While Columbia Law School marks its 150th year, alumnus Benjamin Feldman '76 has marked the Brooklyn graves of two deceased paramours, one of whom was murdered in 1857, and revived the story of New York society dentist Harvey Burdell’s unsolved bludgeoning in a new book. The tale, “Butchery on Bond Street,” recounts the torrid love affair of Burdell, a prominent dentist and real estate swindler, and Emma Cunningham, a young widow with five children, who tried to pass herself off as his wife.
The affair and Burdell’s unsolved murder, occurring after Burdell failed to marry his scheming paramour, dominated New York tabloid headlines for more than a year.
“It was the most notorious case of its day,” said Feldman, an aficionado of New York City history, who retired from a career in law and real estate development in 2000 to pursue a passion for historical research and writing, and the study of Yiddish language and culture. (He was a partner at S.L. Green Realty, where he worked for 13 years.)
Although Cunningham was charged with murder, there were no eye witnesses and she was acquitted. Yet, public sentiment against her was so strong that a crowd jeered her memory when she died 30 years later, said Feldman.
“Without my Columbia Law School education, I never would have written this book,” he added. “I had teachers such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Benno Schmidt Jr., Hans Smit, Ethan Allan Farnsworth, Jay Goldin, Brian Slayne and Curtis Berger. I learned research skills and began to love the process of doing research.”
Feldman learned about Burdell’s murder from a book written by Jeffrey I. Richman, the historian at Brooklyn’s Green Wood Cemetery, where Burdell and Cunningham were buried separately in unmarked family plots. Fascinated with the case, Feldman poured through “handwritten, paper pleadings tied-up in pink silk ribbons” at the Old Records Division of the New York County’s Clerk’s office. He also purchased a year-and-a-half’s worth of original newspapers (1856-57) from the New York Herald and the New York Tribune to help him flesh out the story.
He self-published his book in June and split the $6,500 cost of tomb stones for the deceased protagonists with the cemetery in September to “provide a permanent record of these two who were infamous people in their day.”
Feldman, who bicycles throughout the city and out to Green Wood Cemetery where he volunteers as an archivist, reminisces about his humble beginnings at Columbia. Working as a cab driver to help pay for his education, he was unable to take time off for his graduation. “My rent was due that week,” he said.
Feldman arrived in New York from Oak Ridge, Tenn., at 17 to attend Columbia College and hasn’t lived anywhere else since. In love with New York City, where he resides, he said, “They’ll have to carry me out feet first.”