The Manhattan Well Murder - People v. Levi Weeks

The Manhattan Well Murder - People v. Levi Weeks

Yesterday we spoke about several of the court cases which made Henry Brockholst Livingston’s career.

Today, let’s dive deeper into one of these suits: the murder of Elma Sands.

Levi Weeks, the accused, was defended by some of the biggest names in the American Founding and the trial is the first in US history to be officially recorded.

Elma Sands

Gulielma Sands was a pretty young woman in New York City at the turn of the 19th century.

Better known as Elma (probably because her name is extremely difficult to pronounce), she had long been courted by a young suitor named Levi Weeks.

On the night of December 22, 1799 she told her cousin she was to be wed in secret and left the house cheerfully.

She never returned.

The Discovery

Two weeks later, some of Elma’s belongings were found.

Authorities discovered the worst...her lifeless body was soon removed from a nearby well.

Murder was the word on everyone’s mind and it quickly made news throughout the city.

A suspect was chosen almost immediately...Levi Weeks.

Levi Weeks

Levi was a 24-year-old carpenter who worked for his successful brother, Ezra, on some of the finest mansions in New York City.

He was able to assemble an impressive team of three lawyers for his defense: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston.

Keep in mind, this was just 4 years before Hamilton and Burr exchanged fire on the dueling ground. Though there was surely a bit of tension, things were yet to boil over and the men were civil. 

In fact, these were three of the finest lawyers in the city and they made an outstanding team.

The Trial

The People v. Levi Weeks was spoken about constantly in the papers. It was the major point of gossip throughout New York City.

When the trial began, the prosecution was driven by Cadwallader David Colden and overseen by Chief Justice John Lansing.

Both sides called witnesses, with the defense relying on Ezra Weeks and several of Levi’s friends who all acknowledged being in his company on the night in question.

Lansing informed the jury that all of the evidence was circumstantial before they deliberated.

After just five minutes, the verdict came back...not guilty.


The murder of Elma Sands was never solved.

The general public, however, had made their decision. Levi Weeks was convicted in the court of public opinion.

The judgement became so bad that Weeks decided to leave town. He moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he established himself as one of the most important architects of the Southwest. Perhaps most notable of his structures was the Auburn Mansion (pictured above) which is currently on the list of National Historic Landmarks.

More mysterious murders during the Founding?

OK, here you go:

John Adam Treutlen - From Indentured Servant to Governor

David Ramsay - American History’s First American Historian

Bureaucracy Ruins Meriwether Lewis

I wasn’t sure what to recommend with this article, so I decided on a piece of fiction.

‘Tim Curious’ is a murder mystery set in New York City during the Revolution. If you’re looking for something different and fun this might be the book for you.

If you’d like a copy you can get one through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).

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