Just three days before Christmas in 1799, a young woman named Giulielma “Elma” Sands disappears from her boarding house in Greenwich Village, New York. Police find Elma’s body at the bottom of a well and arrest her lover for the crime.
In a fledgling United States, the trial to follow is highly-sensationalized by newspapers and earns the distinction as the country’s first transcribed murder trial. The alleged murderer pays three prominent defense lawyers to represent him, becoming the first criminal defendant to have legal counsel, a right that was previously denied.
Not only did the alleged murderer have a three-lawyer strong team, its members were none other than Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Brockholst Livingston.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie discuss what New York City papers in 1800 called the “Manhattan Well Murder.”
The sounds of a family happily celebrating Christmas contrast against a worried conversation between Margaret Clark, Catherine Ring and Richard Croucher, who have not seen Elma in three days.
Just six months before her disappearance, Elma meets Levi Weeks, a new tenant at the boarding house in which she lives. Levi, trying to impress her, mentions that his brother Ezra is the biggest developer in the city. A notorious flirt, Levi smooth talks other single boarders Margaret Clark and Elma’s cousin Hope, but it’s Elma who reciprocates.
Levi spends his nights in Elma’s room, which they fail to keep a secret. Elma tells Hope that she and Levi plan to elope. The night they are to marry, Catherine sees Elma wearing an exceptionally pretty dress and thinks she hears her leave. She assumes Levi is with her.
Levi returns to the boarding house without Elma. Catherine asks where she is and finds Levi’s responses suspicious when he tells her they did not go out together. Later at trial, witnesses say they saw Elma in a one-horse sleigh with two men, presumably Levi and Ezra.
Eleven days after Elma’s disappearance, two local boys find her fur muff in a well while playing. The police are summoned to investigate, and they find her body at the bottom.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show host Wenndy is quick to name Levi Weeks as the killer, but Carter cautions her to wait for the facts.
The coroner determines drowning as the cause of death, but also tells the prosecutor, Cadwallader D. Colden, that the marks on her neck are consistent with strangulation. After hearing all the evidence for the case, the jury rules that Elma’s death a murder and indicts Levi for the crime.
Before the funeral, Elma’s body is put on display at the boarding house and thousands come out to pay their respects. Local newspapers report that she was supposed to marry Levi the night she disappeared, and Richard Croucher spreads rumors that Levi killed her.
Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Brockholst Livingston take on Levi’s defense and face the challenge of a jury pool contaminated by negative pre-trial publicity. Prior to the trial, both Hamilton and Burr contracted Ezra Weeks for their building projects, a fact that may have motivated them to take Levi’s case.
At the trial, Richard Croucher, a fellow resident at the boarding house, provides examples of the times he observed Levi and Elma’s sexually intimate relationship. Hope testifies, as well, and tells the court about the lovers’ elopement plans.
One-by-one, witnesses are called to the stand for cross-examination. Some claim to have seen Elma with two men. Others say they heard her cries for help.
During questioning, Burr attacks Elma’s reputation. A witness named Joseph tells the jury that he saw many different men enter her room at night, including Catherine’s husband Elias, who could have just as easily killed her. Also in favor of the defense, a medical “expert” says that Elma committed suicide. Next, Ezra Weeks provides an alibi for his brother, and another witness testifies that Elma killed herself after finding out Levi turned his affections to Hope.
When Hamilton questions Richard, he dramatically accuses the witness of murdering the victim out of jealousy.
Before the jury leaves to deliberate, the judge tells them that the prosecution presented a weak case. Five minutes later, they come back into the courtroom with a non-guilty verdict for the defendant.
Wenndy and much of 1800s New York society, however, think differently. Post-trial, Levi Weeks is still labeled as a murderer. Ezra’s attempt to buy the court transcript for $1,500 fails, and Levi moves to the deep south to escape his ruined reputation.
Carter, finding reasonable doubt to Levi’s guilt, names Richard Croucher as another viable suspect. He reveals that after the trial, Richard Croucher fled to England after being convicted for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. There he met his end – executed for committing a terrible, but unknown, crime.
It’s hard to say who really murdered Elma Sands – but if you have thoughts about the trial please share them with us on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
New episodes of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories will resume January 3rd.