Levi Weeks Trial: 1800

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Levi Weeks Trial: 1800

Defendant: Levi Weeks
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Brockholst Livingston
Chief Prosecutor: Cadwallader D. Colden
Judges: John Lansing, Richard Harrison, Richard Varick
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: March 1800
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The Levi Weeks trial revolved around one of the nation's first "murder mysteries," sparked a public outcry, and showcased some of the finest legal talent in the United States.

Nlew York, like many other large cities, has a reputation for crime and violence. Even in earlier days, when the city was much smaller than now, it still had its share of criminal activity. In 1800 it was the scene of one of the nation's first great murder mysteries, which culminated in a famous trial.

A Less than Discreet Affair

Gulielma SandsElma to her family and friendswas a vivacious 22-year-old who lived with her cousin Catherine Ring on Greenwich Street. Catherine and her husband, Elias Ring, were Quakers who ran a boarding house, and in July 1799, a young carpenter named Levi Weeks moved in. His arrival was unfortunate, for the Rings and their other boarders soon noticed that Weeks was paying excessive attention to Sands. The two spent a great amount of time together, a lot of it in Sands's bedroom, the door of which they sometimes locked. The hours at which Weeks came and went, the piles of clothes that Sands left in odd places, and even the sounds from her bedroom told the story that the two were sexually involved. Because this was inappropriate behavior for an unmarried couple, everyone suspected that Sands and Weeks must be planning on getting married: only that step could make their behavior somewhat less scandalous.

But Sands's life was less than happy. She was often ill, and in the fall of 1799 she seemed depressed, sometimes telling her cousin and others that she wished she were dead and toying with the idea of taking an overdose of laudanum. Weeks, too, had emotional outbursts and run-ins with other boarders. Nobody ever knew for sure, but the circumstances suggest that Sands, herself an illegitimate child, might have been pregnant.

Eventually, though, Sands grew much happier, confiding to her cousin Catherine that she and Weeks were in fact getting married. The wedding, she said, was set for Sunday evening, December 22. For a day or two beforehand, she seemed in good spirits as she and her cousins prepared for the nuptials. Finally Sunday evening arrived. This would be the last time anyone would see her alive.

Nobody actually witnessed Sands and Weeks leave the Rings' house together, but nearly everyone thought that that was what happened. Sands was upstairs dressing, and Weeks was by the front door. People heard someone come down the stairs, and then they heard whispers by the door, which opened and closed. Shortly thereafter, a friend saw Sands in a crowd on Greenwich Street and went to speak with her. But someonethe friend did not notice whotold Sands, "Let's go," and Sands said good-night and moved on. She was never seen again. But a half hour later, a woman's cries of "Murder!" and "Lord help me!" were heard coming from the vicinity of the Manhattan Well, near Greene and Spring Streets, and people saw a one-horse sleigh, with a dark horse and no bells, traveling away from the area. The description of this vehicle matched the appearance of one belonging to Ezra Weeks, Levi's wealthy brother. Witnesses would later swear that they saw Ezra's sleigh leaving his premises that evening, and others would say that they saw a sleigh in the vicinity of the well containing two men and a woman, all of whom were laughing loudly. No positive identification of these persons was ever made. The entire scenario involving the sleigh has a macabre resemblance to the song "Jingle Bells," except that no bells were involved, and the ride ended in cries of "murder," which no one bothered to investigate.

Late that evening, Weeks returned to the Rings' house alone, asking where Sands was. This made Catherine Ring suspicious, and a few days later, with Sands still missing, she told Weeks so. She also told him that Weeks had mentioned the planned wedding to her. The revelation that people knew of the secret engagement seemed to upset Weeks greatly.

Weeks Indicted for Murder

A few days after Elma Sands vanished, a boy drawing water from the Manhattan Well found the muff she had been wearing. But not until nearly a week after this, inexplicably, did Elias Ring and some others sound the well with poles and find Sands's body. She had apparently been beaten savagely before being thrown, dead or alive, into the well. The body was put on public display for a few days, not only in the Ringses' boarding house, but in the street in front of it, which stirred up public outrage at what had happened to Sands. Within a week or so of the body's discovery, a grand jury indicted Weeks for the murder of Elma Sands.

Weeks promptly lined up some of the city's, and the nation's, best legal talent to defend him. His three attorneys were Brockholst Livingston, whomThomas Jefferson would later appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court; Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury and New York's Federalist leader; and Aaron Burr, former U.S. senator and future vice president. Hamilton and Burr were especially strong talents, being without question the best attorneys anywhere in the state. Despite their strong political and personal rivalriesBurr would kill Hamilton in a famous duel four years laterthe two men often worked together. Their talents did not come cheaply, though; possibly Ezra Weeks helped pay for their services. Both Hamilton and Burr had reputations for womanizing, and both of their names were linked with stories of sexual scandal. Perhaps these facts had something to do with their decisions to take Levi Weeks's case.

A Two-Day Trial

The trial took two days, lasting until late at night, an unusual length and schedule for the time. During the proceedings, an angry mob could be heard outside the courthouse chanting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" The prosecutor, future New York mayor and congressman Cadwallader Colden, had to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove that Weeks had had means, motive, and opportunity to murder Sands. He put on witnesses to show that Weeks and Sands had had a sexual relationship; that he had promised to marry her; that he had left the boarding house with her the night she was killed; and that his brother's sleigh had been identified at the crime scene. But he could not produce any direct evidence in support of any of these things.

The defense, on the other hand, claimed that the public outcry surrounding the crime had prejudiced the case. Weeks's attorneys took pains to show that one of the prosecution's star witnesses, boarder Richard David Croucher, had had run-ins with Weeks and was perhaps envious of Sands's affection for the young carpenter. Croucher had been one of Levi's most outspoken persecutors both before and after the discovery of Weeks's body. The defense team also found witnesses who swore that Levi had spent the whole evening with Ezra and others, and that he thus could not have been at the well. Still other witnesses testified that Ezra's sleigh had never gone out that night.

The testimony ended at two in the morning. Chief Judge John Lansingwho was himself to disappear mysteriously from the New York streets one night 30 years later, never to be seen againinstructed the jury that the case against Levi Weeks was purely circumstantial, but he did not direct a verdict. As things turned out, he did not need to: the jurors took only five minutes to acquit Weeks.

The Weeks case stirred up a storm of controversy that continued to swirl for decades, and Lansing drew strong criticism for his jury instructions. The case was a cause celdbre of the day, especially since it was a key election year and Hamilton and Burr were engaged in a major political battle with each other. But in a larger sense the Weeks trial, with its sexual scandal and grisly murder, set the stage for chronic urban violence that would only come to full flower in America more than a century later.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

John D. Lawsoni, ed. American State Trials. Vol. 1. St. Louis: F. H. Thomas Law book Co., 1914.

Liva Baker, "The Defense of Levi Weeks." American Bar Association Journal, 63 (June 1977): 818.