When most people think of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, they think of the famous duel that ended in Hamilton's death. But very few people know the duel's extraordinary backstory. In the Unknown History podcast, Giles Milton recounts this tale, ripe with money, fame, and a decomposing human corpse.
It all began in January 1800 when a body was found lying at the bottom of Manhattan well — the body of an attractive young woman. It was badly bruised, particularly on the forehead and breast, as if someone had gripped her by the throat before throwing her down the well. It didn’t take long to identify the corpse: It was Elma Sands, who’d recently confessed to a friend that she was about to be secretly married to her lover, Levi Weeks. The autopsy revealed that she was pregnant.
The suspicion immediately fell on Levi Weeks. He seemed 100% guilty—surely, he killed her and tipped her down the well.
Well, what did he do? He did what any desperate suspect might do: He hired the best legal team available in New York at the time. Money was no problem; his brother Ezra was rich and well-connected, and he paid for the city’s most prominent attorneys, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, to defend young Levi, along with a third lawyer, Henry Brockholst Livingston. It was an extraordinary moment in legal history: Hamilton and Burr were to work together on the first recorded murder trial in the United States.
“Levi Weeks,” they contended, “is a young man of reputable connections and for ought we know, ‘till he was charged with this crime, of irreproachable character — nay, of amiable and engaging manners. How could such a man,” they argued, “strangle his pregnant lover and throw her down a well?”
What followed was an extraordinary cross-examination of numerous witnesses—75 in total—including the accused’s brother, Ezra. He gave a crucial testimony swearing that Levi was with him at the time of the murder. What was never mentioned at the trial was the fact that Ezra Weeks was well-known to both Hamilton and Burr. He’d supervised the building of Hamilton’s Convent Avenue estate. He’d also done business with The Manhattan Company, founded by Aaron Burr. And The Manhattan Company owned the well in which the body of poor Elma Sands was found.
Hamilton and Burr insisted to the court that Levi Weeks was innocent. They reasoned that it would be better for five guilty persons to escape punishment than for one innocent person to die.
The jury deliberated for five minutes before agreeing with Hamilton and Burr, and acquitting Levi Weeks of the crime. He walked away a free man, and eventually moved to Mississippi, where he amassed a fortune.
But what happened to Hamilton next?
To find out, listen to our new podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify (search the mobile app). Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.