New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Women to Reckon With

Mrs. Satan

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From New York Press, January 20, 1999

Some years ago, the Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Belva A. Lockwood, Esq., whom the agency believed had been the first woman Presidential candidate. In 1884 and 1888, Mrs. Lockwood waged symbolic campaigns (she appeared on no ballots and received no votes) to publicize the cause of women’s suffrage. The first woman admitted to the Illinois bar, Mrs. Lockwood was apparently a paragon of respectability, as worthy of postal honors as, say, Richard Nixon, the unindicted co-conspirator.

The Postal Service got the essential thing wrong. The first woman Presidential candidate was the eloquent, beautiful Victoria Claflin Woodhull—adventuress, editor, actress, revolutionary, Spiritualist, fortuneteller, blackmailer, seductress, and prostitute. Caricatured by Thomas Nast as “Mrs. Satan,” Vickie was many things, but never respectable.

Born in 1838, she claimed—like Salvador Dalí—to recall the moment of her conception. Her father, Reuben Claflin, was a remarkably vile con artist and snake-oil salesman without a redeeming quality, who robbed his neighbors, defrauded insurers, stole from his children, and pimped his daughters. According to Barbara Goldsmith, her most recent biographer, Vickie’s illiterate fortune teller mother was never quite sure of her first child’s father. Another daughter, Utica, became an alcoholic who hustled johns outside her sisters’ offices.

Yet Vickie had striking good looks, quick intelligence, and heaven-storming eloquence. Her sister and partner, Tennessee, was less complicated, more loving and sensible, and utterly loyal. Tennie’s other personal qualities generally proved useful in negotiating with individual men when Vickie’s eloquence was not persuasive: luxuriant auburn hair, pretty features, a great body. Tennie was a babe. They were a good team.

From childhood, Vickie had seen visions and sincerely believed herself under the protection of Demosthenes. By the time she was eleven, she could declaim with ecstatic fervor, and her father hauled her around Ohio to preach. After Tennie developed second sight, Dad had her conduct seances, too. Dad always took up the collection.

At fifteen, Vickie eloped with Dr. Canning Woodhull, an alcoholic weakling whom she soon divorced. In 1858, she began appearing on the San Francisco stage in melodramas such as The Country Cousin and New York by Gaslight, where, as Goldsmith writes, “low décolletage and tightly laced bodices emphasized breasts that were semi-exposed, elevated, and served up like ripe melons.” After the performance ended, the revels began, and Vickie gave good value for money.

Two years of this were enough. Vickie went home to take up magnetic healing. her charisma, honed through years of preaching, acting, and whoring, let her cure the sick and foretell the future. Meanwhile, Tennessee was handling up to ten gentlemen callers a night.victoria-woodhull

In 1868, Vickie and Tennie went to New York. The sisters knew where their talents lay, and wangled an introduction to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The dashing old pirate had risen from running a ferry boat to directing the New York Central Railroad. Tennie’s charms worked their magic. Although her medical training was limited to pitching her father’s snake oil, she became the Commodore’s “therapist,” administering enemas, manipulating his prostate, and, according to Goldsmith, providing “…magnetic healing”:

With her left hand acting as a negative magnet, the right as a positive, she claimed to reverse the polarity of his body and to expel negative energy.

Who could doubt it.

The sisters provided Vanderbilt with stock market advice, courtesy of the spirits. His correspondence shows he paid them a two percent commission on his business transactions based upon their forecasts. In 1869, with Vanderbilt’s support, the sisters formed a brokerage house, Claflin & Woodhull. The amused press called them “the Fascinating Financiers.”

Vickie published Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly from April 1870. In its pages, she announced her 1872 Presidential candidacy. Her platform was revolutionary, as one would expect from the president of the American section of Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association. She too received no votes. (Marx detested Vickie, considered her social platform irrelevant to the class struggle, and eventually purged her.)

In December 1870, the matriarchs of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had been scolded by a member of Congress for even asking that a women’s suffrage amendment be passed from the Judiciary Committee. That evening, they learned to their resentment that the Committee had granted one Victoria Woodhull a hearing to present a memorial on woman suffrage. Vickie’s success won her the undying enmity of the feminist establishment.

Unlike most suffragists, Vickie favored equal rights for everybody. Some were surprised in the summer of 1998 when Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Mrs. Stanton in a speech at Seneca Falls, New York. Mrs. Stanton resented the enfranchisement of African-American men. Indeed, she seemed incapable of speaking about them without using the word “Sambo.” Also, she emphasized granting the vote to educated women. Universal education was then largely unknown. Mrs. Stanton did not want votes for the cleaning woman and the maid. She wanted suffrage extended only to the educated lady elite, such as herself.womensuffrage-copy

Vickie had pulled off her coup through her most able political ally. Benjamin F. Butler was a squat, wall-eyed, remarkably ugly Congressman. He was brilliant and audacious. Francis Russell notes that during his oral examination for admission to the Massachusetts bar, he disagreed with an opinion the examining judge had rendered earlier in the day. The judge reversed the opinion and made Butler a lawyer on the spot.

A perennial gubernatorial candidate, coarsened by a lifetime’s grabbing for the main chance, Butler was tough, crude, and vain, an opportunist and adventurer. Elected on his sixth try in 1882, Butler was denied the honorary doctorate Harvard traditionally awarded to the Governor of the Commonwealth. But he and Vickie struck it off well.

Yet Butler was radical as well as corrupt. The genius he usually directed at concealing evidence, eliciting perjury, and enacting special interest legislation was also employed in the cause of African-Americans and women. He was sincere when he said, “God made me only one way. I must always be with the underdog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change it; and on the whole, I don’t want to.”

Confronted once with a rumor that he had offered to help Vickie in the cause of woman suffrage in exchange for a chance to “feast his eyes upon her naked person,” Butler replied, “Half truths kill.” Goldsmith notes that Vickie knew Butler well enough to remember his midnight snacks of doughnuts washed down with whiskey. But whether Vickie and Butler were lovers is as irrelevant as it is unclear. He proved a consistent, ruthless, and effective champion of human rights. Rarely has so blatant a cynic become so embattled a reformer.

On January 11, 1871, Woodhull addressed the committee. She argued Congress did not need to amend the Constitution; Article IV, Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment already provided the right to suffrage for all citizens. Congress only needed to pass a declaratory act to enable women to vote. Senator Charles Sumner later said no one could answer her legal arguments. In the end, the committee still defeated her proposal.

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She had always championed free love. Vickie believed the institution of marriage was tyranny; married men and women who no longer loved one another should be free to take up other relationships; and unloving marriages essentially constituted a form of sanctioned prostitution.

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, preached a different sort of sexual emancipation. Driven by his need for adulation and crude physical lusts, Beecher blurred the identify between revealed Christianity and a vague adherence to the teaching and example of Christ in a self-indulgent, flabby theology he called the Gospel of Love.

Immensely popular among the elite, Beecher had a string of affairs with female parishioners and other women. On October 10, 1868, he seduced Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Theodore Tilton, a journalist and one of his parishioners. Mrs. Tilton confessed to her husband. Tilton, who had been one of Beecher’s friends, threatened to expose Beecher.

Goldsmith confirms that there was a cover-up, largely because Plymouth Church had been financed by bonds depending on the collection plate for their repayment. Beecher was the box office draw. If he were driven from the pulpit, the men who had bought the bonds stood to lose their money. But the Beecher-Tilton affair, too, became an open secret. Many feminists who corresponded with Vickie wrote about it, often from personal knowledge of one or more of the participants.

beecher_hwBecause Beecher had practiced free love without admitting it, Vickie outed him as an adulterer and lecher, right on the front page of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly for November 12, 1872. She described what Beecher and Mrs. Tilton had done, reprinting letters from Mrs. Stanton and other feminists to support her claims. Beecher did not sue for defamation. But Anthony Comstock charged Vickie and Tennie with obscenity, namely, for using the phrase “red trophy of her virginity,” a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy. The sisters would be repeatedly arrested and jailed for months.

According to Goldsmith, Comstock (the self-proclaimed “Roundsman for the Lord”) was an obsessive masturbator. His sexual guilt drove him to a lifelong pursuit of pornography, dirty playing cards, and the whole gamut of sexual devices, appliances, and toys. Amid the splendors of the Gilded Age, Comstock saw only dirty pictures. He was a little too enthusiastic about showing off his porn collection; a little too proud of the badge and gun a craven Congress permitted him to carry as a special postal agent.

Against so inexorable a force, what could Vickie do but to retain William F. Howe, the late nineteenth century’s sleazy lawyer par excellence. Howe usually represented murderers, thieves, fences, pimps, and whores. He could persuade juries that a defendant’s trigger finger had slipped not once, but six times. He found Anthony Comstock child’s play. On the day of his summation, Howe demanded to know if Deuteronomy and Fielding were obscene, asked why the court had not issued an order to seize the works of Smollet and Byron, and won over the jury with a fine, roaring speech: “O Liberty, where are thy defenders?…Must it be as the poet says: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold,/ Wrong forever on the throne?'”

In 1877, Vickie and Tennie went to London. After a friendly discussion about Cornelius Vanderbilt’s personal life with William Henry Vanderbilt, the late Commodore’s son, a small fortune had been placed at their disposal provided they left the country. Vickie married John Biddulph Martin, an English banker, and spent the rest of her life striving for a respectability she could not win.

But Tennie had a grand time. In 1884, she met a wealthy widower, Sir Francis Cook, told him the spirit of his dead wife had advised her to marry him, and did. Lady Cook (who, upon her husband’s ennoblement by the King of Portugal, also became known as the Vizcondesa da Montserrat) entertained lavishly throughout a loving, happy marriage. She remained beautiful, witty, charming, and open until her death in 1923.

Vickie joined her among the spirits in 1927. In a niche of her library, where she died, was a shrine to Nike. Being Vickie, she sometimes murmured that in another life she too had been the winged goddess of victory.

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March 1, 2015   No Comments

The Witch, the Wench & the Colonel

At her death, the Witch of Wall Street was worth more than J. P. Morgan, and nearly all of it was in cash. Yet Hetty Green had worn the same dress for thirty years and lived in squalor. The Witch’s son Ned was another matter, a six-foot, four-inch, 300-pound eccentric who tossed away $3 million a year on cars, coins, stamps, female “wards,” pornography, yachts, and Texas politics.

Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 21, 1835. She inherited about $1 million outright from her father in 1865 and a life interest in $5 million. She was tall, full-figured, and handsome, with “a bosom full and high,” large, bright blue, intelligent eyes, regular features, and a fine, delicate, peach-blossom complexion that she retained into old age. Edward H. Green, a wealthy Vermonter, fell in love with her as she walked into the dining room in Boston’s Parker House.

With a pre-nuptial agreement under which each remained independent of the other in financial matters, they married in 1867. After eight years in London, the couple returned to America to live in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Here Hetty began to show an obsessive parsimony, spending half the night looking for a two-cent stamp she had mislaid, wearing wildly outdated clothes that were never mended or replaced, and not washing to save money on soap. (In later years, Mrs. Green’s economy led guests in hotel dining-rooms to ask for Hetty to be seated as far away from them as possible.) She became notorious and a favorite target for reporters with a satirical eye.

Mr. Green found Mrs. Green embarrassing. Relocating the family to New York, he took a bachelor apartment in an expensive men’s residential hotel, while Hetty, though wealthier than ever, lived with her children in cheap flats in Brooklyn and Hoboken, frequently moving to evade state taxes. They rarely paid more than twenty-two dollars a month for rent or five dollars a week for food.

In 1886, her son Ned was knocked down and dragged by a cart at Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street, severely injuring his right leg. She refused to pay doctors’ fees, instead making the rounds of free medical clinics in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She was recognized and turned away because she refused to pay although she could afford to. Eventually she had to take Ned to a doctor who, by then, could do nothing but advise amputation. It was that or death by gangrene, but Hetty would not—perhaps could not—pay for a doctor. Finally, her husband paid for the procedure, and the youth’s leg was cut off about seven inches above the knee.

Yet the boy remained loyal to his mother, who had begun to recognize his flair for business. Within months, Ned had become Hetty’s agent, first in Chicago and then Texas. During his stay in the Windy City, his lodge brothers, realizing the lad was an innocent at twenty-two, arranged an appointment for him at a house of mirth, ensuring first that the madam understood the guest of honor was a shy one-legged virgin.

The voluptuous redhead who entertained him, Mabel Harlow, was a thorough professional, skillful, tolerant, and kindly, who had learned her trade in Dallas and Houston before hitting the big time. Ned fell immediately in love but Mabel, uninterested in commitment, left town on the next train.

One of Hetty’s lesser enterprises, the Texas Midland Railroad, was fifty-one miles of unprofitable rusty rail connecting no place with nowhere. She sent Ned to make it viable. He stumped into the American National Bank of Terrell, Texas, bearing a cashier’s check for $500,000. This was then twice the bank’s capital. The bankers wired Hetty for confirmation. She replied that Ned had a mole on his forehead and a cork leg. He showed both to the bankers. They took the check. Then they made him a vice president.

Of those days, he later said, “I felt wonderful. I was fancy free.” Looking down at his cork leg, he added, “You might also say I was footloose.” Shortly after Ned’s arrival in Texas, the Governor made him an honorary colonel. Ned ordered gold-braided uniforms from Brooks Brothers for the next inaugural ball and used the title for the rest of his life.

He also became interested in Republican politics, befriending an unlikely but powerful state boss, William Madison “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, a gangly black man with a bobbing Adam’s apple.

After working his way through Roger Williams College, Gooseneck Bill had returned to the Lone Star State as a teacher. This was no way to get rich, so he also sold insurance for fraternal orders and went into politics. Texas Democrats then banned blacks from membership. So McDonald joined the Republicans. While the GOP was then an electoral dead-end in a former Confederate state, the Texas Republicans sent delegates to their party’s national convention, where Presidential candidates wanted their votes.

McDonald was soon able to buy and sell jobs, do deals, get contracts, and begin making money. But no Negro could become State Republican chairman. He needed a white man to front for him, like the large, affable railroad president from Terrell. McDonald planted the seed of ambition: State Chairman, Governor, maybe…. In September, 1896, following McDonald’s advice (“Never bribe a man with a check. Always use cash.”), Ned overwhelmed the State convention in a tidal wave of babes, booze, and gold, winning the first of four terms as State party chairman.

In his private life, Colonel Green behaved as if he had just invented sex and couldn’t wait to spread the idea around. When the Texas Midland bought an opera house as its office building, Edward used its top floor as his apartment, where he received an ever-changing array of women, including occasional professional talent from Dallas. He and his friends enjoyed snapping photographs of each other flagrante delicto, perhaps foreshadowing his robust taste for pornography.

One day Ned and Mabel met by accident in the lobby of the town’s hotel. (She was in Terrell on business.) She said, “Hiya, Eddie,” and they fell into each other’s arms. This time, Mabel stuck around to become the Colonel’s “housekeeper.” As she was easily bored and her only friends were whores, Mabel occasionally bolted town after a few drinks to return to her trade. Gooseneck Bill repeatedly tracked her down, had her arrested, and ensured her return to Terrell on the next train.

In the meantime, Hetty, who referred to Miss Harlow as Miss Harlot, had been busy on the stock market. As Lucius Beebe observed in The Big Spenders, “The New York Stock Exchange had hitherto been a closely guarded present of purely masculine rapacity, but Hetty, in the guise of a sort of reverse Florence Nightingale, was soon stacking the maimed and dying like cordwood as a result of her ruthless operations, and bears and bulls alike were licking financial wounds that were pitiful to behold.”

But indulging the odd occasional bout of securities manipulation was merely a pastime. She made her real money as a loan shark, lending money to bankers and brokers at the highest possible rate of interest from her rent-free desk at the Seaboard National Bank’s Wall Street office, where she always had $40 to $50 million on deposit.

During the Panic of 1907, perhaps her finest hour, the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed for $52 million. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation then: the depositors lost their savings. Hetty was not among them. Several weeks before the crash, she had told a friend to get her money out of the Knickerbocker. Hetty had already done so. “The men in that bank are too good-looking,” she explained. “You mark my words.”

Meanwhile, she continued to live in obscure and shabby boarding houses, sometimes in unfurnished rooms where she did her own cooking on a single gas plate. In April, 1916, while staying with a friend, the old lady suffered a stroke after arguing with the housekeeper over extravagance. The cook, Hetty claimed, was bankrupting her employer by using whole milk where skimmed would do. She died two months later: the Colonel had paid for round-the-clock care, the nurses dressing as maids lest Hetty have another stroke at the thought of the expense. She left $100 million to her two children.

At the time of his mother’s death, Colonel Green usually wore rimless spectacles, wing collars and, except on the very saddest occasions, a bemused smile. Thereafter, some say, his way of life became a protest against the penury that had cost him a leg. He collected stamps, coins, and pornography without restraint.

Hetty had been dead for less than a month when Ned married Mabel. To celebrate his nuptials, the Colonel wanted the world’s largest private yacht. With World War I raging, the Colonel was unable to order a vessel to his design. He inquired whether J. P. Morgan’s Corsair or Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal were available. They were not. Instead, he purchased a Great Lakes excursion steamer, the S.S. United States. It was only 195 feet long, shorter than Corsair. Green solved the problem by having the United States lengthened by sixty-one feet. When finished, the main cabin was 28 by 32 feet, with an open fieldstone fireplace. Here, the Colonel’s  imagination failed him and the boat’s interior was furnished by John Wanamaker’s department store

When the United States arrived at Round Hill, the Colonel’s residence in Buzzards Bay, he encountered an insurmountable obstacle. The steamer burned nearly two tons of coal a day just keeping up enough steam pressure to activate the showers and fire lines. In wartime, nothing like this was available for a single civilian’s use. Then, on August 21, 1919, the United States sank at its mooring in sixteen feet of water. Colonel Green’s pride took ten hours to go down in broad daylight. There were no casualties; the furnishings were recovered; and the boat was scrapped.

In any case, he was finding that the money now piled up without his help. Eventually, the only words he was uttering at directors’ meetings were the motion to adjourn. Respectable neighbors on the Cape only noticed him when the Goodyear blimp he loved to moor to a tree on his front lawn got loose and was pursued by its custodians over their immaculately groomed estates. But he was wildly popular as a prize spendthrift of the Miami winter season. He signaled his arrival by presenting a $20 gold piece to each traffic policeman and would repeat the gesture when he went back North.

Colonel Green usually carried sufficient pocket money for emergencies. Once, he was breakfasting at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas with Edward Harper, president of the Security National Bank. Just as the sausages were coming to the table, a shaken emissary rushed in to tell the banker of a run on his bank. Unwilling to see his guest inconvenienced, Green pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty $10,000 banknotes. As this might have been insufficient, Green sent a bellboy to his suite, instructing him to fetch a battered Gladstone lying on the bed. It proved to be almost entirely filled with $10,000 bills, from which the Colonel counted out another thirty and handed them to Harper, no receipt necessary. Half a million dollars proved sufficient to save the bank, and Green had the valise returned to his rooms instructing the bellboy to stow it safely in the closet.

Still, now and then his mother’s thrifty ways would surface in the Colonel too. When his estate foreman told him that fifty gallons of flat paint were needed for the outbuildings, the Colonel bought a carload, paying $1.00 a can instead of the retail price of twice that amount. Reportedly, the foreman never figured out what to do with the extra 3,000 gallons.

Ned’s right leg had been buried in the Green family plot of Immanuel Church, in Bellows Falls, Vermont. In 1936, the rest of him joined it. His last joke came during probate. Among the objets d’art that made up the appurtenances of the estate was one that resembled a crown: large, bejeweled, gilt and enamel. One lawyer finally picked it up and to inspect it. He suddenly wrinkled his nose. “Gentlemen,” he said, “it’s a chamber pot. And it’s been used.”

New York Press, April 28, 1999

February 14, 2015   1 Comment

Family Fare

Arecent encounter with the first half-hour or so of Jane Eyre, The Musical put me in mind of the 1857 murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. (The connection won’t immediately be apparent.) A friend with a professional interest in seeing the show had asked me along, and since she’d paid for the tickets and wanted to leave, we did—well before the act break—driven out by the inexorable staccato of the leading lady’s enunciation.
The show had not been exceptionally or unexpectedly appalling, but it made you realize that it’s possible to get anything produced on Broadway these days, provided it has a child in it. Absolutely anything. People are desperate to get their offspring out of the house, and anything with a kid in it is considered family fare.

This re-emergence of the child as live attraction may be a by-product of the current baby boom. But it has its roots, I think, in the Burdell affair and its aftermath. That’s really where the great show-business tradition of exploiting children for profit begins. The Burdell case is one of my very favorite New York murder stories—about a woman who, having killed a man in cold blood, had the audacity to lay claim to his estate as his wife. She was not his wife. But having been arrested, imprisoned, and charged with his murder, she purported to be pregnant with his child. She was not pregnant with his child—or anyone’s. But having been tried and acquitted, she carried on with the charade, trying to persuade even her own doctor that she was soon to give birth to the murdered man’s heir.

The best account of the Burdell affair is to be found in Murder Won’t Out, Russel Crouse’s wonderful 1932 anthology of unsolved New York homicides, but I first stumbled on it in a book by Jack Finney (of Time and Again) called Forgotten News, which said that on a cold winter’s morning in 1857 a rather unlikable dentist named Burdell had been found murdered in his home at 31 Bond Street. It was not possible to determine the precise cause of death (Burdell had been strangled first and then stabbed fifteen times, apparently in places where it counted) but suspicion fell on Emma Cunningham, a young widow who had been residing in his house for more than a year.

Mrs. Cunningham, to whom Dr. Burdell actually leased the premises at 31 Bond, had for some time been carrying on a not-very-clandestine affair with the doctor. It was a volatile romp, now on, now off. She had marital designs. The two had met at a resort and formed an acquaintance that, back in New York, Mrs. Cunningham had strengthened along with her teeth by going to see him in a professional capacity. She had five children, two boys around eight and nine, and three teenage girls. The whole passel of them wound up moving in with Dr. Burdell, with Mrs. Cunningham eventually taking over the lease from a previous landlady.

The Cunninghams and Dr. Burdell never lived as a family, exactly, though now and then he seems to have shared the widow’s board as well as her bed. At a certain point, though, relations seem to have gone awry. There was an incident with a fetus that either miscarried or, as Cunningham later claimed, was aborted (a procedure she said Burdell had both demanded and performed) and a couple of lawsuits. Burdell began to be heard vilifying Mrs. Cunningham, saying he wished she didn’t live at 31 Bond Street and that he feared for his life.

She seems to have been a piece of work, a creature in whom a seemingly endless capacity for guile was mingled with chronic ineptitude. In various unsubtle ways she set about alienating Burdell from his friends and acquaintances, particularly other women, moved a number of longtime boarders out and a couple of her own associates in, had him arrested for breach of promise and—when he countersued, claiming she had stolen back her promissory note for the year’s rent—for slander; all of which led to a settlement and an uneasy truce, broken only by the murder. Now Mrs. Cunningham came forward with the announcement that she and the doctor had been secretly wed some months before.

She had, in fact, been secretly married to someone. In late October of the previous year a man with a beard and a tendency not to meet one’s eye had shown up at 623 Greenwich Street, home of the Rev. Uriah Marvin, and arranged a wedding for the following day. The ceremony had been performed, Dr. Marvin officiating and one of the daughters bearing witness, but whether Mrs. Cunningham had married Dr. Burdell or another occupant of 31 Bond posing as Dr. Burdell was a matter that the minister would later keep changing his mind about. Mrs. Cunningham’s claim on Dr. Burdell’s $100,000 estate was turned over to the Surrogate. Meanwhile, she was arrested and tried for murder. She got off, owing largely to the fact that the coroner had gathered too much (i.e., conflicting) information.

The likelihood that Mrs. Cunningham was Burdell’s widow had been somewhat undercut by the groom’s failure to point out the misspelling of his name on the marriage license. (It appeared as “Berdell.”) Possibly it was with a view to improving the Surrogate’s opinion of her that Mrs. Cunningham embarked on the pregnancy ploy. But Mrs. Cunningham’s doctor ratted her out to the district attorney, a man named A. Oakey Hall, who was to become a member of the infamous Tweed ring and mayor of New York.

He was, it appears, no ordinary prosecutor but something of an impresario manqué, a man who today might have made a name for himself as a minor auteur, producing straight-to-video movies, say, or reality television. “A lifelong lover of the arts,” according to American National Biography, Hall had moved to New York in 1848 “to take advantage of Gotham’s cultural opportunities.” By 1851, he was contributing whimsical little pieces to something called The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science. One of these, a work of dramatic criticism, is entirely written in the voice of a lorgnette.

Hall proposed to Mrs. Cunningham’s physician, one Dr. David Uhl, that they collaborate on a complicated sting operation. He suggested that the doctor play along with Mrs. Cunningham, pretending to be in league with her, all the while reporting back to him. Mrs. Cunningham had asked Uhl to help her procure an infant that she might pass off as her own. She had, she said, $2000 to spend—half for him and half for the baby’s family. Hall told the doctor to go ahead and locate a suitable baby. In the charity wards at Bellevue a woman was found who was willing to be separated from her newborn child for a single night in exchange for a thousand dollars.

Hall’s plan involved stringing along Mrs. Cunningham—who at that point was claiming the birth to be almost imminent—for several weeks. While she strove to build up an illusion of gravidity (simulating cravings and nausea, expressing anxiety about whether she would go to term) Hall invented an elaborate cover story to explain how a complaisant mother had been found so easily: she could be a “California widow”—a woman anxious to remove the evidence of an ill-timed pregnancy achieved while her husband had been off panning for gold.

Hall also hired his brother-in-law from upstate, another doctor, whose role in the masquerade would be to transport the baby to 31 Bond. At Hall’s instigation, the two physicians scoured the Lower East Side for an apartment in which they might pretend this fictional mother was about to give birth. On Elm Street (now Elk Street) they found a wine-and-beer merchant with a set of rooms to let. Hall not only rented the rooms on Elm Street, he had them furnished and filled with props. He even brought in a Spring Street pharmacist to play the mother, when Mrs. Cunningham came by Elm Street at one point,  and the fellow put on a frilly cap and simulated birth pangs heroically from the bed.

To make a long story short, the police totally nailed it, and everything went off like clockwork. They let the baby arrive and be admitted to the house. Then before you could say “fallopian tube” they were up the front steps of No. 31 and in the door. Hall’s brother-in-law later claimed that on confronting Mrs. Cunningham he even remembered to say, “Do you claim this child as the child of Harvey Burdell?” to which he said she replied, “Of course—whose else should it be?” And that was it—busted.

Mrs. Cunningham, though arrested that night, was apparently never prosecuted for the Bogus Baby escapade. So it seems as if all that Hall had wanted was to put on a big show. In later years Hall himself would  be accused of fraud, but like Mrs. Cunningham would be acquitted. And though he would end his career in disgrace, he shares a biographer with Eugene O’Neill, which would no doubt have pleased him.

The baby in the case (and here is my point) wound up in Barnum’s American Museum, where it had a nice little run earning its mother $25 a week—Broadway’s first child star.

Incidentally, a No. 31 Bond Street still exists. Inside is a pretty little auditorium.

New York Press, March 20, 2001

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on Family Fare