We all know the story of how dire political enmity between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr led to a duelling ground at Weehawken, New Jersey, where, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr’s further ambitions in politics ruined for good.
There are legends, though, that link that dreadfully final outcome of a political feud to events that took place four years earlier in a Manhattan courtroom, where a relative of a murder victim screamed out a curse that affected Hamilton, Burr, and the judge, all of whom she held responsible for the acquittal of the murderer.
To paraphrase Rodney Crowell, it’s a fairly ordinary story about the way things go: in 1799, a young woman named Gulielma (sometimes given as Juliana Elmore) Sands, living at her cousin’s boarding house in what is now Manhattan’s Soho district, became involved with another boarder, a young carpenter named Levi Weeks. Elma, as she was called in the family, was an orphan in the employ of her cousin, Catherine Ring, who ran a millinery shop in addition to the boarding house. Elma was a pretty redhead in her early twenties; Weeks, not much older, was the younger brother of a wealthy local builder. That wealth would stand him in good stead when he was accused of murdering Elma Sands.
Elma had been ailing for some weeks (most likely from morning sickness) when, in mid-December 1799, she told Cousin Catherine and Catherine’s sister, Hope Sands, that she and Levi Weeks would be getting married soon, in secret. On December 22, she left the house in Weeks’s company and was never seen alive again.
Nearby, on Spring Street, a well—quite a deep one—had just been built. People in the area would later testify that, that evening, just past eight o’clock, they heard a woman screaming “Murder!” and “Lord help me!” On Christmas Eve, a muff—that little handwarming fur accessory sometimes used instead of gloves—that Elma had borrowed from a friend before leaving the boarding house was found floating in the well. On January 2, 1800, her dead body was dredged up from that same well; she had been badly beaten before going into the water, but apparently had drowned.
Her cousins and other lodgers in the boarding house told authorities about her affair with Levi Weeks, and he was arrested within days of the recovery of Elma’s body. Local citizens–and especially local journalists–immediately painted his character in the blackest terms: a young man with family wealth and position behind him seduced a young girl who worked for her living, then callously murdered her to avoid having to keep his promise to marry her.
His wealthy brother, knowing that public opinion was already fitting his brother with a noose, spared no expense. He hired a “dream team”, the three most successful attorneys in New York at the time: Henry Brockholst Livingston, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. Despite their ongoing political feud, Hamilton and Burr pulled together in tandem to save this philandering young alleged killer.
The case—thereafter notorious as the Manhattan Well Murder—went to trial on March 31, 1800, and continued into the next day. The lead judge, on a panel of three, was John Lansing Jr., politically well-connected and wealthy; the jury was largely composed of well-to-do young men of Levi Weeks’ class, not of peers of poor Elma Sands. Despite a strong circumstantial case presented by prosecutor Calwallader David Colden, the issue was never in doubt. Hamilton, Burr and Livingston painted Elma Sands as a hussy of low morals—bypassing with breezy aplomb the fact that Levi Weeks’ morals were not irreproachable—and used Levi’s brother’s testimony that Levi had been in his company during the crucial period on December 22 to intimate that Elma’s relatives were unprincipled liars, slandering an upstanding young man, and–blithely ignoring evidence of a horrible beating–implied that she had committed suicide by jumping into the well; Judge Lansing gave ambiguous but slanted instructions to the jury that seemed to show he thought Weeks should be cut loose. On April Fool’s Day, the jury took five minutes to bring back an acquittal.
It’s said that, in the midst of the sensation afterwards, Elma Sands’ loyal cousin, Catherine Ring, stood up and pointed her finger directly at Alexander Hamilton, and cried out, “If thee dies a natural death” (Ring was a devout Quaker) “I shall think there is no justice in heaven!”
None of the defense team actually prospered thereafter, although Hamilton seems to have been the one most terribly affected by Catherine Ring’s curse. Henry Livingston went on to a fairly stable if undistinguished career, although one could argue that sixteen years as a US Supreme Court justice in the shadow of the great Chief Justice John Marshall was a dream job. If curse there was, Livingston seems to have been relatively unscathed by it.
Hamilton’s life was already beginning to fray at the edges from grief, worry, and perhaps guilt—although that last was not over Elma Sands. Imprudence had already damaged his reputation in the form of a shocking sex scandal over an alleged affair with a married woman, in which he had been blackmailed by her husband; his son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801, whereupon his daughter Angelica suffered a complete mental collapse from which she never recovered; and, two years later, he was mortally wounded in the duel with Burr, dying the following day.
Burr, despite being acquitted twice on murder charges stemming from the duel, found his political career in ruins. Trying to return to a position of power, he joined a plot to form a new nation in the recently-purchased Louisiana Territory with him as its titular head, was betrayed, and spent several years in exile in England after being acquitted of treason. He returned to the United States in 1812, but at the end of that year suffered the most devastating loss of his life when his beloved only child, Theodosia Burr Alston, vanished at sea while sailing to visit him in New York. At the age of seventy-six, he married a wealthy piece of work named Eliza Jumel; she divorced him a year later on grounds of adultery—his adultery—and he died shortly thereafter.
Judge Lansing’s life ended with a mystery. On December 12, 1829—ten days short of thirty years since the night Elma Sands left the boardinghouse with Levi Weeks, never to be seen again–, he left his home to post a letter. He never returned, and no trace of him was ever found. In the 1880s, a memoir by a politician and author named Thurlow Weed indicated that Lansing had been kidnapped and murdered by corrupt rivals over a development deal; unfortunately, with no evidence to prove Weed’s assertions, authorities were unable to solve the case. Today—thanks to the disappearance of another judge a century later named Joseph F. Crater—Lansing’s strange end has been virtually forgotten.
In the wake of his acquittal, with public opinion still against him, Levi Weeks fled Manhattan. He eventually fetched up in Natchez, Mississippi, where he became a successful architect and builder, married, fathered four children, and died at the relatively young age of forty-three.
Catherine Ring’s curse seems to have fallen hardest on Hamilton. And even though the men who represented and judged her accused killer came to unsavory and baffling ends, Elma Sands seems to have gotten no satisfaction from the downfalls her cousin called down upon them. She still haunts the area where the long-since filled well once held her remains, a pretty redhead in torn, wet eighteenth century clothing, with great sad eyes and a bruised face.
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