Date: December 22, 1799
Victim: Gulielma Sands
Cause of Death: Drowning
Accused: Levi Weeks
Though the murder of Gulielma Sands took place in the 18th century and the trial of Levi Weeks was technically in the 18th century as well, the trial would set precedent, in court and out, that would be followed throughout the 19th century. In January 1800 the American republic was only twelve years old and there was virtually no case law, which is as important to criminal lawyers as legal statute. As Aaron Burr remarked:
“The law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.”The Weeks case was also the first murder to be editorialized by New York City newspapers, a practice that became commonplace in the century to follow.
The Rings’ Boardinghouse
Levi Weeks worked for his brother Ezra Weeks, an architect who designed a number of landmark New York buildings including The Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s estate on Convent Avenue. Levi supervised the workers at his brother’s building sites.
The Night of the Murder
The evening of December 22, Elma planned to go out with Levi and Mrs. Ring helped her dress. Though Mrs. Ring did not see them leave, she heard the door shut at around 8:00 and believed that Elma and Levi had left together. At 10:00 Levi returned to the boarding house. He expressed surprise that Elma was out so late alone and denied that she had left with him that evening.
The city was covered with snow, and a number of people saw Elma riding in a one-horse sleigh that night accompanied by two men. Ezra Weeks owned a one-horse sleigh and a horse that resembled the one the witnesses saw. When Elma failed to return that night suspicion fell on Levi Weeks.
Finding the Body
Eleven days later, some boys playing near the Manhattan Well at the intersection of Greene and Spring Streets, found a ladies muff floating in the well. It was identified as a muff Elma borrowed from a neighbor the night she went out. The well was probed and the body of a young woman was pulled out. The body was identified as Elma Sands. A coroner’s inquest was held and an autopsy performed, primarily to determine whether Elma was pregnant— she was not. The jury ruled that Elma was murdered and indicted Levi Weeks.
Before the funeral, Elma’s body was on public display in the boardinghouse. When the crowd became too great, the open casket was moved to the street. It was guarded by friends and public officials, while thousands of people passed by.
Richard Croucher, who also lived at the Sands’ boardinghouse, was actively spreading the story that Levi Weeks had killed Elma, claiming an accomplice from New Jersey had confessed. Handbills were published, possibly by Croucher, implying Week’s guilt.
Public opinion in New York was decidedly against Levi Weeks. The New York Gazette and General Advertiser reported Elma’s plan to be married:
“…but alas, little did she suspect that the arrangements that she had been making with so much care, instead of conveying her to the Temple of Hymen, would direct her to that bourne from which no traveller returns.”Trial: March 31, 1800
The case was tried in the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery, presided over by John Lansing, chief justice of the New York Supreme court, the mayor, the city recorder, and an alderman.
The defense asserted that Elma had committed suicide and challenged every point of the prosecution’s case. Physicians who examined the body for the coroner’s jury (who had ruled the death murder) now believed she jumped into the well. Acquaintances of Elma described her character as melancholy, and one said she had spoken of killing herself with laudanum. They attempted to tarnish Elma’s reputation by introducing testimony the she had slept with her cousin’s husband, Elias Ring. Levi Week’s alibi, that he was at his brother’s house discussing the next day’s building requirements, was confirmed by Ezra Weeks and several others who saw him there.
One particularly dramatic moment took place when the defense was questioning a witness about Richard Croucher spreading the rumor of Weeks’s guilt. According to a record of the trial:
“one of the prisoner’s council held a candle close to Croucher’s face, who stood among the crowd, and asked the witness if it was he and he said it was.”Later, both Hamilton and Burr would take credit for the event and the story gained importance over time. An 1858 biography of Aaron Burr claimed that Burr held two candelabra to Croucher’s face and cried:
“Behold the murderer, gentlemen.”Alexander Hamilton’s family told the story differently. His son, John Church Hamilton, wrote that his father held a candle to Croucher’s face and when the prosecution objected he responded
“…in the deepest tones of his voice, ‘I have special reasons, reasons that when the real culprit is detected and placed before the Court, will be understood.’”In fact the event had very little effect on the outcome of the trial.
In 1800, criminal trials rarely lasted more than one day. In the Levi Week’s trial the prosecution was not finished after 15 hours, and at 1:00 AM, April 1 the jurors requested an adjournment, finding it hard to stay awake. The jurors were housed for the night in City Hall. The next day the case was argued until 2:25 A.M. The prosecutor requested an adjournment until then next day when he would give his closing statement. The judge denied the adjournment saying the closing argument was unnecessary. In his instruction to the jury, Judge Lansing made his sentiments very clear. He ended with the words:
“…the court were unanimously of the opinion that the proof was insufficient to warrant a verdict against him and that with this general charge they committed the prisoner’s case to their consideration.”The jury returned five minutes later with a verdict of not guilty.
Verdict: Not Guilty
The verdict did nothing to change public opinion in New York. Levi Weeks was forced to leave the city, moving first to Deerfield, Massachusetts. When the story followed him there he fled to Cincinnati, Ohio, then to Lexington Kentucky, finally settling in Natchez, Mississippi where he became a successful architect.
There were three recorded transcripts of the trial. The most thorough was written by William Coleman who ended his preface by saying he would make no statement as to the guilt of innocence of Levi Weeks. Ezra Weeks offered him $500 to remove the sentence and Coleman refused. He then offered to buy the entire edition for $1500 and Coleman refused this offer as well.
In 1861 it was reported that eerie sights and sounds were emanating from the Manhattan Well. Shrieks were heard and flashes seen in the sky along with the appearance of a figure draped in white. As with all such hauntings, the phenomena did not occur when nonbelievers were present.