It’s officially Halloween season, a time for the ghosts and ghouls to come out and give us a spook. But nothing is scarier than hearing about grisly historical events that have taken place in your own backyard. The folks at Ghosts, Murders, and Mayhem Walking Tours specialize in finding and telling the stories behind the buildings, houses, streets, and even the rivers of New York. This month, they are taking one such story off the streets and onto the stage (of sorts). The Bloody Deed of 1857, a retelling of the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell written by and starring Elise Gainer, is an intimate and immersive experience.
At the beginning of the show, audience members gather near Astor Place. Here, the audience is given lanterns and directions to a “secret location.” Eventually, they’re lead to an old parlor room where a medium asks guests to help her with a seance.
The script was written based on the actual inquest of murdered dentist Dr. Burdell. There is a 25-audience member cap to each performance, and the lurid and disturbing details of Dr. Burdell’s life unfold two feet away from every seat in the house. The actors frequently break the fourth wall and the audience is called upon to play the role of jury. It quickly becomes clear that Dr. Burdell’s fiancé, Emma Cunningham, is on trial for his murder.
What could be a campy or gratuitous whodunit that pins the blame on a bitter former lover is a look into the mistreatment of women in a way that remains relevant today. There are scenes depicting assault that are hard to watch — even more so with the close proximity. But the discomfort, and the fact that it’s all true, brings the story to life. It is clear that great care was taken to repackage and retell this story. The people are not just characters; they walked the streets of New York a century ago.
If you leave the performance wanting more, you’re welcomed on a ghost tour of the area right after the show ends. The tour paints a picture of Astor Place when it was the center of a booming theater district. You get to visit the building that Dr. Burdell lived in when he was murdered, and you find out that even the parlor that The Bloody Deed is performed in is haunted (although not by Dr. Burdell).
The show runs until November 4th, but tours are available year-round. This season, let yourself be frightened by the most terrifying kinds of stories—the true ones.
Thanks to Ghosts, Murders, and Mayhem Walking Tours for showing us a spooky good time!
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Cover photo courtesy of The Bloody Deed of 1857