By Diana Williams
A beautiful young woman is seen frequently in the company of a young man who lives in her building. According to her neighbors, the sounds coming from her room also indicate a sexual relationship between the two. She tells her family and friends that they plan to marry. On a December night, the same night she’s told everyone they are eloping, she disappears. Several days later, her body is found in the bottom of a well and authorities arrest her lover for her murder. His trial begins a few months later, in March of 1800.
The young woman was Juliana Elmore “Elma” Sands and the young man was Levi Weeks. Sands was a Quaker who lived in her cousin’s boarding house. Weeks was the brother of Ezra Weeks, a well-connected contractor best known for building New York City’s mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion.
The case, which became known as the Manhattan Well Murder, was the first covered by the media – from arrest through conclusion of the trial – and it had all of the elements today’s trial-watchers crave: murder, mystery, scandal and public outcry. The defendant, Weeks, even had his own legal dream team consisting of former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and future Vice President, Aaron Burr.
Paul Collins, a professor of creative nonfiction at Portland State University and author of “Duel with the Devil,” a book about the 19th-century case, noted how Elma’s family tried to sway public opinion. “Elma’s relatives (not her immediate family) riled up New Yorkers by threatening vengeance and displaying her body in the street,” Collins wrote in an email.
By the time Weeks was set for trial, the public had worked themselves into a lather. According to a June 1977 report written for the American Bar Association by Liva Baker, Weeks was so hated that to consider him innocent was akin to being a participant in the crime. Even Weeks’ landlord vowed to gun him down. Weeks, it seemed, had been convicted by the New York City court of public opinion.
Good luck eventually smiled on Weeks in the form of Hamilton and Burr. According to Collins, the two Revolutionary War vets were in debt to Ezra Weeks, Levi’s brother. “This was in an era where you still could jail someone for debt,” Collins wrote. “So it was very much in their interest to stay on the good side of the Weeks family.” Hamilton and Burr were seasoned politicians, but as attorneys, didn’t practice criminal law. So, they brought in Brockholst Livingston, who had experience with murder trials (and later became a Supreme Court justice), as the third member of their legal team.
In the days before Hamilton and Burr’s notorious 1804 duel, which left Hamilton dead, the two could be civil, even friendly at best. At the turn of the 19th century, New York wasn’t that big and it wasn’t that much of a leap for the two of them to be on the same team. As Cynthia Nicoletti, an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia, said, “I’m not that surprised that the two of them would wind up on the same side of the case.”
Nicoletti also isn’t surprised by attempts to influence the court by swaying public opinion. While she can’t speculate about any maneuvering of the press on the part of Weeks’ defense team, Nicoletti said that 19th century lawyers would use the press to their advantage and that strategy is seen throughout the period. “Clever lawyering wasn’t invented in the 20th and 21st centuries,” she said. Fortunately for Weeks, his clever lawyers got him off.
New methods of swaying opinion are what’s unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. UVA history professor and American History Guy, Brian Balogh, thinks photos have replaced the open coffins. Talk shows can whip the crowds up for us now. “The media learned that stories are what interest readers (and now viewers),” said Balogh. He continued, “Add celebrity (of the victim, defendant, or trial lawyer), sex, youth, good looks, money, and passion and you have the formula for a blockbuster, then and now.”
The transcript of People v. Levi Weeks sets this trial apart from previous cases. It’s the first time the media reported a detailed account of an entire proceeding and it captured much of the drama in the room. At one point in the transcript, the court reporter, William Coleman, described a member of Weeks’ defense team (although which man is unclear) waving a candelabra to illuminate the face of Richard Croucher, a man singled out by a witness in the darkened courtroom. The transcript also detailed the jury selection, every word of the testimony, and even the judge’s instructions to the jury, including his doubts that Sands had left the boarding house “in company with the prisoner,” part of the argument on which the prosecution built their case.
According to Collins, the Weeks transcript established the trial as a “truly public record.” The idea changed media coverage, making the ins and outs of a court case newsworthy – a practice we still see today.
Learn more about America’s fascination with crime and punishment in this week’s episode of BackStory, COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: A HISTORY OF TRIAL-WATCHING IN AMERICA.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist