Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Manhattan Well Mystery

On January 2, 1800, the body of Gulielma Sands was found in the Manhattan Well, not far from her boardinghouse on Greenwich Street, New York City. There were two contradictory schools of thought among those who knew Gulielma Sands—those who remembered her as melancholy and suicidal, and those remembered her as happy and cheerful, especially so on the night she disappeared when she revealed that she was to marry Levi Weeks. When Levi Weeks was arrested for murder everyone in the city would take a side. The trial of Levi Weeks was the first of New York City’s sensational murder cases, the first American murder trial to be transcribed, and the first defense council “dream team.” Levi Weeks was represented in court by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Date:  December 22, 1799

Location:   New York, New York

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

Ring's Boardinghouse
Elma Sands – as Gulielma was known to her friends—lived in a boardinghouse at 208 Greenwich Street, run by Catherine and Elias Ring. Catherine was Elma’s cousin. In December 1799 there were six other people living in the house, including another cousin Hope Sands, a young woman named Margaret Clark, and Levi Weeks, a carpenter who shared a room with his apprentice. During his stay at the boardinghouse Levi Weeks was noticed paying attention to both Hope Sands and Margaret Clark, but he was also seen entering Elma Sands’s room late at night. On Sunday, December 22, 1799, the last the last day Elma was seen alive, she told Hope Sands that she and Levi Weeks planned to secretly marry that night.

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

Alexander Hamilton
In colonial America, criminal defendants did not have the right to council but with the judge’s permission could discuss points of law with an attorney. Levi Weeks would change that, appearing in court with three of the most prominent attorneys in New York City by his side. Ezra Weeks, wealthy and well connected, hired Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston. Hamilton and Burr, though bitter political rivals, had separately been on one side or the other of every major trial in the city, and worked well together for Levi’s defense. Livingston, while not as famous a as the other two, was no less prominent and would later be appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court. Aaron Burr may have had additional motive to work for Levi Weeks’s defense; he was the founder of the Manhattan Company that owned the well where the body was found.

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.

Aaron Burr
The prosecution’s case was entirely circumstantial and not very compelling from a legal standpoint. The Rings and other tenants of the boardinghouse testified to the relationship between Levi and Elma, their plans to marry, and the events of December 22. One of the men who pulled the body from the well testified that her clothing had been torn and he believed her neck was broken. Medical testimony was given by dentist who saw the body after the inquest. He saw scratches and bruises on her body, including a ring of bruises around her neck as if she had been strangled.

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.

The presidential election of 1800 pitted Thomas Jefferson against Aaron Burr and resulted in a tie in the Electoral College. Alexander Hamilton's influence helped to elect Jefferson. Animosity between Burr and Hamilton grew until on July 11, 1804 the two men fought a duel which ended with the death of Alexander Hamilton.

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.


Kleiger, Estelle Fox. The Trial of Levi Weeks: Or The Manhattan Well Mystery. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1989. 

Lawson, John Davison. American State Trials: A Collection of the Important and Interesting Criminal Trials Which Have Taken Place in the United States, from the Beginning of Our Government to the. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1914.


Lidian says:
December 13, 2010 at 11:46 AM

Thank you for a wonderful read - I knew of this case, vaguely, but didn't really know about it until now.

Unknown says:
June 26, 2015 at 5:18 PM

This is one of the saddest stories from early NYC - and one of the most important as it is the first recorded murder trial in the USA. Sadly, it's said that the victim Elma Sands is a ghost still attached to the well she was thrown into, which you can see in person.

I've just created a video about her, which you'll enjoy watching if you're interested in the 'ghost story' part of this tale:

Unknown says:
July 22, 2015 at 11:46 AM

I was looking for more details on this case, besides the vague description that's on wikipedia, and I found it here. Thanks!

Unknown says:
July 3, 2016 at 11:47 PM

My fourth Great Grandfather George Scriba was a jury member.

Unknown says:
July 3, 2016 at 11:51 PM

My fourth Great Grandfather George Scriba was a jury member.

Anonymous says:
April 21, 2017 at 7:41 PM

What about Philip Hamilton he died on the 24 of November 1801 and the Manhattan Well Murder was on the 22 of December 1799. I also find it very hard to believe that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton would work well together. I also think that you are biasing yourself and putting your own opinion in there this is supposed to be an informational article not an opinionated one.

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 23, 2017 at 6:27 PM

Dear Unknown,
This is my blog, it is supposed to be whatever I want it to be. And yes, when they worked together Hamilton and Burr worked together well.


Sybil says:
June 12, 2017 at 9:03 PM

Fascinating, hope I can visit this well, wonder if
Hamilton and Burr went to see it??

Unknown says:
July 4, 2018 at 2:20 AM

Just finished reading Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins. Very good account of the preceding events and the trial. Also was a good bit of information on Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Madison T says:
December 7, 2020 at 6:52 PM

I know this is old, but this is great info for my research paper!

Unknown says:
February 28, 2021 at 1:47 PM

Thanks for this, I needed it for a school paper

Jenny Whiskey says:
October 11, 2023 at 5:50 PM

"Levi Weeks is innocent. Call your first witness."
"That's all you had to say."

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