A Few Things You Didn't Know About Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and America's Oldest Cold Case
- Manhattan's municipal water system had just debuted when the body of Elma Sands was found in one of its wells in 1800. Now in modern-day SoHo, back then the area was part of "Lispenard's Meadow"—and Greenwich Village really was still a village.
- Aaron Burr created NYC's water service as cover for a banking scheme that would turn the 1800 election against Alexander Hamilton. Their rivalry had high stakes: Manhattan was the swing district of the presidential election's swing state.
- Not only did the plan work, Burr's bank ploy took on a life of its own; his Manhattan Company eventually became Chase Manhattan.
- Hamilton and Burr were also the city's top lawyers, but served together on just one murder case: in defending carpenter Levi Weeks for the murder of Elma Sands. The trial attracted thousands of spectators, and was the nation's first fully recorded murder case.
- Hamilton's first outing as a criminal defense lawyer was less auspicious. He defended a client charged with dueling—and lost.
- Defendants in capital cases were rarely allowed to speak in their own behalf; they were considered hopelessly biased. They had good reason to be: conviction for murder earned a sentence of hanging and dissection.
- The murder trial of Levi Weeks was the longest NYC had ever known; its jury had to be put up for the night in City Hall. Afterwards, both Hamilton and Burr claimed to be the one who figured out the real murderer.
- Now in the basement of the Il Pozzo restaurant at 129 Spring Street, the infamous Manhattan Well is one of the oldest surviving unsolved crime scenes in the city.
Set in New York City in 1800, the murder case that Collins re-creates began with the discovery of a young woman’s body in a well. It was a politically connected well, owned by a company controlled by Aaron Burr. The accused in the killing had his own influential connection––to Alexander Hamilton––through a brother who built houses for the city’s elite. So, strangely, those Revolutionary War heroes, intense political rivals, and future duelists became the defense lawyers for Levi Weeks. Resident of a boardinghouse in which victim Elma Sands also lived, Weeks at trial faced a circumstantial case. With no eyewitnesses to the murder to confront, Burr and Hamilton pounced on weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, and the jury returned an acquittal. Derived from what Collins reports is one of the first trial transcripts in American legal history, this tautly constructed narrative, infused with period atmosphere, holds the reader’s attention on the fate of the participants, including the well, which still exists. Collins (The Murder of the Century, 2011) delivers fine true-crime verisimilitude. --Gilbert Taylor