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GOTHAMIST: Shocking Crimes From 19th Century NYC That’ll Surprise You Today

From our partners at Gothamist: Arresting the mayor. A train station trunk discovered with naked woman inside. Duping the press into starting a panic on Wall Street. Scroll through for some of the craziest incidents of yesteryear.


The lurid murder of a Bond Street dentist captivated New Yorkers in 1857: A violent death, a disreputable victim, a scheming mistress, a fake marriage, and even a fake pregnancy. Harvey Burdell was a successful dentist and also did well in banking and real estate speculation. He partook in pleasures like gambling and prostitutes (he allegedly offered them free dental work in exchange for sex), too. But in 1854, he became involved with a young widow and mother-of-five Emma Cunningham, who eventually moved into Burdell’s four-story 31 Bond Street residence, acting as a landlady for boarders, while Burdell kept rooms on the second floor.

It’s believed that early in their relationship, Cunningham became pregnant but Burdell didn’t want the baby, and she had an abortion (he may have performed it). She also tried to get him to marry her repeatedly. On January 31, 1857, Burdell’s dead body was found (strangled and stabbed 15 times). During a sensational two-week inquest, Cunningham claimed she was married to him just a few months earlier, while maids testified that Burdell had been sleeping with his 24-year-old female cousin—upsetting Cunningham—and that Cunningham had been sleeping with one of the boarders. Coroners said that based on stab wounds, the murderer was left-handed…which Cunningham was.

Cunningham was tried for Burdell’s murder, but she was acquitted (her lawyer used, in part, the “weaker sex” defense during the three-day trial). But her story wasn’t over: In order for her to inherit more of Burdell’s estate, Cunningham claimed she was pregnant with Burdell’s child but instead contacted a doctor to ask for a baby for her charade. The doctor cooperated with authorities and when Cunningham insisted that the baby was hers, she was charged with fraud. The case was dropped, but her claim of marriage to Burdell was invalidated (she actually married a man disguised as Burdell). She died 30 years later, as a pauper, and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, not too far from Burdell.


The city was rocked by a shocking discovery on August 26, 1871: After a foul smell concerned a Hudson River Deport porter, a trunk bound for Chicago was opened and the naked body of a woman was found. Police determined it was foul play and, since it took six hours for the coroners to respond, hundreds of people saw the young woman’s body. Finally, coroners at Bellevue Hospital performed an autopsy, and they found the she died from a botched abortion. The newspapers called the story, “The Trunk Case” and the public was riveted. Hundreds more headed to the morgue, claiming they were checking if a loved one was there, but actually they just wanted to catch a glimpse of the body.

On August 28, 1871, the cartman who delivered the trunk to the station (but hadn’t been reading the papers) led the police to the address where he made the pick-up: 687 Second Avenue, home of Dr. Jacob Rosenzweig, who advertised his services under the name Ascher: “Ladies in trouble guaranteed immediate relief, sure and safe; no fees required until perfectly satisfied; elegant rooms and nursing provided. Dr. Ascher.” Rosenzweig was arrested and a Times article on August 29, 1871 described him as a “fat, coarse and sensual-looking fellow, without any traces of refinement in person or manners, and does not bear the faintest appearance of the educated physician” and noted that he received his diploma for just $40. The victim was ultimately identified as Alice Bowlsby, a 25-year-old NJ resident; though her body was decomposed, her doctors were able to identify her by a vaccination scar and a scar on her face.

With evidence such as bloodied female undergarments buried under the cellar, Rosenzweig was ultimately convicted, though his defense lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel, suggested Bowlsby’s lover could have killed her (the lover ended up killing himself upon hearing she was dead) and that a hankerchief with the name “A.A. Bowlsby” found in Rosenzweig’s house belonged to a Brooklyn woman named Alice Bowlsby.

The death, along with three other abortion-related deaths between August 30 and September 4 of that year, also spurred a movement against abortion. Abortion was legal at the time, but the next year, New York outlawed abortions. When Rosenzweig was released from Sing Sing prison in 1872, he was re-arrested for performing abortions—Howe managed to have charges dropped because the trunk case occurred before the law went into effect.

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