Fans of the show are all-too-familiar with "Non-Stop," when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr., respectively) mention a murder trial, with Burr singing "our client Levi Weeks is innocent."
Burr and Hamilton were fierce political rivals, but four years before Burr shot Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey, the two teamed up to defend an accused murderer in one of the first murder trials in the United States to capture the public's imagination. The case was pure tabloid fodder: In the People v. Levi Weeks, a whirlwind romance between two unwed lovers (truly scandalous at the time) in a New York City boarding house ended in death.
Elma Sands and Levi Weeks, a New England carpenter who moved to New York to work for his brother Ezra, first met in July 1799, when Weeks moved into the boarding house run by Sands' aunt and uncle, Catherine and Elias Ring in Greenwich Village. Soon after, the two began a secret romance, regularly rendezvousing in Sands' bedroom late at night, according to multiple witnesses.
Looking to avoid a scandal, the two became engaged to be married on December 22, 1799. That night, the two left the house—but only Weeks returned, claiming to have lost track of Sands. Days later, her body was found in a well in Lispenard's Meadow, which is now Spring Street.
She appeared to have been strangled to death and suspicion immediately fell on Weeks. More witnesses came forward claiming that the sleigh of Weeks' brother Ezra had been seen near the well that evening, and it appeared that Levi Weeks' fate was sealed: he was arrested and charged with the murder.
On March 31, 1800, his trial started. Judge John Lansing, Jr. and Mayor Richard Varick presided over the case with a recorder, and assistant attorney general Cadwallader D. Colden (a future New York mayor) acted as prosecutor. By all accounts, Colden's case against Weeks was filled with circumstantial evidence and he used theatrics to appeal to the jury, even going so far as to pause intermittently "as if overwhelmed with his emotions."
He had several witnesses testify to seeing Sands and Weeks behaving inappropriately. A fellow member of their boarding house, Richard David Croucher, testified:
I have known the prisoner at the bar, to be with the deceased Elma Sands, in private frequently and all times of night, I knew him to pass two whole nights in her bedroom. Once lying in my bed, which stood in the middle of the room, and in a posture which was favorable to see who passed the door, and I which I assumed on purpose. I had some curiosity; I saw the prisoner at the bar come out of her room, and pass the door in his shirt only, to his own room. Once too at a time, when they were less cautious than usual, I saw them in a very intimate situation.
Croucher was the prosecution's most important witness, but recognizing that his case may have been thin, Colden, the prosecutor, concluded:
a positive allegation may be founded in mistake, or, what is too common, in the perjury of the witness; but circumstances cannot lie; and a long chain of well connected fabricated circumstances requires and ingenuity and skill rarely to be met with.
Colden essentially asked the jury if they thought Weeks killed Sands or if all of the witnesses were conspiring to railroad him. The prosecution rested.
Then it was time for Hamilton and Burr, along with future Supreme Court Justice Brockholst Livingston, to defend their client.
Called "the original dream team," Hamilton and Burr came to the case under somewhat self-serving auspices: Ezra Weeks, Levi's brother and owner of the sleigh seen near the well, was a wealthy builder in New York. He designed Gracie Mansion and was doing construction work for both men—thus entangling Manhattan real estate in the criminal courts. The duo set to work showing the weaknesses in the state's case.
Burr spoke first, imploring the jury to ignore the public's demand for justice (first sparked after media coverage of Sands' family displaying Elma's body), asking for them to have the "fortitude to withstand" the hysterics surrounding the case. He deployed some victim-blaming, saying Sands wasn't the angel the prosecution made her out to be, and Weeks' movements on the night Sands disappeared could be corroborated by witnesses.
Hamilton then took over, calling Ezra Weeks and his wife as witnesses, who claimed that Levi had spent the bulk of Dec. 22 with them. Other witnesses backed them up; character witnesses attested to Levi's integrity and kindness.
The defense also called witnesses who named other possible suspects. Joseph Watkins, a boarder in the room adjacent to Sands, speculated her uncle, Elias Ring, who entered and exited her bedroom at all hours of the night, could have killed her. Another boarder, Timothy Crane, testified that Levi paid an equal amount of attention to Hope Sands, Elma's sister who also resided at the Ring's house, and that Elma was overheard saying she would kill herself with a dose of a "phial full" of laudanum if she had access to the drug.
Hamilton's real masterstroke was his cross-examination of Richard David Croucher, the prosecution's star witness who testified to catching Elma and Levi in flagrante. Hamilton found witnesses claiming to have seen Croucher near the well on the night Sands disappeared, saying he spent the ensuing weeks spreading stories of Levi's guilt.
It's not included in the record, but biographies of both Hamilton and Burr mention that during his cross of Croucher, Hamilton literally pointed the finger directly at him with a candelabra (though some accounts say it was Burr, as the illustration below shows).
In Henry Cabot Lodge's biography of Hamilton, it's he who accuses Croucher, saying: “I have special reasons, deep reasons, reasons that I dare not express, reason that, when the real culprit is detected and placed before the court, will then he understood.”
Pausing to capture the attention of everyone in the courtroom, he continued, “The jury will mark every muscle of his face, every motion of his eye. I conjure you to look through that man’s countenance to his conscience.”
According to Lodge, during the “severe” cross-examination of Croucher, “the wretched witness stumbled, contradicted himself, and utterly broke down.” (Lodge also notes that Croucher was later convicted of raping a child and pardoned before moving to Virginia and committing fraud there. Upon fleeing to England, he was executed “for some heinous crime.")
With that, the defense rested, and late at night, already two days into the trial (much longer than usual at the time), Judge Lansing instructed the jury to acknowledge that the state had failed to present its case and had not adequately connected all of its circumstantial evidence. It took the jury, swayed by Hamilton and Burr's defense, all but five minutes to return a not guilty verdict. The courtroom cheered. Sands' aunt, Catherine Ring, allegedly cursed Hamilton to die an unnatural death, which he did: Following the trial, Burr and Hamilton famously resumed their rivalry.
Levi left New York, either out of shame, or because he was so notoriously connected to the case and wanted a fresh start. He settled in Natchez, Miss., where he became an accomplished builder himself, designing and constructing Auburn Mansion, now a national historic landmark. He married and fathered three children in Mississippi and died at 43.
The well Elma Sands was discovered in was excavated in 1980 at a retail location on Spring Street. It's now a COS store and is thought to be haunted.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org