"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Woman in the Well

It's fairly rare that a murder is remembered not for the victim or the accused perpetrator, but for the people involved in the subsequent court trial. Such was the odd fate of the young man and woman at the center of what has often been called America's first great murder.

Our story opens in the New York City home of a Quaker couple, Elias and Catherine Ring. The Rings lived with several boarders, among whom was a cousin, 22-year-old Gulielma "Elma" Sands. Elma was a very pretty girl, who naturally was the center of some interest among the eligible male members of the household. It appeared that the most fortunate of her admirers was a talented, promising young carpenter named Levi Weeks. For some weeks past, everyone under the Ring roof had followed Weeks' courtship of the girl with the greatest attention, (the pair may have entered into a sexual relationship,) and on December 22, 1799, it appeared that the couple would make their union a lifetime one. Mrs. Ring later asserted that Elma had confided to her and another cousin, Hope Sands, that later in the day, she and Weeks were going out to be married. Both ladies professed to being highly pleased at the news.

Around 8 o'clock that night, Mrs. Ring heard Elma leave the house. Catherine had previously heard Elma talking with Weeks, and she assumed the lovers had exited together, but--unfortunately for subsequent developments--she did not know this for sure.

Two hours later, Weeks entered the Ring house, looking notably upset. He asked to see Elma. His state of mind was not improved by the news that she was out. He denied having left the house with her. He also denied that he and Elma planned to marry. Weeks' employer was his older brother Ezra, a prominent architect. Levi pointed out that as Ezra's apprentice, he would need his brother's permission to wed. When by the next morning, the girl was still missing, her relatives began to make inquiries, but no one professed to have the least idea where she was.

Even today, it can be difficult to get the authorities interested in missing persons, but in 18th century New York it seemed to be damned near impossible. Even after Elma's muff was found in a well in Lispenard's Meadows, a lonely, dismal-looking patch of swampland near the Ring home, no particular alarms were raised. The disappearance of Elma Sands was completely upstaged by George Washington's funeral.

The mystery of Elma's whereabouts was solved on January 2, 1800, when someone finally had the bright idea to search that well. Elma's body was found lying on the bottom. Her neck appeared to have been broken, and there were bruises around her neck, suggesting she had been strangled. In a peculiarly grim touch, the corpse was put on public display for an entire day. You probably will be sadly unsurprised to learn that it attracted huge crowds.

When a woman dies under conditions pointing to foul play, her lover or husband is usually--and often correctly--the first to come under suspicion. Such was the case here. Before he knew what had happened, Levi Weeks found himself standing trial for murder. The popular opinion was that he had changed his mind about marrying his sweetheart, and could not think of any better way to break his engagement than by murdering the girl.

Fortunately for Weeks, his older brother Ezra had the money and connections to buy him the most illustrious lawyers in the land. Among Weeks' counsel were future Supreme Court Justice Brockhurst Livingstone, ex-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and future Vice President (and, of course, future shooter of Hamilton) Aaron Burr. (Hamilton and Burr owed Ezra Weeks money, so they agreed to work free of charge.) Even O.J. Simpson never had a Dream Team like this. (A curious side note: Burr was the founder of the Manhattan Company, who owned the well where Elma's body was found.)

The case was a sensation unprecedented in America's brief history. Aside from the public interest in the murder mystery, the trial made criminal history as well. The young republic had yet to build up any history of case law, (as Burr put it, "The law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained,") meaning that Weeks' trial set a number of legal precedents. It was also the first American murder trial for which there is a formal transcript.



Justice may not always have been fair in those days, but it was certainly swift. Weeks' trial opened on the morning of Monday, March 31, 1800, and lasted until 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday. The only recess was between 1:30 and 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Small wonder that at one point, the prosecuting attorney complained that he had been without "repose" for 44 hours and was "sinking" from exhaustion.

The prosecution's case was remarkably weak, based more on conjecture than hard facts. No one definitely saw the defendant with Elma Sands on the night she disappeared, either in or out of the Ring house. Witnesses reported seeing a woman and two men riding on a sleigh in the general direction of Lispenard's Meadows. Was that woman Elma, Weeks, and some unknown party to her murder? No one could say for sure. An "aged and very infirm" woman named Susanna Broad testified seing a sleigh come out of the yard of Weeks's brother on that fatal night. Others claimed to have heard a woman screaming for help in the general vicinity of the well.

The defense managed to make short work of these witnesses. Under cross-examination, Mrs. Broad--who appears to have been noticably confused mentally--admitted that she could have seen that sleigh on any night in the days before and after Christmas. Demas Meed, who took care of Ezra Weeks' horse and sleigh, testified that they had not been used on the night in question. It was pointed out that Weeks had had a reputation as an amiable man of good character. The medical testimony could not agree if the injuries found on Sands' body were the result of an attack or simply from falling into the well. In short, no one could say with any certainty that Elma had been murdered at all.

This confusion over the medical evidence made it easy for the defense to assert that the unfortunate girl had committed suicide. Although the Rings described Elma has being in good spirits on December 22, other witnesses declared that Sands was prone to deep fits of depression and had spoken before of killing herself. It was even claimed that she was a young woman of "loose moral character" who had slept with Elias Ring--and probably other men--before becoming involved with Weeks. The defense painted a picture of a neurotic, unstable girl who, fearing that Weeks would jilt her, decided to end it all by throwing herself into a well. Plus, Weeks had an alibi: he stated that on the night Elma vanished, he had been at his brother's house discussing upcoming building work--a story confirmed by others who had been at this meeting.

Although public opinion remained stubbornly against the defendant, the paucity of evidence meant the jury had little choice but to find Weeks "not guilty." However, his reputation in New York was so irremediably tarnished that he soon left town. After unsuccessful attempts to live down his notoriety in several cities, he finally settled in Natchez, Mississippi, where he had a highly stellar career as an architect. To this day, every April 21 in Natchez is "Levi Weeks Day" in honor of his contributions to the city. He died in 1819, aged only 43.

The enigmatic nature of Elma Sands' death has insured that Levi Weeks has never been truly exonerated. However, if the girl was indeed murdered, there was another obvious suspect: another Ring boarder, Richard Croucher.

Croucher had shown a romantic interest in Elma, and apparently deeply resented his more favored rival. He had quarreled with Weeks about Elma, and was known to have spread damaging gossip about the young carpenter. After Weeks was arrested, Croucher published handbills asserting Weeks' guilt, with lurid stories about Sands' unavenged ghost haunting the area around the well. It was also said that Croucher had been seen around the well on the night Elma disappeared. Most damning of all is the fact that around the time Weeks stood trial, Croucher himself was brought before a criminal court. A 13-year-old named Margaret Miller charged him with rape. He was convicted of the offense and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, Croucher was eventually pardoned. It was said that after committing a fraud in Virginia, he fled back to his native England, where he was eventually hanged "for a heinous crime" (likely, another sexual assault.)

In later years, Burr's biographer James Parton recorded what would go on to become the most famous story regarding the Sands case. It was said that during Weeks' trial, Burr suddenly used a candle to cast a diabolical-looking light on the face of Croucher. "Gentlemen!" Burr intoned dramatically, "behold the murderer!"



An excellent anecdote, but--like most excellent anecdotes--one that historians believe never took place. The judicial riddle was not to be wrapped up that neatly. From what we know of Croucher, he certainly sounded like a plausible candidate for a jealousy-fueled murderer, but, sadly, the strange death of Gulielma Sands is fated to remain a mystery.

[Note: The well where Sands' body was found still exists. It sits under an alley alongside a building on Greene Street. Unsurprisingly, it has the reputation of still being haunted by the ghost of one very unfortunate young woman.]

3 comments:

  1. Very interesting. At least the trial ended as it should have: with such flimsy evidence, Weeks was rightly aquitted. I wonder why Croucher was pardoned?

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    1. He was pardoned after only 3 years on the condition that he immediately leave the country. I take it this was a not-uncommon way of dealing with bad apples in those days--a bit like the old punishment of "transportation."

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  2. More weird stuff about the Founding Fathers that I never learned in school.

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