By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
In 1799, a young woman named Gulielma "Elma" Sands was killed. Her reputation was shredded during her murder trial, however no one was ever punished for the deed. Most of those surrounding the incident, who perhaps cheated her of justice, suffered a series of misfortunes in the years that followed.
Aaron Burr came from a well connected family. His father co-founded Princeton.
During the Revolutionary War he achieved the rank of major. He met his future wife Theodosia Prevost when she opened the doors to her home in New Jersey to officers from the Continental Army. She was married then, and had five children. She was ten years older than Burr, however they fell in love. When her husband, a British officer, died of yellow fever they married in 1783. She gave birth to four children with Aaron Burr, however only one survived, this was a daughter named Theodosia. Burr's wife died in 1794, at the age of 48.
Burr returned to practicing law after he left the army. One of his associates was Alexander Hamilton.
All was well, until...
The Manhattan Company Well Murder
The Manhattan Company supplied New York City with water. The company was owned by Aaron Burr. Among the wells sunk by the company was one on Laurens Street (later renamed to South Fifth Avenue). It stood in an open field.
A resident who lived closed by was Mr. Elias Ring, a Quaker and well-to-do merchant who lived with his family in a mansion at 372 Pearl Street. The place was known as the Ring Boarding House. He lived there with his wife Catherine, two orphaned nieces, one of them named Hope, the other Gulielma "Elma" Sands (AKA Julianna Gilmore Sands, Juliana Elmore Sands).
Elma fell in love with Levi Hinckley Weeks (Weekes) who was a boarder at her uncle's home.
On December 22, 1799, she told her aunt Catherine and sister, Hope, that she was leaving with Levi Weeks in order to get married. Her relatives were not surprised since they suspected a romance between the two young people. They approved of the match since Levi was a carpenter, and his brother was a well-to-do builder.
Later that night, Levi Weeks returned to the home, asking where Elma was. Mrs. Ring was surprised because she understood that her niece had left with him.
He swore he left Elma standing in the hallway, and had gone out to pick up the sleigh at his brother's house. By morning search parties went out to find Elma. A few days later by a well, they found a muff she had borrowed from a neighbor.
On January 2, 1800, eleven days after her disappearance, her uncle dragged the well and brought up the girl's body. Her dress was torn above the waist, and her shawl and shoes were missing.
On January 6, the coroner's jury was assembled and gave a verdict of murder by some person or persons unknown. Public opinion was that Weeks was the killer.
By January 10, he was arrested on suspicion and he was arraigned. He pled not guilty. His brother Ezra Weeks, a prominent contractor, who helped to construct the new waterworks stretching from Lispenard’s Meadow into the city, was determined to get him acquitted.
The trial took place on March 31, 1800 in Federal Hall. The lawyers defending Levi Weeks was Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Brockholst Livingston. The reason Weeks got some of the most prominent attorneys to represent his brother, is that Burr and Hamilton were indebted to Ezra Weeks, and worked on the case for free. Brockholst who had plans in politics, feared he would lose a chance for recognition.
Ironically while collaborating on this case, Hamilton in private correspondence was writing bitter things against Burr. He was convinced that Burr was a dangerous man to society and to the country.
Livingston would go on to become a New York Supreme Court Judge. He survived an assassination attempt in 1785, and killed a man named James Jones in a duel in 1798.
The People v. Levi Weeks case was spoken about constantly in the papers. It was the major point of gossip throughout New York City.
Handbills appeared about a ghost being seen at Lispenard's Meadow where the well was located. The spirit being the shade of Elma Sands, wet and pale, asking for her death to be avenged.
Another rumor that swirled during the drama of the trial and afterward, was that one of the associate counsel for the defense, known as a "flagrant libertine" had been intimate with Elma Sands, and had his own personal reason for securing Weeks' release.
The prosecutor, Cadwallader D. Colden who would go on to become Mayor of New York, took the floor to establish a motive for the alleged crime. He called on witness after witness to testify that Levi and Elma were not only courting but, as was generally believed, headed toward marriage.
Testimony was taken from those who lived in the household to confirm the girl was in good spirits, thus ending speculation that she took her life.
Others testified that Weeks used his brother's sleigh on the evening when the murder was committed. Others said they heard screams of "murder, help!' near the area of the well around 9 o'clock that evening.
Elma's corpse was found to have bruises and wounds about her head. A doctor found her collar bone was dislocated. She also had marks on her neck "as if they had been produced by violent pressure". The doctor commented he didn't think it was possible she could have inflicted this on herself.
Aaron Burr during the opening spoke badly of the dead girl and praised the defendant. The defense attorneys also called in several witnesses that established the poor character of Elma Sands, and that she was often melancholy and had more than once talked of ending her life.
They had doctors testify that the girl had drowned, and the bruising might have arisen after being in the water many days. They also confirmed she was not pregnant.
The defense team also cast doubt on Elias Ring's testimony that he had heard passionate noises coming from Elma's room, which adjoined his bedchamber. The attorneys brought in a blacksmith that shared a wall with the boardinghouse, and this man said he overheard carnal encounters taking place in Elma's room, and he swore it was Elias Ring's voice himself. He assumed Ring was having a tryst with Elma while his wife was away during a Yellow Fever outbreak in the summer of 1799. The blacksmith said that he commented to his wife that Ring had ruined the girl.
Joseph Watkins, a boarder in the room adjacent to Sands, testified that her uncle, Elias Ring, entered and exited her bedroom at all hours of the night, again during those days his wife Catherine was away from the house.
There was contradictory testimony as to whether Elma was ever seen in the sleigh with Ezra Weeks.
Different rumors swirled as to Elma's condition; whether she was happy or melancholy; was she pregnant or not. Either being perhaps a reason why she would have been murdered by Weeks, or why she would have done away with herself.
Another incident was when Burr or Hamilton (the story differs as to who did it) was said to have suddenly moved two candelabras which threw a light on the face of a boarder at the house, so as to give him from where the jury sat, a ghastly and livid look. He was a salesman named Richard D. Croucher who had a devilish aspect to his countenance, and had smeared Levi’s character in no uncertain terms, insinuating that he had even happened upon Elma and him in flagrante delicto.
During the trial several witnesses declared they saw Levi spend the evening from 8 to 10 p.m. at his brother's house. The evidence that he borrowed the sleigh was weak, and on the third day the counsel suddenly closed the case without any address to the jury from either side.
Judge John Ten Eyck Lansing somewhat annoyed at not having time to review the testimony, instructed the jury that there was not sufficient evidence to justify them bringing in a verdict of guilty.
The jury retired and brought in a verdict of not guilty in less than 10 minutes.
It was reported in the newspapers that Catherine Ring who was Elma's aunt said to Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr at the rendering of the verdict, "if thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in God."
There was no other investigation into who killed Elma Sands and threw her into a well. The defense team kept insisting that Elma had committed suicide, so the search for her killer would be moot if she died by her own hand. However she wouldn't be the first victim who was relegated to being a suicide, when in truth she was the victim of a murderer.
However it wouldn't be long before those who left her unavenged were visited by misfortune.
On November 23, 1801, a year after Week's acquittal, Philip Hamilton, 19, met a young lawyer named George I. Eacker who he had challenged to a duel. A single bullet entered his body, and he never got a shot off. He was carried to his parent's home where he died the following day. He was said to have been Hamilton's favorite child. In 1802, Hamilton and his wife Betsey welcomed an eighth child, which they named Philip in memory of his dead brother.
It was said that Hamilton never overcame the sorrow of losing his son.
For Aaron Burr life was quite the opposite of Hamilton. A few months earlier, Burr's daughter Theodosia married Joseph Alston, who would go on to become Governor of South Carolina. Burr was sworn in as Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, Burr's first grandson named Aaron Burr Alston was born.
In the coming years, Theodosia claimed she had a hard time adjusting to the isolated life of a plantation mistress at The Oaks, the Alston family estate on the Waccamaw River in South Carolina, and was soon spending half the year in New York with her father.
The problems between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton developed through their bids to different political offices. The last incident was when Burr ran for the governorship of New York and lost. He blamed Hamilton and challenged him to a duel.
Unofficially rumors swirled as to the cause of the duel. Aaron had been incensed by a comment Hamilton had made about “still more despicable” acts. Some thought Hamilton may have been referring to Aaron and Theodosia’s (his daughter) “morbid affection” for each other, which had led to whispers of incest.
Burr and Hamilton agreed to meet in New Jersey on the morning of July 11, 1804 in a spot frequented to settle arguments with a duel. Hamilton's own son had been killed at this very spot three years before.
When the duel took place, Burr was widowed and his daughter was married. Hamilton was the head of a large family which depended solely on his earnings. Both men, though owning a large of amount of land, were deeply in debt.
Even though they had met to fight a duel, when Burr killed Hamilton, the public was outraged. An indictment were issued against Burr but the case never reached trial. He finished serving his term as Vice President.
Then he headed west to establish a new country comprised of the Louisiana Purchase and Mexico. Conspiring with James Wilkinson, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army and Governor of the Northern Louisiana Territory, Burr hatched a plot to conquer some of Louisiana and maybe even Mexico and crown himself emperor.
In 1807, he was accused of treason. Burr snuck out of Natchez, but was found and arrested in Alabama. The trial took place in Richmond, Virginia and he was found not guilty.
With the help of Theodosia he smuggled himself out of the country and headed for Europe. His political career was ruined.
Levi Weeks was 24 when he was accused of the murder of Elma Sands. Even though he was acquitted he was ostracized by the citizens of the city, their hostility forced him to leave New York. He began to look for work in other places in 1805, making stops in Ohio and Kentucky before settling in Natchez. He married Anne Greenleaf on January 17, 1813.
He was successful as an architect and builder. He died in 1819 when he was only 43 years old.
JUDGE JOHN LANSING
On the evening of December 12, 1829, Chief Justice John Lansing who'd presided over the Weeks trial, left the City Hotel bound for Albany to post an important letter, which would be carried by a steamboat which lay at the foot of Cedar Street. He vanished without a trace.
His disappearance was never explained. Some insisted he hanged himself in the garret of the City Hall and that his friends buried him secretly; others said he fell into the slip and was drowned. Many years later, a memoir of the newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed suggested that Lansing was murdered by political opponents.
THEODOSIA BURR ALSTON
With her father fleeing to Europe in a self-imposed exile, Theodosia's health which was never good, deteriorated. It's believed she was suffering from uterine cancer. The trauma of the birth of her first and only child made it difficult to have intercourse, and there were no other children.
In June, 1812, Burr's beloved grandson, nicknamed Gampy died of malaria. Amid the sorrow of losing their one child, Joseph Alston was elected as governor of South Carolina in December.
The War of 1812 raged, and with his new responsibilities Joseph could not accompany Theodosia to New York to see her father, who had returned to the United States. Aaron Burr hoped to rebuild his law practice.
To make sure his grieving wife traveled safely, Alston asked his friend Dr. Timothy Green to accompany her. They left on December 31, on the Patriot a small schooner, accompanied by a french maid and a skeleton crew from Georgetown County. By February 24, 1813, no word had reached either her husband or her father.
Despite his political success, Joseph Alston died a broken man in 1816, age 37. He never learned the fate of his wife.
Rumors as to what happened to the Patriot and Theodosia abounded. Some believed the ship had been captured by pirates who hunted prey in the waters of the Outer Banks.
Through the years, several men, once pirates, made deathbed confessions about the fate of Theodosia Burr Alston. In one, the ship with scuttled with all on board going down with her, in another version Theodosia was made to walk the plank. and ultimately that she committed suicide instead of submitting to a pirate captain named Octave Chauvet. Other stories were more far-fetched. One placed Theodosia in Texas the wife an Indian, in another she was taken to Bermuda and became a pirate's mistress. Considering the state of her health these were improbable.
America was on the brink of war with Britain, and Burr made inquiries to verify he would not be arrested if he returned to New York. His health was bad, he was penniless, and his only grandson had died. The murder charges against him were dropped and he resumed practicing law.
In 1813, Theodosia was lost at sea.
Burr was never able to recapture his success as a lawyer or politician and by 1830, only by the kindness of his friends was he able to support himself.
ELIZA JUMEL BURR
Burr's salvation arrived in the form of a wealthy widow, 20 years his junior, named Eliza Jumel. They married in 1833. He was 77 years old.
Burr's reason for the marriage was obvious, he needed her wealth. He in turn gave her what she lacked, which was a connection to New York's upper crust.
She was born, Elizabeth "Betsy" Bowen in Rhode Island on April 2, 1775. Her mother Phebe, in her youth was an indentured servant and her father John Bowen was a sailor. When she was seven years old, Eliza was living in a brothel with her mother. Then in 1784, she and her sister Polly were sent to a workhouse. Soon the sisters were living with their mother and Patience Ingraham, a widow cited for "keeping a house of bad fame".
Her father drowned in 1786.
Eliza went on to be indentured to a sea captain and his family. It's believed this man was Jacques de la Croix, who fathered her illegitimate child born in 1790. She named the boy George Washington Bowen, and gave him to foster parents. She moved to New York a few weeks later.
In 1790, her mother married Jonathan Clarke, an itinerant cobbler. They ended up in North Carolina, and both died in 1798 from a yellow fever outbreak.
Eliza, now 23, once in New York changed her name to Eliza Brown. She worked in the theater, and possibly as a domestic servant to keep food on the table.
Etienne Jumel, who came from a wealthy French-Haitian merchant family came to America in 1795, due to a slave insurrection in Haiti that drove him from a coffee plantation the family had there.
During those years that Elma Sands was murdered and Burr shot Hamilton in a duel, Etienne and Eliza met. He amassed a fortune in the wine business, and he kept Eliza as his mistress in a mansion at Whitehall and Pearl Streets. This was not far from the Ring Boarding House.
New York socialites opened their doors to Stephen Jumel (who had anglicized his first name), but not to Eliza, even after they married in 1804.
In 1810, they moved to a 19-room mansion in Harlem Heights built in 1765 by a Tory named Colonel Roger Morris. During the Revolutionary War George Washington used it as a headquarter. It was then taken over by the British who quartered Hessian mercenaries there. “During the battle of Fort Washington, Continental prisoners were quartered in the barn. General Sir Henry Clinton kept his summer headquarters in the mansion in 1778, as did General Knyphause in the following years.”
In 1789, it became a tavern named Calumet Hall.
Eliza Jumel told her husband that it was haunted.
The Jumels traveled to Paris in 1815. With them traveled Mary Jones, Eliza's illegitimate niece that they called Mary Eliza. They gave her the surname of Jumel and she lived with them like a daughter.
They were accepted by the French aristocracy, but it seems that someone whispered in Stephen's ear about Madame Eliza's scandalous past that he was not privy to. Whether this was accurate or not, she returned to New York in 1816 with Mary Eliza, but without her husband.
Five years passed before she returned to France and Stephen, however by then the Paris branch of the business was faltering. In 1826, he sent her back to New York, with a power-of-attorney and instructions to sell the property there and send him the money. She executed the sale but kept the money. Two years later, Stephen came to New York after the business collapsed in France. He fell from a haycart, and died on May 22, 1832.
By the time of her husband's death, Eliza due to her sharp business acumen had become one of the wealthiest women in New York City.
During those years she traveled to Europe she amassed a large art collection.
She also traveled to Saratoga Springs and bought over 200 acres of land. She built a house she named the Tuileries.
However despite her success in becoming a rich woman, the one thing that escaped her, and which she wanted desperately, was to be accepted by New York's elite families.
Fourteen months after she became a widow, Eliza married Aaron Burr. It did not take her long to realize that the only one with business acumen in the marriage was her, and if she left her finances in Burr's hands he would squander it away in short order. She named Alexander Hamilton Jr. as her attorney to handle the divorce.
By then, Burr had been stricken with a series of strokes which left him paralyzed, and a cousin cared for him.
Divorce was not easy to acquire in those years, especially when the husband is set against it. But like in all other things, Eliza got what she wanted. The divorce was granted on September 14, 1836, the day Aaron Burr died at the age of 80, however she chose to be identified as Aaron Burr's widow, which she technically was... in a way.
Some historians believe that Burr sired other illegitimate children, but for all intents and purposes his desire to leave a legacy through his daughter and heirs came to nothing. In those times, legitimacy of your offspring was very important.
Eliza Jumel died at age ninety, she left much of her large estate to a local church and other charities, to the surprise of her relatives, who had expected a more generous inheritance. They spent 17 years fighting Eliza’s will.
The winners of this long court battle was the original family of Lieutenant Colonel Morse. For the next 38 years, descendants of the Morris family lived there, however the mansion became a fixer-upper that would require in an inordinate amount of money to restore. Eventually it faced demolition.
Ferdinand and Lillie Earle, descendants of the original Morris family sold the house and two surrounding acres to the The Daughters of the American Revolution who in turn asked the City of New York to step in and assist in the restoration of the only Pre-Revolutionary house still left, and where the Battle of Harlem Heights took place.
They took it over, more than likely because Washington had headquartered there for about three weeks. It became The Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum in 1904. The first public celebration of Washington’s birthday by the City of New York was held here in 1905.
THE HAUNTING OF THE JUMEL MANSION
Occasionally visitor to the museum would report meeting a lady that fit the description of Eliza Jumel. Another phantom was a Hessian solider said to have died on the stairs. A third restless spirit was a maid who had jumped out a window. The curators were not happy with this, and ignored all the stories, instead they focused on the few weeks General Washington had stayed there.
In 1964, Hans Holzer visited the mansion twice with psychic Ethel Myers. Supposedly they contacted Stephen Jumel who was murdered by Eliza, which contradicts a review of the letters sent between the couple when he lived in France, and she was in New York, in which they appeared to be fond of each other.
Jan. 19, 1964: A small group of school-aged kids had arrived early to see the tour of the mansion. As they waited to be let in, they became restless.
In 1866, Dr. William Gaskins Pool (1829-1887) bought 50 acres bordering on the ocean "at or near Nags Head." He lived in Elizabeth City, but vacationed at Nags Head, and perhaps it was Theodosia's spirit that in 1869, steered him to the cottage of an ailing woman named Polly Mann. His daughter Anna accompanied him to the home on Bald Head Island, North Carolina.
Amid the murkiness of the interior, both of them were surprised by the portrait of "a beautiful young woman about twenty-five years of age."
Polly told them her father Joseph Toler (Tallen) had been a "wrecker" who scavenged ships that washed up on the Outer Banks. He along with some other men came upon a scuttled, empty schooner near Kitty Hawk during the War of 1812. In one of the cabins they found luxurious items and dresses. One of the items was the portrait.
Perhaps Polly's father was one of those that were known to walk a donkey with a lantern on it's neck, on the shore of the island during stormy weather. The bobbing light would lure vessels into the sandbars where it would become stuck. The men on shore would swarm the ship, plunder the goods and leave no witnesses behind.
Supposedly Dr. Poole took the portrait as payment for his services. He already suspected who the subject in the painting was. The 18 x 12 inch painting was unsigned, but is believed to be the work of John Vanderlyn. Dr Pool contacted Theodosia's family members who believed it might be her, but none of them had met her. Only her sister-in-law, Mary Alston Pringle had met Theodosia and she could not confirm it was her. The portrait is now at Yale University's Lewis Walpole Library.
In later years, there have been reports of a semi-transparent woman walking along the shoreline on Bald Head Island. She's wearing a long, white dress and has never spoken to anyone. Some believe this is Theodosia's ghost, still stuck in 1813.
RICHARD D. CROUCHER (BOARDER AT THE RING HOUSEHOLD) THE REAL CULPRIT?
Richard Croucher (Kroucher), 40, who maligned Levi Weeks far and wide as the murderer of Elma Sands, and many believed created prejudice against Weeks before the trial, was accused of rape in July 1800 of his stepdaughter. He had just married the girl's foster mother, Mrs. Stackhalvers, in April 1800.
Margaret Miller, age 13, testified the following:
Mr. Croucher came to my mothers, Mrs. Stackha|vers, I don't know how long ago, to sell some stockings —he used to come every day. One night he asked my mamma, if she would let me go and scrub his room for him at Mr. Rings, where he lived, for he said there was a lady and gentleman coming to look at some linens he had. She said at first, she did not know whether I might or not, but at last she consented. He said he wanted me to go that night, so that I might be there very early in the morning, and that I might sleep with a servant girl in the house if I would go. So I went with him to Mr. Rings house in Greenwich street, a|most by Rhinelanders brew house. He told me to go up stairs to a room in the third story, and he would fol|low; it was about 9 o'clock—I heard the clock strike 8 some time before.
Croucher was found guilty of rape and sentenced to the state prison for life. Afterward he was pardoned by newly elected Governor Clinton to relieve him "of the embarrassment of too much regulation". The condition of his pardon was that he would leave the county, however by 1803, he'd made his way to Virginia and had according to a local newspaper, "become a man of considerable standing in society." However that was short lived because in July, 1803, he stole a "a great number of cases and packages of dry goods, consigned to William Matthews, besides a considerable amount in money."
According to the book, Duel with the Devil, the author found that Croucher while living in England tried to kill someone after having a psychotic break, thus earning him the moniker of "Mad" Croucher. The book describes that after his debacle in Virginia he returned to London. Supposedly Alexander Hamilton's son reported that he was executed for some "heinous crime."
Was Richard Croucher the real murderer of Elma Sands, or did the Rings unknowingly harbor two monsters under their roof, each vying for the same victim?
THE MANHATTAN WELL
The well where Elma's body was discovered lay situated in a meadow. By the 1820s the fields were covered by row houses. It was inevitable that one of the structures would be built over the well. As the years passed, the murder of Elma Sands faded as all those who lived during those years, died themselves. The area became known as SoHo.
In 1840, a few doors down from where the well lay hidden, at 119 Mrs. Mott "the celebrated female physician of New York", advertised she had just received a large quantity of herbs, roots and essential oils from Europe.
In 1850, a dry goods shop was doing business from 115 Spring Street. They specialized in shawls.
On April 18, 1869, The New York Times reported that the Manhattan Well where Elma Sands' body was found in 1800 had been discovered. It was found inside a home at 115 Spring Street. The occupants had been digging a flower garden when they found it. It was covered with large, flat stones. As time passed, the location of this horrific murder had been forgotten.
By the 1870s, the neighborhood was populated by whorehouses, and not even high-end ones. Half a block from the well Hattie Taylor ran a third-rate brothel, that allowed only the lowliest clients through the front door.
In 1877, a 3-year old boy named Thomas Phillips, who lived at the house was bitten by a dog. The wound healed, but eventually he went into convulsions, and it was determined the animal that bit him had been rabid.
During the Depression the area became known as "Hell's Hundred Acres." Perhaps it was then that the building was renumbered to 129 Spring Street.
In the 1950s, The Manhattan Bistro opened at 129 Spring Street. The owners had heard of the ghost stories, but they never connected it to cold spots in the building or silverware that disappeared. During the early 1900s, the cellar had been filed with sand and dirt, but in 1980 they decided to excavate the area. They found the well, and an increase in the paranormal occurrences to go with it.
There were reports of voices and dishes moving by themselves. There was reports of a swirling mist around the well. Also a full body apparition of Elma Sands, weeping next to the well has been sighted.
The Manhattan Bistro closed in 2014. COS clothing store opened in the space, and there are still reports of missing items.
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Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer