Saturday, April 02, 2005

America's first 'Trial of the (19th) Century'

April 2, 1800, Manhattan Well Mystery: In New York City, the trial of carpenter Levi Weeks ended with an acquittal. Weeks, accused of murdering Gulielma (Juliana; Elma) Sands, was defended by a 'dream team' of former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and later Vice-President Aaron Burr, in a short trial that had the whole city talking.

Pretty Elma Sands, a 21-year-old milliner, had lived in a boarding house (pictured) on the south-west corner of Greenwich St and Franklin St in New York City, run by her uncle and aunt, Quaker couple Elias and Catherine Ring. It was said in evidence that she had just become engaged to marry Levi Weeks, who lived in the same establishment. She was described by a neighbour as "uniformly cheerful and serene, and on the day previous to the murder was remarkably so. Her expectation of becoming a bride on the morrow was the natural cause of her liveliness. Her temper was mild and tranquil; her manners artless and tender; her conversation ever chaste and innocent. She was one of those virtuous characters against whom the tongue of slander never moves." Levi, too, was a man of good repute – even the prosecutor, assistant attorney-general of New York State and future mayor of New York City, Cadwallader David Colden, referred to Levi's "amiable and engaging manners”.

"Oh, Lord have mercy upon me! What shall I do? Help me!"
A female voice heard by witnesses from the well vicinity on the murder night
On the evening of Sunday, December 22, 1799, Elma left the boarding house and was never to return alive, but her body was not found until January 2. It was found in the bottom of one of New York's wells, the so-called Manhattan Well, which coincidentally had been dug by the Manhattan Co., owned by lawyer Aaron Burr. In Weeks's subsequent two-day trial, 75 witnesses testified, but the evidence was all circumstantial and, at worst, Weeks appeared to be a likeable and respected man who had been having sexual relations with Elma Sands.

The judge advised the jury to find Weeks not guilty, which was the verdict returned after only five minutes of consideration. At this point Mrs Ring shocked all present by turning to Attorney Hamilton with the words: "If thee dies a natural death, then there is no justice in heaven". Or, so it is said. Weeks left New York and the public spotlight, apparently moving around the USA for some time then ending up in Natchez, Mississippi, where he lived as a respected architect and family man, dying in 1819 at the age of 43.

One of the witnesses, Richard David Croucher, on whom suspicion had fallen during the trial, was later tried for rape of a 13-year-old girl and sentenced to life imprisonment. As a strange footnote, Hamilton was killed in a duel by his associate Aaron Burr less than five years after the trial. Later, Burr was arrested and tried for treason and his career was shattered.

This is just a snippet of today's stories. Read all about today in folklore, historical oddities, inspiration and alternatives, with many more links, at the Wilson's Almanac Book of Days, every day. Click today's date (or your birthday) when you're there.


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