1857 New York
by Benjamin Feldman
Imagine Astor Place in 1857, packed with the finest hotels, retail emporiums and restaurants in ante-bellum New York, a mid-century Bonfire of the Vanities, where Southern cotton-brokers came to dine at Louis Sherry’s, stay at The Metropolitan Hotel, shop at Tiffany’s and all manner of luxury purveyors, gamble in the dens of the nearby Bowery, and not lastly, whore their brains out at the numerous establishments on Greene and Mercer Streets that catered to upscale “gentlemen.” Dr. Burdell himself was a well-known member of the demimonde that flourished downtown: dentist by day (who frequently took it out in trade from working girls who needed their teeth fixed) and baccarat dealer by night, Burdell’s face was recognized and welcomed in most of the finer establishments that catered to rich swells.
New York was a “copperhead” city. These were sympathizers for the Southern cause in the fight over slavery, many motivated by the lucrative trade in cotton centered in New York’s exchanges and counting houses, and they had an enormous voice in local politics. Democrat James Buchanan took office on March 4th that year, serving until Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Buchanan was often called a “doughface,” a Northerner with Southern sympathies, who encouraged the Supreme Court to rule against Dred Scott in its infamous 1857 decision issued two days after Buchanan’s accession to office.
1857 also marked the year of tremendous battles between the Mayor, Fernando Wood, and the New York State Legislature, over control of the local police force.
After decades of mayoral control of the force, Republican-dominated Albany passed legislation abolishing the local gendarmerie and forming a new one, exempt from direct mayoral control. With Boss Tweed pulling the strings of many a local Democratic puppet, chaos ensued in the political patronage system of the City where Dr. Harvey Burdell and Emma Cunningham met their last time in January of that fateful year. Street battles ensued in the summer of 1857, finally quelled by State officers. And on August 24, 1857, the head of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company announced the suspension of payouts by its New York branch, causing a panic in financial markets that spread like wildfire through Wall Street and then across the nation. Wholesale bank failures, suspension of commercial and personal credit lead to sky-rocketing unemployment and all of the concomitant miseries.
The Merchant's House Museum
For those wanting to experience the the period and scene of the crime, one must travel no farther than to the historic Merchant's House Museum built in 1832. The house mirrors the former 31 Bond Street and comes complete with the home's original family's furniture, possessions, and clothing, a truly remarkable treasure.
The museum is landmarked both inside as well as outside, so walking in the door feels like stepping in to 1850s New York when the neighborhood was at its splendor. You can picture Emma Cunningham and Dr. Harvey Burdell sparring in the lavish parlors. Upstairs in the stillness of the bedrooms, you can imagine the creak of the floorboard signaling the killer's approach just as Harvey must have heard it.
This reputed haunted house inspired the play's premise of spirits remaining behind to worry through their past deeds.