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Book Author: Ellen Horan

31 BOND STREET by Ellen Horan: Book Review

Gas fixtures, apple and pear trees, wooded riverbanks, and striped bass and bluefish swimming alongside a meandering river. It sounds a bit like paradise, but it’s Manhattan in the 1850s.

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan takes the reader back in time to tell a story of deception, murder, and the law.  Based on an actual case that was a cause celebre at the time, 31 Bond Street is a look into the lives of a small group of people, all of whom are touched and/or changed by the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell.

Emma Cunningham is a widow with two teenage daughters, and she is fast running out of the funds left to her by her late husband.  A woman of slightly tarnished virtue, Emma meets Harvey Burdell, a middle-aged dentist visiting Saratoga Springs, New York, and accepts his offer of a position as his housemistress in Manhattan, along with his promise of an upcoming engagement to be followed quickly by marriage.  Seeing this as the best opportunity available to her, and seeing his home as a meeting place for her daughters’ future suitors, Emma agrees to his proposal and moves her small family into Dr. Burdell’s house.

At the same time, Burdell persuades Emma to give him $10,000, a significant part of her older daughter’s dowry, to purchase a plot of marshland in New Jersey.  He’s convinced that he will be able to sell this plot, which ajoins one of his own, for a huge profit.  Eager for the money and reluctant to tell him how little savings she actually has, Emma buys the property and hides the deed in her bedroom in Burdell’s house.

But the dentist’s behavior becomes stranger and stranger, with days passing when he doesn’t return home. His business opportunities seem never-ending, and then comes the day that Emma sees him enter a hotel with another woman.  She rushes back to his house, convinced he means to cheat her out of the New Jersey property, but her ever-more-frenzied search of her room doesn’t turn up the precious deed.  Furious, she confronts Burdell when he returns; he ignores her and leaves again, and the next morning he is found in his bedroom with his throat cut.

Although we find out in the opening chapter that Dr. Burdell is dead, the timeline isn’t a straight one, and bit by bit we learn about Emma’s past and how it has influenced the choices that brought her to her cell in The Tombs, New York City’s infamous prison. The book’s chapters alternate between Emma’s story and that of her attorney, Henry Clinton, who gets involved after Emma is arrested by a power-hungry coroner and the district attorney who is planning to run for mayor.  There is deep insight into the lives of the book’s characters, many of whom are based on the actual characters involved–the house servants, the mother and her daughters, the very disagreeable Harvey Burdell, and the defense attorney who puts his livelihood at risk in defending his client.

Slavery, abolition, the looming break between the North and the South, and women’s rights (or lack thereof) all feature prominently in the novel.  And all have an impact of the story of Emma Cunningham.

The epilogue tells the story of what happened to the “real” people involved in the case. I found all the characters in the novel so credible that I was amazed to find out that some of them were the creation of the author.  The sense of place in 31 Bond Street is palpable, so much so that the reader may well look up from a page and be astonished at the sound of a car passing by or by the electric light next to her reading chair.

You can read an interview with Ellen Horan at