Wednesday Writs: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Star in The People vs. Levi Weeks
WW1: A young woman is found murdered, and the number one suspect is her known paramour. After weeks of wild publicity and scandal, he goes to trial, represented by the best lawyers his wealthy brother’s money could buy. The prosecution’s case is all circumstantial; the defense’s case consists largely of slut shaming. The jury acquits in five minutes.
It may sound like a case that could have happened just last week, but in fact, it happened over 220 years ago. How befitting that a case which contains so many sensational elements would be the very first murder trial in the history of the United States for which their is a record.
Giulielma “Elma” Sands was a pretty 22 year old woman living in a boarding house owned by her cousin, Catherine Ring, and Catherine’s husband, Elias. Others living in the house included Elma’s other cousin, Hope Sands; a young woman named Margaret; a man by the name of Richard “Mad” Croucher; and a 23 year old carpenter named Levi Weeks. On the evening of December 22, 1799, according to Mrs. Ring, Levi Weeks left the house alone. In just a few minutes thereafter, Elma left as well. Levi returned several hours later; Elma never did. She was found dead in a Manhattan well 10 days later, appearing to have been beaten before tossed in the well to drown.
Immediately, Levi became the prime suspect. It was well known around the boarding house that Elma and Levi were romantically involved. Though described as a proper young Quaker woman, it was also reported that she and Levi were often found behind her locked bedroom door together, and her clothing had been found alongside Levi’s rumpled bed. It was scandalous in 1799, of course; however, according to Catherine, Elma confided that she and Levi were to be married.
Elma’s family displayed her body in the street for several days following its discovery in the well, and hundreds of New Yorkers came to view her. The site of her bruised and battered corpse added to the swirling outrage among the public, and when Levi’s status as the number one suspect became known, their fervor turned to vitriol and a clamoring for his head.
When asked to identify Elma’s body, Weeks reportedly asked whether she had been found in the Manhattan well, a question which sealed his damnation by the public at large. He was arrested and indicted:
…the said Levi Weeks, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the same twenty-second day of December, in the year of our Lord 1799, with force and arms… did make an assault… and did then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, cast, and throw the said Gulielma Sands, down unto and upon the ground, giving unto the said Gulielma Sands, then and there by the beating, striking, and kicking her, the said Gulielma Sands, in manner aforesaid, several mortal strokes, wounds, and bruises, in and upon the head, breast, back, belly, sides, and other parts of the body… of which said mortal wounds, strokes and bruises, the said Gulielma Sands then and there instantly died:—And so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oath aforesaid, do say, that the said Levi Weeks… in manner and form aforesaid, then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder, against the Peace of the said People and their Dignity.
Within a few days, Weeks had retained as counsel a trio of the most influential lawyers of the time: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Henry Brockholst Livingston. I trust Hamilton and Burr need no further exposition to the well-informed readers of Ordinary Times or of course to anyone who has seen the Hamilton musical, but I will point out that the lesser-known Livingston was also a heavyweight who went on to become a justice of the United State’s Supreme Court.
Defense counsel immediately began to combat the court of public opinion, which was already fully in session and had seemingly skipped directly to the punishment phase. Burr and Hamilton published an op-ed to remind the public of their client’s presumption of innocence and imploring them to withhold judgment. They pointed out that prior to Elma’s death and his arrest, Weeks had a good reputation, and hinted at what would be their defense: the betrothment was hearsay, Elma was not pregnant, contrary to a popular rumor, and their client had no motive. Further, they suggested, Elma was known to be depressed and suicidal, insinuating that she may have thrown herself down that well.
The trial of The People vs. Levi Weeks, our case of the week, began on March 31, 1800. As mentioned above, this was the first murder trial in the US for which there is a record, by which I mean an actual verbatim transcript, which was recorded by William Coleman in shorthand. They began with jury selection from a pool of mostly businessmen (men who owned property worth at least $250, which was a requirement for a jury at the time). Unlike today’s practice, the defendant himself, rather than his counsel, chose the jurors directly.
The trial lasted two full days with few breaks. The prosecution, headed by Cadwalader Colden, humbly conceded his opposing counsels’ superior legal prowess in his opening remarks, but averred that it did not matter, such was the strength of his case. He painted a picture of a hapless and innocent young woman corrupted by the defendant:
The deceased was a young girl, who till her fatal acquaintance with the prisoner, was virtuous and modest, and it will be material for you to remark, always of a cheerful disposition, and lively manners, though of a delicate constitution. We expect to prove to you that the prisoner won her affections, and that her virtue fell a sacrifice to his affiduity; that after a long period of criminal intercourse between them, he deluded her from the house of her, protector under a pretence of marrying her, carried her away to a well in the suburbs of this city, and there murdered her.
He laid out what he believed he could prove: 1)Levi Weeks and Elma Sands were a couple; 2)Elma left the Ring house shortly following Levi’s departure; 3)a carriage looking like that which belonged to Levi’s brother was seen near the well; 4)a woman near the well heard a woman’s voice screaming “murder! Save me!” that night; 5)Levi seemed to know where the body was found before the police told him.
And that was it; that was the whole case against Weeks. The prosecution proceeded to call its witnesses; the defense offered no opening remarks until the conclusion of the state’s case. Perhaps understanding how perilously his case balanced on circumstantial evidence, Cadwalader’s summation (given at the close of his case rather than at the end of all testimony) consisted mainly of reciting from a legal treatise about how such evidence is, nevertheless, competent evidence.
Aaron Burr spoke for the defense, beginning with a condemnation of the pre-trial publicity and judgment by the public. He decried the “indecent and shocking” display of Elma’s body to the public as a ploy to inflame passion and disadvantage the defendant. Burr went on to promise the jury that they would prove much of the prosecution’s insinuation false, including that of the nature of Levi and Elma’s relationship:
Notwithstanding there may be testimony of an intimacy having subsisted between the prisoner and the deceased, we shall show you that there was nothing like a real courtship, or such a course of conduct as ought to induce impartial people to entertain a belief that marriage was intended; for it will be seen that she manifested equal partiality for other persons as for Mr. Weeks. It will be shewn that she was in the habit of being frequently out of evenings, and could give no good account of herself; that she had at some time asserted that she had past the evening at houses, where it afterwards appeared she had not been.
Tl;dr: Elma slept around, and Levi was just one of many of her partners and they were not affianced. Indeed, testimony was produced to insinuate Elma’s dalliances with other men, including her cousin’s husband, Elias Ring. There was thus no intent by Levi to marry her, nor any reason for Elma to suppose he might. Other witnesses described Elma as prone to fits of melancholy and vague suicidal threats, suggestive of suicide as an alternate theory.
As to the prosecutor’s evidence that Levi’s brother’s one-horse sleigh was seen near the well on the night Elma disappeared, a witness was produced to state that the sleigh had not been moved that night. Further, Ezra Weeks and others testified that Levi was at Ezra’s house all evening, minus 15 minutes it took to walk from one house to another.
And as to the most damning piece of evidence, Levi’s alleged knowledge of the body’s location, it was revealed that in the days before the discovery Elma’s muff had been found near the well, which had been reported throughout the community. The defense argued that Levi’s guess as to the body’s location was an assumption informed by his knowledge of the location of the muff.
So satisfied was the defense with the strength of their case that they offered no closing remarks. One of the three judges presiding, Judge Lansing, expressed his belief that the defendant was innocent before turning the case over to the jury, who returned in 5 minutes with a judgment of acquittal.
The public was not persuaded, and rumors and expressions of disgust continued to dog Levi Weeks. He eventually fled the state of New York and moved to Natchez, Mississippi to become a respected architect.
Meanwhile, the murder of Elma Sands went unsolved. However, there is one other “person of interest”: Mr. Richard “Mad” Croucher, occupant of the Ring boarding house and ardent accuser of Levi Weeks. Croucher was one of the main antagonists publicly clamoring for Weeks’ conviction and execution and testified for the prosecution at the trial. A witness for the defense, however, claimed to have seen Croucher himself near the well on the night of Elma’s disappearance. Croucher admitted to being in the well’s vicinity that evening, though not at the time of the killing.
Right before the trial had begun, Croucher married a widow with a 13 year old daughter. In July of that same year, Croucher was convicted of sexually assaulting the young girl , but Croucher, nicknamed “Mad”, was set free due to a belief that he was not sane. He was made to leave the state, however, and went to Virginia, where he allegedly committed more crimes. He later went back to his native England, where he was reportedly hanged “for some heinous crime“.
The destinies of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are well-known; Hamilton died at Burr’s hand four years after the Weeks trial and Burr lived another 32 years, though plagued with scandals and troubles. Chief Justice Lansing, who opined on Weeks’ innocence at the conclusion of the evidence, disappeared without a trace in 1829. The fates of the Hamilton, Burr, and Lansing are sometimes attributed to a curse put upon them by the aggrieved Catherine Ring in the courtroom following Weeks’ acquittal: “If thee dies a natural death I shall think there is no justice in heaven.”
From a modern perspective, the transcript is a fascinating read; some things are familiar, such as squabbles over hearsay rules and witness sequestration, while others are quite foreign, such as the defendant’s direction of jury selection, and a panel of 3 judges presiding. The story itself could be a “ripped from the headlines” Law and Order episode; the well still exists today, located in the basement of a house in Manhattan.
WW2: The first conviction under China’s anti free speech “National Security Law” was obtained this week. Twenty-four year old restaurant worker Tong Ying-kit faces life imprisonment for his participation in a protest in which he carried a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, which has been banned by the Chinese government.
WW3: An 84 year old German man was found to have a World War II era tank, an anti-aircraft gun and a torpedo in his basement. Authorities are pondering how to deal with the matter legally, considering whether the man has violated the country’s War Weapons Control Act. H/T @four4thefire.
WW4: Last October, Houston Oil Company Apache Corp. lost its attempt to appeal a $900,000 award to a paralegal in a retaliation case when the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear it. The Court changed its mind after the company donated $250,000 to a PAC, which supported the reelection campaigns of four of the state court’s justices. The Court then agreed to hear the case and ruled in the company’s favor, shockingly.
WW5: A new law in California bans the posting of mugshots on social media for people charged with non-violent crimes, but some quibble with what crimes qualify as non-violent. Law enforcement is not happy, arguing that it is necessary and in the public interest to humiliate and shame people who are still under the presumption of innocence.
WW6: Though the “Free Britney” movement has been in the news for a few months now, a formal request to remove her father from his conservatorship role has only just been filed. Spears recently won the right to choose her own attorney, who filed the petition two weeks after he was retained. The next hearing in the case will be in September.