In 1800, four years before they fatefully met on a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr temporarily put aside their fierce rivalry to join forces in a high-profile murder trial in New York City.
It all began with a mysterious disappearance
Gulielma Sands was a pretty new arrival to New York City. The 22-year-old, known as Elma, had moved to the city to work in a millinery business owned and operated by her cousin Catherine and Catherine’s husband, Elias Ring. She lived in the Rings’ boarding house on Greenwich Street in what is now Greenwich Village but was then the northernmost section of the city.
In the summer of 1799, Sands began a relationship with a new boarder. Levi Weeks was a carpenter who was well connected. His brother, Ezra, was one the city’s most successful architects and builders, responsible for the construction of Gracie Mansion (now home to New York’s mayors) and much of the growing city’s infrastructure. Among his clients was Hamilton, who hired Weeks to build the only home Hamilton would ever own, a manor house known as the Grange, far uptown in Harlem.
The relationship between Sands and Weeks intensified quickly. Although they attempted to keep their sexual relationship secret, fellow boarders would later testify that they’d frequently seen the pair in compromising positions. Perhaps fearful of the reaction of her Quaker relatives, on the afternoon of December 22, 1799, Sands told a fellow boarder (and cousin) Hope Sands that she and Weeks had become engaged and were to elope that same night.
Weeks reportedly left the boarding house in the early evening, Sands followed suit around 8 p.m. Weeks returned home later that night, but Sands was never seen alive again.
Suspicion immediately fell on Weeks
A desperate search for Sands soon began. A few days after her disappearance, articles of her clothing were found near the Manhattan Well, a newly constructed water supply system to the north of town. But it wasn’t until January 2, 1800 that the well was fully searched, and Sands' battered body was discovered.
The Rings later testified that they’d confronted Weeks about both the rumored engagement and Sands’ disappearance, but he had pled ignorance on both fronts, claiming the couple wasn’t engaged and that he spent most of the night of her disappearance at his brother’s house. Convinced of Weeks’ guilt, the Rings helped fan the flames of curiosity by supplying details of the mystery to reporters.
Hundreds of New Yorkers turned out to view Sands’ body, which was displayed in the Sands’ boarding house for three days. Lurid accounts of what might have befallen the victim filled the papers and following a coroner’s report that concluded Sands had been murdered, Weeks was arrested.
Hamilton and Burr were part of a legal dream team
With public sentiment against Weeks growing, Ezra jumped to his brother’s defense. As the court trial approached, he tapped some of the best-known lawyers in the city.
Hamilton had served as the nation’s first treasury secretary, creating America’s financial system. But by 1800 his political career was on the decline. His brilliance was tempered by his arrogance and willingness to battle both political opponents and members of his own Federalist Party. An embarrassing sex scandal exposed shortly after he’d left the government had further tarnished his reputation. Hamilton was convinced of Weeks’ innocence and furious at the rush to judgment, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he joined the defense team for what was sure to be a high-profile case — a decision likely also influenced by his growing debt to Ezra for construction of the Grange.
Burr had served in state government before defeating Hamilton’s father-in-law in a U.S. Senate race in 1791, a victory that infuriated Hamilton, and further soured the pair’s already contentious relationship. Burr and Ezra were also financially entwined, as it was a newly-established bank backed by Burr that provided funding for several of Weeks’ projects (including the Manhattan Well were Sands' body was found).
In the then-small legal world of New York City, Hamilton and Burr’s paths crossed frequently, and despite their political and personal differences, they’d previously worked together on a handful of cases. But neither man had much experience with criminal law, let alone a murder case. So, a third defense lawyer, future Supreme Court Justice Brockholst Livingston, was brought in.
The Manhattan Well Murder trial was a media sensation
The trial began on March 31, 1800, with Weeks’ lawyers facing off against a prosecutorial team that included a future New York governor. The courtroom, in New York's City Hall (now Federal Hall, and the site of George Washington’s first inauguration), was packed, as curious onlookers took it all in. Outside the building, large crowds gathered, with those convinced of Weeks’ guilt braying for justice.
In an era where most trials took less than one day, the People v. Levi Weeks stretched on for more than 40 hours over more than two days, stretching into the early mornings, as 75 witnesses took the stand, taxing the resolve and stamina of lawyers, judges and the jury. Thanks to public interest in the case (and the prominent personalities involved), it was the first criminal trial in American history to be fully transcribed for posterity.
The prosecution’s case rested in large part on circumstantial evidence. The Rings and others testified about the Sands-Weeks relationship and Weeks’ unusual behavior in the days after Sands’ death. They alleged that Weeks had seduced Sands, and, looking for an escape, had promised to marry her as pretense for luring her away from the boarding home to murder her. One witness claimed to have seen Sands with two men the night of her death, in a sleigh similar to one owned by Ezra.
But the defense team quickly chipped away at the prosecution’s case. Their medical experts refuted the defense team’s evidence that Sands’ neck had been broken or that her body showed evidence of trauma. They also stated that Sands wasn’t pregnant, which the prosecutors had alleged as a possible motive for Weeks to kill her. Several witnesses, including Weeks’ family, insisted that he had spent much of the night of December 22 at Ezra’s house, although they did admit that he had briefly left for about an hour before returning, which the prosecution believed was more than enough time for him to have killed Sands and returned to Ezra’s.
The defense also besmirched Sands’ moral character, calling in witnesses who claimed that Sands had slept with others at the boarding room, including Elias, her cousin’s husband, and that, far from being committed to Sands, Weeks had also been sleeping with others, including Sands’ cousin Hope. They claimed that Sands knew her relationship with Weeks was hopeless, leaving her depressed and possibly suicidal in the weeks before her death.
The most dramatic moment was the cross-examination of Richard Croucher, a troublesome, fellow boarder, who had testified about the relationship between Sands and Weeks. The defense team tried to dismantle his testimony bit-by-bit, bringing in witnesses who claimed to have seen Croucher near the Manhattan Well, casting suspicion on one of the prosecution’s star witnesses.
Sands’ murder remains unsolved to this day
Around 2:30 a.m. on April 2, the defense team rested. Certain of the strength of his case and mindful of the exhaustion of the jury and all involved, Hamilton declined to present a closing argument. In his instructions to the jury, the presiding judge seemed to fall solidly on the side of the defense. It took the jury just five minutes to reach a verdict: not guilty.
Given the controversy surrounding his acquittal, Weeks fled New York, eventually settling in Mississippi where he became a successful architect. Croucher, who the defense had tried to paint as Sands’ real murderer, continued a life of crime. Just months after the Weeks’ trial, Croucher was convicted for raping his teenage step-daughter but was later pardoned and released due to his unstable mental health. After a similar incident in Virginia, he fled to his native England, where he was purportedly executed for an unknown crime.
On the day of the verdict, a despondent Catherine reportedly put a curse on Hamilton. Later that year, Hamilton and Burr would clash again, as the erstwhile legal duo became entwined in a nasty presidential election that saw Burr elected vice president and set in motion the events that would culminate in their fatal duel in August 1804.