Thursday, April 22, 2010

Murder Most Foul!

Ellen Horan, author of 31 Bond Street: A Novel, joins us for a guest-blog. Ellen will be at Tenement Talks tonight, 6:30 pm, 108 Orchard Street.

I stumbled upon the ‘Bond Street Murder,’ the actual murder that is the subject matter for this novel, in a newspaper clipping in a bin at the Pageant Print Shop. It had an image of Manhattan’s Bond Street and mentioned a long-forgotten murder of a dentist in his townhouse on that leafy street. The etching accompanying the article certainly didn't look anything like the Bond Street that I knew, which for more than a century suffered neglect as a backwater of empty lots, small manufacturing lofts and automotive shops.

It turns out that in 1857 this was one of the most fashionable parts of town, filled with fine homes and mature trees. One writer said, “The lamps, gleaming amid the leaves, reminded one of Paris.” In the early 19th century, Bond Street was the epitome of fashion. It was New York’s top address, and living there were: a mayor of New York, the town’s most preeminent physician, the pastor of the wealthiest church, a senator of the United States, two representatives of Congress, an ex-secretary of the Treasury, a major general in the army, and prominent financiers.

Curious to learn more about how murder could take place in this most posh of districts, I dug in at the library.

When I went to look through microfilm of old newspapers, I found that this was not some obscure case but one that played out across the front pages of all the New York City dailies for nearly a year, trumpeted at the time as the crime of the century.

I named the book after the house where the murder took place, 31 Bond Street, because the building’s fate seemed to mirror that of its inhabitants.

The fine home owned by dentist Harvey Burdell became the scene of a Coroner’s inquest into his murder. The house was turned inside out as events unfolded. The man’s housemistress, Emma Cunningham, with whom he had a romantic involvement, had designs upon the property but never got her hands on it, as her plans were thwarted when she became the main suspect of the murder.

After the Civil War, Bond Street showed evidence of decline, until all the townhouses were derelict or destroyed by the 1920s and were replaced by manufacturing or commercial buildings. The families touched by 31 Bond Street too seemed to fall into death or despair.

Today, Bond Street is again experiencing a renaissance. The tall buildings hold residential lofts and the empty lots have been replaced with prime condos.

Bond Street has come full circle, but I am sure it still has secrets to tell. As a fiction writer, I can’t help but be intrigued by the possibilities.

Join me tonight to learn more about the ‘Bond Street Murder’ and why it so captivated 19th century New York.

Images: Courtesy NYPL and Ellen Horan.

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