The many ways our lives intersect others are a large part of what shapes our fate and that of our nation. We are one people, but millions of lives, each with our own interests to protect and reputations to uphold. When those reputations are hurt and interests clash, lives can intersect in the darkest of ways.
This is the Forgotten History of A Deadly Destiny.
Ezra Weeks was one of New York City’s most prominent citizens; a high-profile architect and builder whose wealth and fame were matched only by his power and connections. He was the quintessential man about town and the polar opposite of his brother Levi.
The younger Weeks was a carpenter by trade, a simple man who had neither wealth nor power. In late 1799, while Ezra lived in a mansion, Levi was staying in a boarding house uptown. He didn’t mind, though. His brother always took care of him with jobs and money, and Levi loved the excitement of meeting new boarders…especially the young women.
One of them, a beautiful 22-year-old named Elma Sands who had just moved to New York, quickly caught his eye. He was in love, and the two began courting in secret. Fellow boarders regularly found the two in various states of undress, and to avoid the deep stigma of a premarital sexual relationship, they decided to elope.
On the evening of December 22, 1799, they were going to run away to get married. Levi left the boarding house in the early evening, while Elma followed a short time later. She was never seen again.
A few days later, pieces of her clothing were found near the Manhattan Well. A week later, the well was searched, and Elma’s body was recovered. Levi denied that he had anything to do with her death; in fact, he denied that they were even engaged or to be married the very night Elma disappeared.
Elma’s cousins, who owned the boarding house where the couple lived, didn’t buy it. They were convinced that Levi had killed Elma to get out of marrying her and hid her body in the well, and they told this to any newspaper reporter they could find.
Suddenly, the death of Elma Sands was all New York City could talk about. Ezra Weeks, recognizing that his younger brother was being judged guilty in the court of public opinion before he would ever face trial, used his wealth and connections to hire the two best attorneys in the city. They were brilliant, but neither had much experience in criminal law, so Ezra brought in Henry Brockholst Livingston, who would six years later become a US Supreme Court Justice.
The upcoming trial was a sensation. The Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, John Lansing, Jr., would preside and Cadwallader David Colden—a future Congressman and New York City mayor—served as prosecuting attorney.
New York City Hall, where just a few years earlier George Washington had given his first inaugural address, was packed as it seemed the entire city wanted to see if Levi Weeks’ legal dream team could beat what seemed like a slam-dunk case. This would be the trial of the new century.
It lasted two days—then an eternity—with 75 witnesses testifying from early in the morning until well after midnight. The prosecution was stronger, but the defense was stronger. The two brilliant attorneys, aided by Brockholst Livingston, systematically dismantled the prosecution’s theory. Levi Weeks wasn’t at the boarding house on the night Elma disappeared; he was at his brother’s house. Her body didn’t have any trauma associated with a homicide. They concluded that Elma was despondent that Levi wouldn’t marry her and took her own life by jumping into the well.
The two defense attorneys were impeccable—a dream team in every sense of the phrase —and it took the jury just five minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. It was a stunning end to what was not only the trial of the century, but also the very first documented murder trial in the United States of America.
History was made when the lives of Levi Weeks and Elma Sands intersected, but perhaps not as much as when the lives of Levi’s two brilliant attorneys came together at the defense table. Their lives had a habit of intersecting…and clashing. Although they had worked so well together to acquit Levi Weeks, for years they had been bitter personal and political enemies.
Four years after the trial, their destinies became forever linked on a dueling ground just across the river from New York, when one of Levi Weeks’ brilliant attorneys, Aaron Burr, shot and killed the other, Alexander Hamilton.