DUEL WITH THE DEVIL
On January 2, 1800, the body of a 20-year old Quaker woman named Elma Sands was found murdered in a well in Lispenard’s Meadow, half-way between downtown New York and Greenwich Village. A carpenter, Levi Weeks, who lived in the same boarding house as Elma was charged with her murder. The trial of Mr. Weeks was the first well documented murder trials of the young United States.
The summer of 1799 was infamous as well for yellow fever. This summer was particularly hot, and its marshy meadows were home to New York’s infamous mosquitoes. With the fear the epidemic would spread many New Yorkers left the city for the summer months, until the cool winter air returned. All hoped for an early frost, there seemed to be a confounding link between the cold winter weather and the regression of the yellow fever.
Aaron Burr thought of a method to create running water throughout the city. He felt that the springs feeding the marshland of Lispenard’s Meadow could supply water of a purer quality than was found in the city’s wells and had founded The Manhattan Company to build the pipelines that would provide fresh water to the entire city.
Meanwhile, Elias Ring and his wife Catharine ran a Quaker boarding house in Manhattan. Her tenants included a young carpenter, Levi Weeks, and his apprentice, William Anderson. Also boarding there were two young women, Mrs. Ring’s sister, Hope Sands, and cousin, Elma Sands. The newest tenant was Richard Croucher, a cloth merchant.Levi worked as the lead carpenter for his architect brother, Ezra Weeks. Together, they had landed the Manhattan Company contract, building wooden pipelines to provide water for the city. They had also built some of the finest homes in the city, including the new mansion owned by the town’s most well-known resident, Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s founding fathers.
During the turn of the century, standards of evidence and secured crime scenes still had not been thoroughly developed. Investigating the death of Elma Sands was the responsibility of the City Prosecutor, Cadwallander Colden. Although here were no witnesses to Sands’ death, rumors pointed directly to Levi Weeks, and the newspapers were sure they had their man. Weeks however had many powerful friends including Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Levi knew Hamilton from building and designing Hamilton’s home. Levi’s brother, Ezra Weeks was willing to forgive the debt Hamilton owed on his home in exchange for his legal services. Aaron Burr knew the Weeks’ brothers from their work for the Manhattan company. Weeks had a third attorney as well, Brockholst Livingston, a younger attorney, well known in the city and more experienced in criminal law than Hamilton and Burr.
The court recorder, William Coleman, was an expert at shorthand, and after the trial, was permitted to publish the court transcript, as a supplement to his income. His book would become the first published transcript, the fullest record of a trial in US legal history. So, Collins has a lot to work with, and his eye for detail was astounding.
As the trial started the judge had other cases on his docket and wasn’t about to allow for recesses or breaks of any kind. Colden’s case was entirely circumstantial, which meant a lengthy parade of witnesses, each presenting another link in a narrative chain that would lead, inevitably, to only one conclusion; that Elma Sands had been murdered, and at the hand of Levi Weeks. At three o’clock in the morning of the first day of trial, Colden was still not finished, and so the court recessed. The next day grew lengthier and lengthier, as Burr, Hamilton, and Livinston tore apart the prosecutor’s case. Finally, at four in the morning of the second day of the trial, Colden was completely exhausted, along with the defense, and the jurors. Both sides were so tired they told the judge they would forego closing arguments. The jury was then released to deliberate and decide the fate of Mr. Weeks. Ten minutes later the jury returned, and their verdict was clear, “Levi Weeks was not guilty”.
It turns out that most of the evidence of Weeks’ presumed guilt came from a single source; the other boarding-house tenant, Richard Croucher. It was Croucher who had created and spread rumors about Weeks for the local papers, and Croucher whose trial testimony was proven to be a lie by Alexander Hamilton during cross-examination. Croucher, who would be convicted within a few months of the trial, of raping a thirteen-year old servant girl in a different boarding house. Croucher had motive, opportunity, and a dangerously demented past. Croucher was certainly the killer of Elma Sands.
The rest of the book is as fascinating as the trial scenes themselves. The Burr-Hamilton duel gets a chapter all its own, with the main emphasis on Hamilton’s actions of deliberately missing his one shot, as Aaron Burr shot him dead. We also get the subsequent histories of the main actors in the tale. The Elma Sands’ case was thought at the time to be crucial to the career of Cadwallander Colden but, losing it doesn’t seem to harm him at all. He became Mayor of New York and founded the city’s first scientific foundation. Brockholst Livingston eventually became a US Supreme Court Justice. Ezra Weeks built the first and finest hotels in New York and died wealthy and respected. Burr killed Hamilton, then was tried for treason, and years later, when he was able to return to New York from foreign exile, he eked out a meager living as an early practitioner of family law. Levi Weeks became restless after the trial, moving further and further west and south. Levi finally settled in Natchez Mississippi, where he found a wife, had children, and became a local architect