It was the summer of 1799 when Gulielma “Elma” Sands had first met carpenter Levi Weeks. Both Elma and Levi had been living at a boarding house ran by her cousin Catherine and Catherine’s husband Elias Ring. Elma seemed to be particularly interested in Levi, and it wasn’t long thereafter that the rumors of Elma and Levi having a secret courtship and [gasp] fornicating out of wedlock began.
On December 22, 1799 Elma seemed to be in particularly good spirits. She finally admitted to Catherine that her and Levi had been courting and were planning to elope that night. Elma had spent the day preparing for the nuptials upstairs. Finally there was a knock on the front door of the boarding house. No one witnessed the couple’s departure, but when there were whispers heard downstairs, followed by doors opening and closing, everyone assumed that the couple had left for the alter.
A friend had spotted Elma walking down Greenwich Street and stopped to talk with her. She spoke with her friend briefly before someone else called out to Elma and said, “Let’s go.” Approximately half an hour later witnesses reported hearing a woman scream, “Murder!” and, “Lord help me!” from the vicinity of the Manhattan Well on Green and Spring Streets.
A one horse sleigh with a dark horse was seen leaving the area. The sleigh was determined to have fit the description of the one owned by Levi’s brother Ezra, a wealthy New York City construction tycoon. Witness testimony to police on who had been occupying the sleigh vary wildly, but all were able to place the sleigh within the vicinity of the well.
Later that evening Weeks returned to the boarding house. He spoke with Catherine and asked her where Elma was. Catherine grew extremely suspicious and questioned Weeks about the secret marriage ceremony that he and Elma were supposed to have that evening. Weeks appeared to have been distressed by the question.
Several days after Elma’s disappearance a boy was drawing water from the well and pulled out a woman’s muff. The muff was determined to have been Elma’s. It would be nearly a week before Elias Ring as well as a few other locals probed the well for Elma’s body. When Elma was pulled from the well it was evident that she had been savagely beaten prior to having her body thrown in there. She was also found to have been pregnant.
Her body was put on public display both within the Rings’ boarding house and on the street directly outside of the building. The public was outraged and within a week of the body’s discovery Levi Weeks was indicted for her murder.
The trial would become the first murder trial to ever be covered by the media. It would also claim its place in history as the first true American murder mystery.
With the help of his brother Ezra, Weeks was able to secure the city’s best legal defense team – Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Bockholst Livingston. The trial would only last two days. During that time, the defense did their best to smear the name of Elma Sands by portraying her as a “loose woman” who had a number of affairs out of wedlock and suggested that it was a jealous former suitor who had wanted her dead upon learning of her relations with Weeks.
Weeks also had an alibi. According to Ezra Weeks, Levi had been with him and other friends that evening. Some witnesses claimed that Ezra’s sleigh had not left that evening and neither Weeks nor his entourage been anywhere near the vicinity of the Manhattan Well.
Chief Judge John Lansing, Jr. instructed the jury that the evidence against Weeks had been purely circumstantial and stopped just short of directing the verdict. After five minutes of deliberation the jury returned to the court and told the judge they had reached their decision. Levi Weeks was found not guilty.
The angry mob that had formed outside the courtroom during the two days of Weeks’ trial were in a frenzy. Though the courts had found Weeks not guilty, the court of public opinion had different thoughts on the matter. Weeks was run out of town, never to return. He moved to Mississippi where he became a well respected builder and architect.
Two of Weeks’ defense lawyers would go on to play prominent roles within American history. Alexander Hamilton, already known as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States who had served under General George Washington, would go on to serve as the first Secretary of Treasury. Andrew Burr would go on to become the third Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Interestingly enough, both Burr and Hamilton would become embroiled in a duel and Burr would shoot and kill Hamilton.
Chief Judge John Lansing, Jr. would become the subject of his own mystery 30 years later, when he stepped out to mail a letter and was never to be seen again.