In the Line of Duty: William Cunningham

William Cunningham, Burnside Cemetery, Burnside

The first time I traveled Route 219 between Dubois and Ebensburg, I discovered a road rich with history that many are unaware about. That journey included a visit to a Medal of Honor recipient, a local folk figure and the only covered bridge remaining in Clearfield County. Note: More about those two men can be found here: Melvin Brown and Cherry Tree Joe, and the covered bridge at McGee’s Mill.

Leaving the covered bridge in my rearview mirror, I continued my journey southward to the community of Burnside. This small community, which sits just south of the intersection of Routes 219 and 286, grew on a piece of land almost completely surrounded by the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Turning right onto Third Street, I followed it as it narrowed and became Third Street Extension. The road clung onto the hillside and I secretly hoped that no vehicles were coming toward me – although we could pass, it was going to be a close fit.

Coming out of the woods, the Burnside Cemetery appeared on my right and I turned onto the gravel road leading into the cemetery. I turned left at the first intersection and followed the parallel ruts in the grass which could be considered a roadway. I could see a large memorial ahead, but that wasn’t the grave I had come to pay my respects to. The directions I had been sent stated the grave of the young man who had been cut down in the prime of his life slumbered in the shadow of the large monument.

Stopping in the roadway near the monument, I stepped out and scanned the field of stone. Almost immediately, I spotted the memorial I had come to visit and carefully made my way to it. On the eastern face was his name, age and date of death. I circled the stone, thinking their might be something which told of the tragic fate of this young man, but the stone offered no other clues. Note: The age of William Cunningham is questionable. On his stone, it is engraved that he was 26 at the time of his death. Almost every newspaper article lists him as being 31 years old.

William H. Cunningham, who was originally from Burnside, had been a police officer for Glen Campbell – located just a short distance from Burnside in Indiana County – for only three months when his life was brutally cut short.

On the evening of May 10, 1898, the peaceful evening was broken by the sound of gunfire. Eighteen-year-old Joseph Bennett – who was intoxicated at the time – decided to ride his bicycle through the town of Glen Campbell while firing his revolver. Cunningham followed Bennett, catching up with him at Gardner’s hardware store where he attempted to arrest the drunk man. Note: Newspapers list Bennett’s age as either 19 or 21, but his tombstone states he was 18 at the time of his death.

Bennett was getting off his bicycle when Officer Cunningham approached and placed his hand on the drunk man’s shoulder. Before a word could be said, Bennett turned his revolver toward the officer and fired. The bullet pierced Cunningham’s heart – the young officer staggered a couple feet and fell over dead.

A crowd quickly gathered at the scene. Edward Fowler attempted to subdue Bennett, who fired at Fowler twice – neither shot hit its target and Bennett ran down the street to avoid capture by the large group that had assembled. As he attempted to escape the crowd, Bennett ran toward Merle Miller and Nora Smith who were walking to the scene of the deadly shooting. Bennett yelled as he approached them, demanding they get out of his way. Before they could react, he fired at them, hitting Miss Smith in the hand.

Bennett made it as far as the Commercial Hotel, when he fully realized what he had done. He put the barrel of the revolver in his abdomen and fired. He ran a couple yards before falling over in the yard of William Timblin, who was a friend of his. Timblin cared for the wounded Bennett and it was initially thought Bennett would survive to face trial. His wound had been too great and Bennett passed the following morning.

On May 12, two days after he was killed, Officer Cunningham was placed to rest in the sacred grounds of Burnside Cemetery. The young man who had only served as a police officer for three months before his untimely demise, was survived by a wife and young child.

I stood remembering the young man whose life was cut short by the poor judgement of another young man of the community; a young man whose life was given in an attempt to keep peace in the town of Glen Campbell. I finished paying my respects to the fallen officer before leaving him to rest peacefully on the hillside on the western edge of Burnside.

One thought on “In the Line of Duty: William Cunningham

  1. Thanks for this story. Burnside caught my eye. I know this cemetery, as I have 2 aunts and an uncle, all 3 were infants, buried there. My Dad was from nearby Patchinville!
    This incident that you just wrote about happened just weeks before both of my father’s parents were born. It just amazes me how small the world is, and how close we all are, even though we are far apart. I thoroughly enjoy your posts. Keep up the good work, and safe travels.


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