Stat Counter

View My Stats

Monday, May 02, 2016


The first sensational murder trial in 19th century America occurred between March 31 and April 1, 1800 in New York City. The newspapers of the time were all over this case and it is said to be the first trial ever transcribed in this country. It was a sensation, partly because the defense included a “dream team” starring Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as co-counsel.

Near the corner of Spring Street and Greene Street in the SoHo section of lower New York, there once was an abandoned well that was owned by the Manhattan Company, a private banking concern that was formed in 1799. Its investors included prominent New Yorkers Burr and Hamilton.

On January 2, 1800, a body was found floating in the icy water at the bottom of the well. When it was removed, it lay on the snowy ground for a long time before it was identified by a young man who knew her “intimately.” He was a 24 year-old man named Levi Weeks.  

Levi was the brother of Ezra Weeks, who was a well-known builder in the city, an employee
of the Manhattan Company. Ezra had built Hamilton’s residence and, later, Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s official residence.

The dead woman was named Gulielma (Elma) Sands. She had been missing since December 22, when she had left the boardinghouse where she lived. Levi Weeks also lived in the house. Catherine Sands, Elma’s cousin, later claimed that Elma told her that she and Levi were to be secretly married the night she disappeared. The sources are conflicting as to whether Elma was pregnant.

The coroner’s examination was apparently conducted as an afterthought: the body had been removed from the well, had lain on a board for some time, and had been moved several times until taken to the boardinghouse in a coffin. There, a doctor observed some marks on her neck, and concluded that she had been killed by “violent pressure upon the neck” before the body was dropped into the well.

Levi Weeks was arrested and the newspapers began their assault. What was the motive?
One reported that Weeks had been “seduced by the instigation of the Devil.”

Aaron Burr, (b. 1756) had fought in the Revolution, became a New York legislator, then a candidate for President, losing to Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney. (In November, 1800, he would be elected Vice-President to Jefferson.) Burr had formed the Bank of the Manhattan Company in 1799. (It would later become Chase Manhattan Bank, now JPMorgan-Chase.)

Burr was also a practicing lawyer in the city. He was willing, at the urging of his employee Ezra Weeks, to defend Levi without fee. This was not a selfless act because the reputation of the Manhattan Company was at stake as the microscope of publicity focused on its well and its other waterworks. (The waterworks were eventually sold to the city for an exorbitant profit.)

Burr enlisted one of the other investors in the company, the lawyer Alexander Hamilton (b.1755). Hamilton had been Washington’s chief of staff in the Revolutionary War, and had been the first Secretary of the Treasury. He had fallen from power and grace after a notorious sex scandal involving an adulterous affair. He had paid hush money to the woman’s husband in return for love letters Hamilton had written. The letters were exposed by Hamilton’s political enemies (including Jefferson), and Hamilton (not the Bill Clinton of his day) admitted the affair. However, he denied the claim that he had paid the blackmail from embezzled funds. Thus, he thought he preserved his honor — if not his career. 

Although Hamilton and Burr were often rivals in ambition, going back to the Revolutionary War, and continued their competition in politics (Hamilton was a Federalist; Burr a Democratic Republican), they had ties to each other in the close knit New York society of their time. Thus, it was not unusual for them to be sometimes on the same side of an issue and this was one.

The trial was held in Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street (now the site of the U.S. Customs House). The judge presiding was John Lansing (b.1754), chief justice of the New York State Supreme Court. In the War, Lansing had served under General Phillip Schuyler, who later became Hamilton’s father-in-law. Lansing was one of the three New York representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He opposed its ratification as an Anti-Federalist, but was appointed to the bench to enforce it nonetheless.

The prosecutor was the assistant attorney general, colorfully named Cadwallader D. Colden (b. 1769), who had ben educated in the law in London. His grandfather, the first Cadwallader, was Irish. He was a physician, botanist, and, after emigrating, became acting colonial governor of New York. He died in 1776, still a committed loyalist. Grandson “D.” was an ambitious prosecutor, who would later become District Attorney, fight in the War of 1812, push for the abolition of slavery in New York (grandpa had owned at least three) and became the 54th mayor of New York City.

The local press reported that hundreds if not thousands came to the courthouse to view the trial, some hanging from trees to catch a glimpse of the evil prisoner. Many shouted,  “Crucify him!” when Weeks was dragged from his miserable cell into the courthouse.

Trials in those days were not dragged out. Three months from arrest to trial, and the trial lasted only two days. But the days were very long: one went to at least four in the morning.

Colden sunk his teeth into the lurid details of the case, which he termed a crime of passion. A witness described the “warm courtship” between Weeks and Sands. When they were together, others in the boardinghouse heard sounds of “rustling beds, such as might be occasioned by a man and wife.” Another called it a “very intimate situation.”

A witness claimed to have been in the vicinity of the well on the night Ms. Sands disappeared, and to have heard a woman’s shriek “in distress” which was then “muffled.” There were sled tracks in the snow, allegedly from Weeks’ sleigh. The “several spots pretty much in a row around her neck” were proof of strangulation. A witness claimed that when Weeks was first told about a body in a well, he had blurted, “Is it the Manhattan well?”

The prosecutor acknowledged that the case was based on circumstantial evidence, but quoted a law treatise: “Circumstantial evidence is all that can be expected, and indeed all that is necessary to substantiate such a charge.” It was enough to convince the gallery, the mob waiting in the streets, and the press.

But then came the defense. Hamilton tried to undermine the credibility of witnesses in his cross-examination. He presented scientific evidence of the thickness of the walls in boardinghouse to attack the witnesses who claimed to have heard incriminating sounds coming from other rooms.

But Burr turned out to be the star of the “dream team,” the Johnny Cochran of the case. Although Burr was not a criminal law specialist, he had a great deal at stake in the outcome and one source ascribes his brilliance in this case to his feeling that his client, like he, was an underdog, victimized by an insensitive society.

Burr attacked the Cadwallader’s ambition: “Extraordinary means have been adopted to enflame the public against the prisoner,” he said. “Why has the body been exposed for days in the streets in a manner most indecent and shocking? Such dreadful scenes speak powerfully to the passions: They petrify our mind with horror — congeal the blood in our veins.” The mood in the courtroom began to shift away from lynching and toward a more balanced view if not great sympathy for the man on trial for his life.

The prosecutor had drawn an ugly picture of a love match gone dreadfully awry. The only problem, Burr argued calmly, was that it lacked any evidence to prove it. What was the proof that there had ever, in truth, been a courtship at all? The whispers of gossips. What evidence was there of a proposal of marriage? Of a rejection? Of any motive to kill the poor lady?

Burr cited the corollary to the legal rule that permitted circumstantial evidence. Like the pillars of a building, every part must hold up, or else “the whole must tumble down.”

Burr then detailed the gaps in the supposed incriminatory facts. First, the medical testimony of strangling was deficient because by the time the body had been examined by a physician, it had been “well manhandled.” When it had been seen at first, no such “marks” had been observed by anyone. Second, no one saw Weeks out in his sleigh the night of the crime. The tracks in the snow could have been made by any sleigh. Third, those who “heard” the sounds suggestive of sexual relations did not see the parties. They could not swear that Levi Weeks was the man.

Burr had the essential traits of a fine defense lawyer. He was a skilled counterpuncher, adept at poking enough holes in his opponent’s arguments that the structure of his case collapsed.

He called a blacksmith named Joseph Watkins who asserted that a man named Elias Ring, though married to another, had “loud, rambunctious” sex with Elma. Watkins could hear them through the wall and recognized Ring’s voice, and in fact, had told his wife what he had heard.

Watkins also told another boarder, a man named Croucher, about it. Croucher had tried to protect his friend Ring by blaming it on Weeks. At this point, the prosecutor was outraged. He objected: Where is this alleged person, Croucher?

The trial had gone on until late in the night. Hamilton then rose, picked up a candle, and pushed his way into the crowd of murmuring spectators. He held the candle up to a man’s face, the light giving it an eerie aspect. “Is this the man, Croucher?” Yes, the witness said, that is he.

Cadwallader tried to rebut but his arguments fell limp after that. It was four in the morning by the time the exhausted court gratefully heard Hamilton say that no summation by the defense was needed. The jury took five minutes to reach a not guilty verdict.

The verdict was unpopular. Levi Weeks was encouraged to leave town. He moved to Nachez, Mississippi, married and thrived as an architect. His mansion survived the Civil War, and is listed as a national historical landmark.

In 1804, Jefferson dropped Burr from the ticket. Burr then ran for governor of New York and lost. He blamed his loss on slanders by his opponents, including Alexander Hamilton, who had called Burr “a dangerous man, who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” Burr demanded that Hamilton disavow the remarks. Hamilton dithered, denied, and then refused on his honor (which had already suffered in scandal, making him sensitive to another slap). Burr felt dishonored too. On July 11 in Weehauken they fought their famous duel and Hamilton didn’t win.

Burr’s propensity for overly ambitious schemes got him into serious trouble later when he was tried for treason. The charges stemmed from a land scheme in the territory that was part of the Louisiana Purchase. President Jefferson pushed the indictment, believing the accusation that Burr was trying to stir up war with Spain or France in order to steal the land for himself.

Burr’s trials in 1807 provided still more drama for the country. Chief Justice John Marshall ignored the pressure Jefferson applied toward a conviction. He ruled that the evidence of Burr’s presence at crucial times was not proved, and a letter allegedly showing Burr’s involvement was forged. Burr was eventually acquitted of the charges although historians have debated his guilt ever since.

He lived until 1836, having fled for a time to Europe, then returned to practice law in New York. He stayed in the news by marrying a wealthy widow, who divorced him while he lay on his deathbed. Though in his 70’s, he had continued his lifelong pursuit of sexual adventures, which stopped only when he suffered a paralytic stroke.

Judge Lansing's fate was even more bizarre. One night in December 1829, when he was 75 years old, he went for a walk to mail a letter and was never seen again, dead or alive. Whether he drowned or was murdered was never discovered. 

The legal lesson:

The Weeks case turned on the often misunderstood legal issue of circumstantial evidence. Cadwallader was correct in his summary of the general rule that it is just as good as direct evidence. Even today, jurors are instructed that both are sufficient to convict.

The difference is that, unlike direct evidence (e.g., “I saw him kill her”), circumstantial evidence requires another step, an inference, to prove the fact.

The defense was also correct in warning that every fact that pointed to guilt had to be believed in order for guilt to be proved. For example, suppose the witness does not say, “I saw him kill her,” but instead testifies: “I heard a loud noise, then a thud, and saw him run from the room carrying an shiny metal object.” If the loud noise was a gunshot, and if the thud was the body falling, and if it was the defendant running away and if the shiny object was a gun, then an inference might be drawn that he had killed her.

But if any one of the necessary inferences is unproved, or if another reasonable innocent inference could be drawn from the facts, then no guilt can be found.

No comments:

Post a Comment