In the year 1800, the first murder trial in the new nation took place. Defendant Levi Weeks was accused of murder and retained the services of notable Manhattan attorneys Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and their colleague Henry Brockholst Livingston.
Weeks had moved to New York City in 1798 at his brother, Ezra Weeks, who had a job opportunity for Levi. In 1800, Levi was accused of murdering Gulielma “Elma” Sands, a 22-year-old woman he was supposedly involved with at the time. Sands lived with her cousin, Catherine Ring, and Catherine’s husband, Elias Ring.
Levi Weeks moved into the boarding house owned by Catherine and Elias Ring. The Rings were devout Quakers, and the amount of time that Elma and Levi spent together in her room made them nervous that the two might be romantically linked. Given that they were unmarried, this struck the Rings as scandalous, so they presumed the two would be getting married in short order to lessen the sting of the “adulterous” relationship.
The two planned to be wed on Sunday, December 22, in 1799. The ceremony was a secret, and Elma only told her cousin, Catherine, in confidence. Despite bouts of depression in the weeks leading up to the wedding, Elma seemed to be in great spirits in the days before the scheduled wedding. However, when the day of the ceremony came, no one could find Elma Sands.
Weeks was accused of murder when Elma’s body was recovered from the Manhattan Well. Elias Ring and a group of people sounded the well and pulled the remains out, and investigators determined that the woman had been badly beaten before being thrown into the well. A grand jury indicted Weeks, who swiftly retained the talents of Manhattan’s top lawyers. It’s believed his wealthy brother, Ezra, helped him pay the men their extremely high legal fees.
The trial was a complete legal circus and went for two full days. At the time, this was an extraordinary length of time for court proceedings. Reporters on the scene noted that the crowd outside the courthouse was “bloodthirsty,” insisting that Weeks was guilty and should be sentenced to death.
Weeks was acquitted after five minutes of jury deliberation. The jury decided that the case against Weeks was completely circumstantial and that there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. However, he was ostracized from New York City, as the public believed he was guilty and that the trial was a miscarriage of justice.
The case set a massive precedent for the young nation. In the modern era, it’s not hard to see echoes of this controversial and striking murder mystery and the media circus around the trial. Ironically, Burr and Hamilton, two bitter rivals, would later engage in a deadly duel that would see Hamilton lose his life. And who says history is boring?