In the annals of crime, 31 Bond Street casts a particularly creepy spell. An 1833 New York guidebook rhapsodized that the marble-trimmed brick rowhouses in what is now NoHo “may vie, for beauty and taste, with those of the finest cities of Europe.”
By the middle of the 19th century, when No. 31 was converted into a boardinghouse, the block between the Bowery and Lafayette Street had lost some of its luster — no longer fashionable, now simply genteel, according to one contemporary account. Yet a few years before the Civil War, it was still not the sort of neighborhood where one would expect an assailant, who has never been identified, to commit what is often considered 19th-century New York’s most sensational murder.
The four-story scene of the crime was razed about three decades later. It was replaced with a six-story Renaissance Revival ground-floor store and loft building. But the fascination with the bloody murder of a 45-year-old well-to-do dentist, Dr. Harvey Burdell, and the circumstances surrounding it have endured into the 21st century in novels, nonfiction books and magazine and newspaper articles.
Joshua Gurwitz, a self-described history enthusiast, was fully cognizant of the site’s past when he bought the building last December for $16 million. While what happened in 1857 did not dissuade him, he said, he does not intend to capitalize on the site’s singular notoriety when he converts No. 31 into several condominium residences.
Mr. Gurwitz, who owns a real estate development company, prefers to promote the resurgent neighborhood’s collective storied past rather than the story behind that one specific address.
Anyway, he said, “what occurred did not occur in the current structure.”
“Over the last 150 years or so,” he added in an interview, “31 Bond Street has gone through a number of iterations, originating as a single-family townhouse, later being turned into a large manufacturing building and then ultimately becoming offices, artists’ studios and a performance space. Similar to many of New York City’s downtown neighborhoods, NoHo has a rich history that contributes to its desirability.”
NoHo has become so desirable, in fact, that at an 11-story building across the cobblestone street from 31 Bond, owned by the developer and hotelier Ian Schrager, a seven-and-a-half-room apartment is selling for $13 million.
Lurid details of the brutal murder at 31 Bond consumed two-thirds of the front page of The New-York Daily Times on Monday, Feb. 2, 1857. Suffice it to say that Dr. Burdell was found dead in his second-floor office on a Saturday morning in a sea of blood, strangled and stabbed 15 times, including twice in his heart. A disembodied cry of “murder” was supposedly uttered that Friday night, but the 10 boarders in the house insisted that they had heard nothing.
Suspicion immediately fell on Emma Cunningham, a widow who ran the boardinghouse for Dr. Burdell and who claimed to have married him — a claim that turned out not be true. (She was later caught up in another scam to procure a baby, supposedly their child.) Marriage also provided a motive: If her claims proved valid, she stood to inherit Dr. Burdell’s $100,000 estate (about $2.5 million today).
She was charged with murder; another boarder, John Eckels, a tanner and Ms. Cunningham’s reputed paramour, was branded an accessory. The case obsessed New Yorkers for months, pitting the defense lawyer Henry Lauren Clinton against District Attorney A. Oakey Hall, who would go on to become mayor. Dr. Burdell’s own dodgy reputation contributed to Ms. Cunningham’s acquittal. The mystery was never solved.
But New Yorkers typically don’t dwell on (or in) the past, which, in the case of where they choose to live, may be prudent. Moreover, the conditions that the state requires sellers of real estate to disclose to prospective purchasers — including information that may affect the property’s value — can be vague and subjective.
“I think if one could do an accurate history of every building in New York, it probably was the scene of a murder at some point or another,” said Leonard Steinberg, the president of Urban Compass, a real estate brokerage firm. “For some there is a stigma to this and for many it is considered a point of interest and fascination.”
“I bet we all live on land in New York where mass murders of Indians took place,” he added.