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The Manhattan Well Murder-America's First Recorded Murder Trial
Lispenard's Meadow circa 1785
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.
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.
- 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
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.