The Manhattan Well Murder-America's First Recorded Murder Trial

Lispenard's Meadow circa 1785

Source

A Secret Romance

The evening of December 22, 1799 was a bitter cold and dark night. People were getting ready for Christmas and one young woman was preparing for her wedding. Gulielma Sands was a beautiful young lady, aged 22 years, and eager to begin life as a newlywed bride. Her fiancé was Levi Weeks, a carpenter who lived in the same boarding house as Gulielma (she was commonly known as Elma).

Elma’s cousin Catherine Rings owned the boarding house and Catherine’s sister Hope Sands also lived there. Under promises of the utmost secrecy, Elma told her cousins that she and Levi Weeks were secretly engaged and planned to elope later that night. She confided they were to elope the evening of December 22nd. Mrs. Ring asked to be allowed to go as part of the bridal party so Elma would not be alone but Elma said her fiancé insisted on the marriage being a closely guarded secret. Until Elma’s announcement, the ladies knew nothing about the hasty wedding, but they helped the bride get ready then went about their business.

About 8 PM, Catherine Ring heard Elma and Levi come down the front stairs and whisper at the front door. They then left which was known because the door always made a great noise. Mrs. Ring ran to the door but could not distinguish the lovers due to the darkness and so many pedestrians passing by. The door was not opened again until a pale and agitated Levi Weeks returned about 10 PM that night. Elma Sands did not return and was never seen alive again.

The Body Is Found

On Christmas Eve, Elma’s body was found in a well in an area known as Lispenard's Meadow. Though this is now part of the urban and busy SoHo district, it was then a rural and quite desolate spot. The nearest house was about 100 yards away. The Manhattan Well was owned by the famous businessman, attorney and politician Aaron Burr. He had the well dug to provide water for the city and to challenge his greatest competitor Alexander Hamilton whom he later would kill in a duel.

An autopsy showed that Elma had been beaten so violently that her collarbone was broken. Her clothing was ripped and torn with her blouse torn open to the waist. She had bruises on her forehead, chin and breast. There were marks on Elma’s neck that looked like they had been made by a hand. Her shoes were gone and her stocking torn as if she had been dragged. Her neck appeared to have been broken also.

Levi Weeks was immediately under suspicion and was charged with the murder of Gulielma Sands. He presented an alibi, stating he had been working with his employer, Ezra, who was also his elder brother. Interestingly, they were working on blueprints for a house to be built for Alexander Hamilton who ended up representing Levi Weeks.

It was not long before insults and gossip began to affect everyone involved in the case. Someone suggested Elma had been with child so her family had her body put on public display to refute the accusation. So many people came by to gaze at the lovely young corpse that it had to moved into the street to accommodate the procession. Her body lay out for days while errant physicians poked and prodded it and one even became a witness during the trial.

Accusations and Alibis

Witness testified that Ezra Week's horse and sleigh had been taken from the stable and returned about one hour later. His horse was dark in color and so was the one spotted near the well the night Elma Sands disappeared. Ezra Weeks swore the horse never left the stable that evening.

Several witnesses saw two men and a woman in a one horse sleigh that looked like Ezra Weeks' but it could never be proven.

Levi Weeks professed not to recognize Elma when challenged to identify her body. He said "the gown looks familiar" though.

Mrs. Ring claimed Levi returned home to the boarding house about 10 PM but his brother said they ate dinner together at 10 PM.

A witness who lived near the well heard a woman screaming for help that night. His testimony said she cried out, "Oh Lord, have mercy upon me! What shall I do? Help me!" But when he looked outside he saw no woman, just a man walking near the well and did not investigate further.

The two boys who found Elma's muff and scarf floating in the water were disqualified as witnesses because they could not read or write and did not understand the importance of giving an oath before the court.

Levi Weeks professed his innocence saying he was not romantically involved with Elma Sands although her cousin testified to seeing him tender toward the young woman. He cared for her when she was sick and even spent nights in her room.

A hotel clerk said the two lovers had once stayed at his hotel and Ms. Sands had not slept in her own bed. The prosecuting attorney claimed Weeks had seduced Elma into loose conduct, the murdering her to keep from having to marry her.

The attorney for the defense claimed Elma Weeks had been intimate with other men although he could not produce one of the alleged lovers.

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr | Source
Cadwallader D. Colden
Cadwallader D. Colden | Source
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton | Source

An Assortment of Famous Men

This murder trial was the first ever known to be recorded in America. It was a travesty and became a drama that drew attention from New York City residents who flooded the courtroom. But the participants all had an agenda of their own. These were famous-or infamous-men who went on to become familiar names even now, centuries later.

  • The Judge-John Lansing Jr. was politically connected Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr
  • The Prosecutor-Cadwallader D. Colden was from a prominent family and later became Mayor of New York and served in the House of Representatives.
  • Defense Attorney-Alexander Hamilton-his face is on the dollar bill in your pocket
  • Defense Attorney-Aaron Burr- 3rd Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson and successful businessman.
  • Levi Weeks-Designed and built the famous Auburn Museum and Antebellum Home in Natchez, MS.

The Trial and Verdict

The People vs Levi Weeks murder trial began at 10 AM on Tuesday, March 25th, 1800. It was held in its entirety at the City Hall of New York City. There was a jury of twelve men, peers of Levi Weeks and the defense attorneys. No women were allowed on the jury even though the victim was a female.

More than 75 people testified during the two day trial. Courts then did not stop at 5 PM but continued until people dropped or the trial was concluded, although the judge allowed them jury to rest a few hours the first night. Histrionics by both the defense and prosecution kept spectators energized and alert. There was dramatic leaping up and shouting in indignation and at one point the defense attorney even held candles up to another man's face and accused him of the murder.

Levi Weeks was made out to be both a saint and a devil. Elma Sands was slandered without remorse by the defense attorney and held up as womanly virtue by the prosecutor. It was a mess but witnesses then were allowed to talk and ramble without objection.

The judge grew weary and wrapped it all up before the jury. It was then 2 AM on the second night. If the prosecuting and defense counsels were to give closing statements, those would take several hours and he would not hold the jurors another night. He therefore informed them that there was no proof of Levi Weeks guilt and only circumstantial evidence had been given against him (pg 98-99 of the transcript).

He concluded that prisoner was of a mild disposition and it was doubtful that Elma's body had been exposed to violence other than drowning. Judge Lansing concluded there was not enough evidence to warrant a verdict against Levi Weeks and committed the case for the jury's consideration.

The jury only deliberated for FIVE MINUTES before returning with a Not Guilty verdict. Then everyone went home to sleep peacefully while a young woman lay dead. Was justice done for Gulielma Sands? You can be the judge now that 213 years have passed.


Interesting Facts

  • Elma Sands cousin (a staunch Quaker) stood up in the courtroom and shouted at Alexander Hamilton, “If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven!”
  • Less than five years after the trial, Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel. He was acquitted twice for the murder.
  • Many years later Judge Lansing left his home to mail a letter. He was never seen again.
  • Hamilton's son was killed and Burr's daughter died, bringing grief and heartbreak to both men.
  • Levi Weeks left New York and went to live in Natchez Mississippi where he married and father four children before dying at the age of 43.
  • The well is now in the basement of 129 Spring Street where a popular restaurant called the Manhattan Bistro was built. It is reported to be haunted by Gulielma Sands.
  • By remembering Gulielma Sands more than 200 years after her murder, we show we refuse to accept injustice and the ones denied justice are never truly forgotten.

Trial Transcript In PDF Format from The Library of Congress

http://memory.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2005/20051214001re/20051214001re.pdf

The transcript is on old font where the S looks like an F. It is difficult to understand at first but one becomes accustomed after a while.

The Manhattan Well

The well is about 7 feet tall and 5 feet around. It has long been filled in.
The well is about 7 feet tall and 5 feet around. It has long been filled in. | Source

The Levi Weeks Murder Trial Transcript

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The People vs Levi Weeks

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Comments 47 comments

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Like the formatting here, Hyph. First recorded trial in America, how about that. Sometimes we forget that murders and political shenanigans, if that's what this was, have been going on for some time. Seems plain to me from your excellent retelling of the tragic event that Mr Weeks might just have been guilty. Something was rotten in Denmark, alright. Maybe the pretty girl's ghost is letting everyone know that too.


Sunnie Day 4 years ago

My goodness Hyph you did a great job with this story. I found it haunting, sad, and very interesting. I have no doubt that Karma came around...it always does..sins of the father..or what ever it may be. Great job my friend.

Sunnie


midget38 profile image

midget38 4 years ago from Singapore

I agree with Sunnie. You did a wonderful job here Hyphenbird. I am sure that in it's own way, justice prevailed for Gullemma Sands. Thanks for the fascinating facts...I think my mum will love this because she's a real crime fan!! Will forward this to her and share, of course!!


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello Alastar. I do believe Levi Weeks and his brother killed Elma Sands. I found this case fascinating. The PDF has the entire trial recorded and is 140 pages. I have read it several times. It was hard not to put too much in the Hub but my hope is that people will read the transcript and garner more information. All the famous men involved makes one interested. Thank you for leaving your comments. I like feedback so I can know what worked and didn't. This format was indeed a new one for me.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Sunnie, I like a good mystery and this one is true crime. I ran across the story and knew other must learn this piece of American history. Our history books in American are carefully edited to present only whet has been authorized. Spectacles like this taint reputations but then so does murder. Thanks for being interested in the story of Elma Sands.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

That's always the challenge with these type of stories- condensing them for article length. You've done a good job doing that here, very good.


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

I am inspired to read this. I love mysteries and crime solving. Great hub and voting up.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello midget38. Thanks for sharing this story with your mom. It really is a little known tragedy. I am glad the story had enough information for you. It was a hard one to write. The transcript is so full of drama and testimony that I kept adding and removing items of interest. Your feedback helps me to know for the future what worked. Have a great day, or is it night in Singapore?


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Alastar, you are a great support, friend and fellow writer.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello carol7777. You are like me, mysteries are a puzzle for me that I want to solve. Thanks for reading and for the votes. I appreciate you.


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

isn' this something I know it's a murder trial.. but I was very entertained.. thank you ( I think )


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Frank you are so funy. I like your visits. Yes this farce of a trial is entertaining. Read the transcript when you have time. It is great reading. I learned a lot about early courts in America. Thanks for stopping by this Hub.


writer20 profile image

writer20 4 years ago from Southern Nevada

Great read and I enjoying read it. Levi Weeks died at 43, was he killed maybe because people did die young in those days.

Voted up and awesome for your great work on this story, Joyce.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

An excellent synopsis of the trial. I dare say that we all know that Levi was responsible. Seems that all the key characters proved to be rogues in the long run. Awesome and up.


Mama Kim 8 profile image

Mama Kim 8 4 years ago

How fascinating! thank you for such an entertaining read today ^_^ I'll have to give the pdf a full read sometime. Voted up!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

Hyphen: What a fascinating true story. The first murder trial in the U.S. This is so interesting to know about. It is not much different from today - some murders just remain a mystery. There are always so much politics involved in these incidents, and it is sad. I guess I go with Levi being the murderer, but who really knows?


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

What a shocking story. No women on the jury, a sad fact of the times. I enjoyed reading your story Hyphen, very well written.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

writer20, I believe he died from a natural illness. He seemed to put the incident behind him and lived a good life. But I still think he killed Elma Sands. Thank you for acknowledging the work I put into this article. I researched and wrote for days and days.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hell aviannovice. Yes, I believe they were rogues and politicians interested in publicity. It was sad that the young woman's death was never considered important enough to follow up on. No one else was ever questioned in her death. Thank you for reading about her.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello Mama Kim 8. Please do read the transcript. It is a fascinating look into history and how courts were conducted back then. I am pleased you came by this Hub. Thank you.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello suzettenaples. This was the first RECORDED murder trial. It seems to have been a mess from start to finish. You are right that we can surmise the murderer was Levi and I do believe he was, but we shall never know for sure.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello always exploring. I was not surprised that no women were on the jury. Times were not female friendly back then and the men seemed to all have a political agenda. Did you read the transcript? It is amazing.


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Hello Hyphen. What an interesting read. It offered suspense and pulled us all back in time. I would edit out the O.J. comment. It instantly pulled me out of your story and back to the present.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Thank you mckbirdbk I made that change and really appreciate the feedback. You were right. It flows much better now. Thanks again.

PS-Did you read the trial transcript?


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Hyphen, no I didn't go read the transcript. It has been busy here. I am glad you made the change. To be snapped out of the period you sent us to just did not feel right.


lilyfly profile image

lilyfly 4 years ago from Wasilla, Alaska

I'm just goin g to do this: The story was well presented, documented, researched, written, with witnesses, the FIRST documented Homicide. Lady, eat of the fruit of your efforts!!! Brilliant! Brilliant! The very best! lily


Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

I am fascinated by this. I can't handle reading the PDF right now but will see if I can get to it.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello Lily. Thank you so much. I know you are always honest in what you state and appreciate that. I really did work hard on this article, reading and researching the transcript faithfully. I feel good knowing it all was worth the effort.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hi Becky. I found it fascinating also. When you have time to read the transcript you will be mesmerized. Just to see how court was conducted and how witnesses were allowed to act is incredible. Thanks very much for reading the article.


Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

This is a fascinating hub. I had no idea how the trials were conducted in old America. However, in Nepal murderers were death sentenced with out a proper trail in ancient times.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello Vinaya. Many counties practices that immediate punishment. America was birthed to give people freedom and I suppose that is why our courts were set up this way. It usually works well but has become polluted in the last 50 years especially.I find this particular trial interesting and since it is the first recorded trial, feel everyone should know about it. Thanks for the visit. It is always good to see you.


Beth 4 years ago

Very interesting story, it's so obvious what happened..wanted her dead because she was pregnant, had no intentions to marry her, but wanted her to think that's where they were going, and not to tell anyone because he was going to murder her..yep,that's what happened!!! As usual, awesome writing of this story!!


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hi Beth. You have it down perfectly. That is exactly what I believe happened also. It is so nice to see you here. Thanks for the visit and the detective work.


royblizzard profile image

royblizzard 4 years ago from Austin / Leander, Texas

Great Story Hyphenbird. What makes it even more curious is that my wife and I are related to both Aaron Burr on my side and Alexander Hamilton on her side and we never knew anything about this til now. Thanks!


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

royblizzard, that is so interesting. Please read the trial transcript and you will find even more interesting information. The whole thing was most odd. I am pleased to add to your family's genealogy information. Cool


Kate Mc Bride profile image

Kate Mc Bride 4 years ago from Donegal Ireland

This is so well-researched and such a good story.I voted it up and interesting. Thanks :-)


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Kate McBride, thank you. I did a lot of work on this one. There are unsubstantiated articles and rumors about this incident. Separating fact from fiction took a while. Once I found the transcript I was so happy. I am so glad you came by to read this and appreciate you.


tamarawilhite profile image

tamarawilhite 4 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

Fascinating. Were there earlier murder trials in England?


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hi tamarawilhite. Yes, there were. I ran ross some back in the 1600's in England. Some would make fascinating reading. Just Google or Bing something like "First known murder trials in England". Thanks for stopping by my Hub. I appreciate you.


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

This is a wonderful story. I guess we don't think about murder trials in the 1700's. This was a very interesting story, it kept me glued to the end. I would have to read all the transcript before I could saw who I think killed her. This is a wonderful hub! Voting up, awesome and sharing! :)


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hi sgbrown. I love, love finding old stories like this. In my opinion our history books should contain cases like this to show how our nation developed. When you have time, read the transcript. It is fascinating. Thanks so much for the vote and for sharing this Hub.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 4 years ago from South Africa

Oh my, how did I miss this interest hub of yours, Hyphenbird? I can imagine the social turmoil that was caused by this tragedy. Sadly, cases like this became the order of the day and the blasé indifference of the majority reminds me of the Wild West.

Anerica's first recorded murder trial voted up, interesting, well-research and well-presented.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hi Martie. I am so glad you did find is Hub. I love for people to learn about history. I love the research necessary to bring these old stories to life. You are right. People have become almost immune to tragedy and it seems to take multiple killings for them to even read about it. So sad. Thank you for the votes and your kind comments. I always appreciate seeing you .


shai77 profile image

shai77 4 years ago

This is fascinating history, never heard of it before. I can imagine the shocker this must have been in the day. That poor victim. Thanks for this great hub, VU & interesting. Great job.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 3 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hello shai77. When I first ran across this true crime, I also felt sorry for the poor girl. She had such hopes and dreams. Sadly her faith in an evil man ruined them all. I wanted others to remember her and keep her memory alive. Thank yo for reading her story.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 3 years ago from Chicago

I enjoyed your marvelous Hub thoroughly. You selected a fascinating subject and you told the story beautifully, keeping me on the edge of my seat. Awesome!

Thank you for the great read.

James :)


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 3 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful Author

Hi James. This case caught my attention and heart. that poor girl has been forgotten and the case indeed is historical. I think our students need to know these things. I am so pleased you liked my retelling. Thanks for the great encouragement.

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