey returned to New York and joined as a full-fledged member of John's dental clinic. Though undistinguished in the eyes of this professional journal as a practitioner, and reportedly only able to maintain a modest income from his dentistry skills, Harvey played upon his older brother's respectable reputation to enhance his own practice. The size of the murder victim's estate at the time of the publication of the Dental Recorder item was well known, and the author attributed Harvey's success in amassing wealth not to his skill as a dentist, but rather to the extreme parsimony with which he lived. Harvey Burdell learned to function alone in the world, fearful of all those around him, and became fixated with the accretion of wealth in lieu of acquiring intimate personal relationships. "[H]e was literally 'alone,'" the magazine reported sadly, "no one being dependent upon him, no really intimate associates; usually sleeping in a room adjoining his office, and procuring his meals at restaurants. A naturally frank-hearted disposition had been smothered or sacrificed by a morbid desire to grasp the almighty dollar. Friendship, the ties of kindred and affection, professional ambitions, were thrown aside or crushed the instant they came into collision with any prospect of gain. All the true happiness of life he seems to have sacrificed, and to what end? Simply to amass a bribe sufficient to nerve his murderers to the execution of one of the most diabolical murders on record."

The several stories of Harvey and John's parentage published at his death are somewhat inconsistent as to the exact date of Harvey's birth and his father's given name, as well as where the family made its home when Harvey was a small boy. A sorry critical thread runs through all versions, though: young Harvey Burdell was forsaken by his mother in his formative pre-teenage years. It appears most likely that Harvey was born January 8, 1811 in the hamlet of Hounsfield, in Jefferson County, New York. Harvey, John, and their brothers James, William and Lewis, were the offspring of Polly Cunningham Burdell and her first husband, also John Burdell. During Harvey's early years, various combinations of the parents and their children lived in the villages of Herkimer and German Flats in upstate Herkimer County as well as in Sackett's Harbor, on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Harvey Burdell's narcissistic personality was forged in adversity: contact with his mother evaporated at a young age, whether via his parents' divorce, or through being thrown out of his childhood home after his mother was widowed. Some accounts insisted that John Burdell died leaving Polly with the five children to raise. One thing is certain, though: by the time Harvey Burdell reached the age of thirteen, Polly had remarried farmer James Lamon. Five new sons and daughters followed in short order. A jealous husband and demanding little children surrounded Polly Burdell Lamon, spelling trouble for young Harvey and the other Burdell boys. The children from her first marriage became unwelcome in their mother's new home, and by 1824, Harvey was forced out of the house. His feelings towards women in general and his aversion to any emotional commitment to another human being, much less marriage, were a natural result of harsh pre-adolescent experiences.

Thirteen-year-old Harvey finished a few years of schooling at the Sackett's Harbor Academy and then struck out on his own, working as a compositor. In 1828 or 1829, the boy, still in his teens, became owner of a several-year-old weekly newspaper in the upstate area, the Oswego [New York] Advertiser. Renamed by Harvey The Freeman's Herald, the paper was founded to support the Republican administration of the newly inaugurated John Quincy Adams in 1825 and to compete with the opposite views of the long-established Oswego Palladium. Harvey gave up the unprofitable operation after one year and accepted employment in Oswego with Major James Cochrane, who published the anti-Jacksonian Oswego Democratic Gazette.

According to one report published after his death, when Harvey's journalism career ended, he followed his older brother John to Philadelphia in the late 1820s or early 1830s, and attended lectures at Jefferson Medical College. The College's lists of graduates for the years in question make no mention of either Burdell brother having been granted a medical degree, but it was a common practice at the time for young men without sufficient finances or educational backgrounds to merely attend a number of medical school lectures without matriculating, and then hold themselves out as physicians. Thoroughgoing prevarication by men holding themselves out as experienced and educated in many other businesses and professions was just as commonplace. In later years, and regardless of how many hours, if any, Harvey spent in Jefferson's dank lecture halls, it was easy for the creative Dr. Burdell to concoct and pass off as truth various versions of his medical training credentials for consumption by patients and professional societies.

The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

The above is an excerpt from the book Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics & The Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-Bellum New York
by Benjamin Feldman
Published by The Green-Wood Cemetery Historic Fund in association with The New York Wanderer Press;  May 2007; 978-0-9795175-0-1
Copyright © 2008 Benjamin Feldman

Author Bio
Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City for the past thirty-eight years. After retiring in 2000 from a successful career in real estate and law, Ben turned to the full-time pursuit of his true love, New York City history. His essays about New York and about Yiddish culture have appeared on-line in The New Partisan Review and Ducts magazine, as well as in his blog, The New York Wanderer. Butchery on Bond Street is Ben's first full-length work.

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