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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rugged Individualism and Sexual Predation: The Cultural Context of the Burdell-Cunningham Affair


by Benjamin Feldman,
Author of Butchery on Bond Street
©2008 All rights reserved by author


Despite the early years of plenty Emma enjoyed during her marriage to George Cunningham, and by Harvey Burdell during much of his adult life in New York, misery had accompanied them throughout their childhoods. Their personalities developed in remarkably similar ways as both struggled to adulthood in the midst of privation. Harvey and Emma shared two traits with many of their peers: desperate grasping for wealth and amoral interpersonal manipulation were widespread in mid-century America. Emerging feminist credos provided a novel context for Emma and Harvey's interaction, though, and on that springboard, violence virtually unknown in their middle class world was launched.

Emma Cunningham and Harvey Burdell shared with countless Americans of their generation an obsession with the creation of personal wealth, regardless of means or methods. The art of the swindle had become the American raison d'etre in the second quarter of the nineteenth century as legions of young men and women, equipped with little more than their optimism and vigor, arrived in urban centers from rural and exurban areas of the United States, as well as from abroad. Many newcomers were eager to amass material and social fortunes in the free-wheeling climates of major American cities.

Simultaneously with this explosion of materiality, significant changes occurred in the nature of how and why many Americans sought sexual relationships and marriage opportunities. Always important to the formation of marital bonds, wealth took on new meaning and complex characteristics as prospective partners dealt in mid-century with a novel problem. Social mobility and rapid demographic change frequently rendered useless the traditional markers of land ownership and established connections that had long guided such decision-making. Marriageable individuals now frequently met as total strangers in urban environments, courting without the benefits of long-standing mutual acquaintances. In the 1830s and beyond, men and women of very modest backgrounds could, as never before, realistically strive to join the rapidly growing upper middle class in Eastern seaboard cities, both via personal industry and fortuitous commercial events (and, in the case, primarily, of women, via well-planned sexual adventure). Marriageable individuals in unprecedented numbers came to see each other as opportunities for instant riches, much like promising mining claims.

Early nineteenth century America witnessed the migration of legions of young people of modest means to its larger cities. Men took positions in all kinds of business and industry, while women were employed principally as domestics, seamstresses and factory workers. During the first two decades of the century, single urban male immigrants, many serving in quasi-apprenticeship status, were usually housed with their employers. One building would house both the proprietor's family and the store or workshop in which the young man was employed. Female domestics also lived-in, optimizing their masters' labor bargain.

Residing in the employer's household also subjected the employee to ethical supervision and provided some basis other than the morals and behavior patterns of the employees' now-distant childhood homes for regulating sexual activity. This structure was not to last, though. With the growth of many mercantile and manufacturing establishments in the early part of the century, the scarcity of land in central business districts led to the development of exclusively residential neighborhoods where prosperous businessmen could afford to live in relative cleanliness and quiet, away from their factories and warehouses. Living arrangements for young workers became separated from those of their employers and thus devoid of the supervision that had to some extent insured moral behavior. The liberation of young men (and some young women) to live where they might, on very modest sources of income in relatively anonymous urban hostelries, created explosive growth in what came to be known as the "male sporting culture" of American cities of the 1830s. Unwatched by parents, pastors or employers, young male clerks fraternized with women in theaters, restaurants and ice-cream parlors, as well as in venues less open to public inspection, with a degree of openness and sexual expression that would have been unthinkable in previous decades.

A psyche of personal freedom for the young entrepreneurial class, be they shop-clerks, aspiring dentists, or petty criminals, prevailed among a large segment of these youthful urbanites. The advent of the California Gold Rush in 1848 added an immense quantity of libertarian fuel to this fire. Sexual adventure for men and women, independent of regulation, and geared to the rapid aggrandizement of personal wealth and social status, replaced many of the more stable psychic foundations of marriage that so recently prevailed in what had been a largely agrarian society. But men and women brought different tools to the field in which social mobility was sown, as well as being subjected to different restrictions. Marriage to a well-off man or one with bright prospects provided the only hope of economic betterment to vast numbers of women who lacked substantial family backgrounds. By comparison, men from lower classes could rely on their own entrepreneurial skills to better themselves, free from the bonds of traditional domesticity if they so chose. Laws that put at risk any property owned in a woman's own name at or after her marriage existed side by side with paternalistically administered, common law rights to damages for seduction and breach of promise. Single women who were swindled in the sexual marketplace in these decades could resort to the law, but usually only with the assistance of male family members as their legal representatives. Unsuccessful marriages were difficult to sunder: in New York through the mid-1850s, women such as Margaret Burdell and Dimis Hubbard Vorce who sought divorce could not pursue relief in chancery court in their own names, regardless of the grounds.

A woman seeking divorce had first to secure the assistance of a legally competent individual to act as her "next friend." Margaret's father, William Alburtis, satisfied the requirement as an adult male, but widows also qualified under New York statutes to act in such capacity. Somehow the law considered the mere bereavement of a married woman to instantly invest her with sagacity equal to that of a man. The day before her loss, however, the same woman was deemed incompetent to handle her own affairs, much less represent another woman in court. The law was surely an ass in Emma Cunningham's case. It seems that a more determined surrogate could have been found when Dimis Hubbard needed help. Unfortunately the circumstances of her engagement by the plaintiff were not destined to provide maximum advocacy when Dimis's wily older cousin, Harvey Burdell, made the introduction. Emma was desperate to please Burdell. Agreeing to lend her name to Dimis's divorce petition in November, 1855 might convince the recalcitrant dentist to finally offer Emma his hand.


The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

The above is an excerpt from the book Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics & The Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-Bellum New York
by Benjamin Feldman
Published by The Green-Wood Cemetery Historic Fund in association with The New York Wanderer Press;  May 2007; 978-0-9795175-0-1
Copyright © 2008 Benjamin Feldman

Author Bio
Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City for the past thirty-eight years. After retiring in 2000 from a successful career in real estate and law, Ben turned to the full-time pursuit of his true love, New York City history. His essays about New York and about Yiddish culture have appeared on-line in The New Partisan Review and Ducts magazine, as well as in his blog, The New York Wanderer. Butchery on Bond Street is Ben's first full-length work.

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