Revisiting the First 'Trial of the Century,' More Than 215 Years Later
Like calling any up-and-coming actor who lands a plum role “The Next Big Thing,” assigning the “Trial of the Century” moniker to any legal proceeding that gains even a tiny bit of national or international attention has become almost rote (see: Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorius, and/or Jodi Arias). Many people point to the 1907 trial of Harry K. Thaw, who was tried for the murder of famed architect Stanford White, as the first recorded use of the phrase. But the real first “Trial of the Century” happened more than 100 years earlier, when frenemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend Levi Weeks—a well-to-do young man accused of murdering his girlfriend—while the whole world looked on.
On the evening of December 22, 1799, Gulielma Sands—a young Quaker woman known as Elma to her friends and family—left the West Village boarding house where she was staying and never returned. Several days later, an earmuff that Sands had been wearing on the night she disappeared was discovered floating in the Manhattan Well, at the intersection of Greene and Spring Streets (the well is still there and, while not open to the public, is occasionally available to take a peek at on request). Shortly thereafter, the well was probed, and on January 2, 1800, Sands’s body was discovered at the bottom of the well.
Immediately, all eyes turned toward Levi Weeks, a fellow resident at Sands’s boarding house—and her alleged paramour. In fact, Sands confided to her cousin, Hope (another boarding house resident), that she and Weeks had planned to marry. For his part, Weeks denied that any such romance existed.
Weeks had another thing going for him: His brother, Ezra, was one of the most prominent builders of the time, and he used his connections to gather the best defense team around. And what a team it was: Individually, Henry Brockholst Livingston (a future Supreme Court Justice), Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton were three of New York City’s top attorneys. Together, they became the first legal “dream team.”
Coupling the salacious nature of the crime (rumors swirled that Sands was pregnant, which was not true) and its extreme violence (it was confirmed that Sands’s neck was broken before she was thrown into the well) with the many prominent people who were involved in its proceedings, the public’s interest in the trial was piqued, and it became the first transcribed trial in the history of the United States. (You can read the full transcription of it [PDF].)
The trial itself commenced more than 215 years ago, on March 31, 1800, and it didn’t take long for Weeks’s team to prove exactly why they were considered three of the most brilliant legal minds of the time. (It also helped that Hamilton and Burr, while not the closest of friends, were actually on speaking terms.)
Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader D. Colden (who would become New York City’s 54th mayor 18 years later) spoke first on behalf of the prosecution, acknowledging his formidable competition in his opening statement:
"In a cause which appears so greatly to have excited the public mind, in which the prisoner has thought it necessary for his defense, to employ so many advocates distinguished for their eloquence and abilities, so vastly my superior in learning, experience and professional rank; it is not wonderful that I should rise to address you under the weight of embarrassments which set circumstances actually excite."
Aaron Burr gave the opening statement for the defense’s side, and didn’t shy away from playing up the superlatives that Colden had already sent his team’s way. “The patience which you have listened to this lengthy and tedious detail of testimony is honorable to your characters,” Burr told the courtroom. “It evinces your solicitude to discharge the awful duties which are imposed upon you and it affords a happy presage, that your minds are not infected by that blind and indiscriminating prejudice which had already marked the prisoner for its victim. You have relieved me from my greatest anxiety, for I know the unexampled industry that has been exerted to destroy the reputation of the accused, and to immolate him at the shrine of persecution without the solemnity of a candid and impartial trial. I know that hatred, revenge and cruelty, all their vindictive and ferocious passions have assembled in terrible array and exerted every engine to gratify their malice.”
The prosecution was clearly outmatched, both in their oratory powers to sway the jury and in their stockpile of actual evidence against Weeks, which was largely circumstantial. The trial lasted two days, back in a time when cases rarely took longer than one—the jury slept at City Hall—finally concluding at 2:25 a.m. on April 2. Exhausted, the prosecution asked for an adjournment before presenting closing arguments, which the judge denied, deeming them unnecessary. Before sending the jury in to deliberate, the judge noted that “the court were unanimously of the opinion that the proof was insufficient to warrant a verdict against [Weeks] and that with this general charge they committed the prisoner’s case to their consideration.”
It took the jury just five minutes to come back with their verdict: not guilty. Levi Weeks exited the courtroom as a free man.
Four years later, one member of Weeks’ dream team would be dead at the hands of another member when Burr shot Hamilton during their infamous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.