Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Manhattan Well Mystery by John Elfreth Watkins 1919

The Case of Elma Sands by John Elfreth Watkins 1919

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One of the most famous and perplexing of America's murder mysteries came to light in the environs of New York city during Christmas week, 1799.

Ellis Ring, a Quaker, and his wife, Catharine, dwelt in a farmhouse occupying the present site of the Franklin Street station of the Ninth Avenue elevated railroad. Living with them as boarders were Mrs. Ring's sister, Hope Sands; her cousin, Guilelma Sands and Levi Weeks, a master carpenter. The Sands girls had come to the Ring farm early in the autumn, and within three weeks after their arrival, Guilelma, a maiden of ravishing beauty, had embarked upon a love affair with Weeks. As her suitor was a young man of excellent prospects, brother of the owner of the City Hotel, on Broadway, the Rings did not discourage his attentions to their pretty cousin.

On the night of December 29th, Guilelma announced to Mrs. Ring that she and Weeks contemplated being married privately that night. Weeks, who had gone out of the house after supper that evening, returned at about eight o'clock, at which time Mrs. Ring, on going upstairs, found Guilelma dressed, ready to go out. Returning to the lower floor, Mrs. Ring then found Weeks standing in the entry, but, without disturbing him, she went into the sitting-room. A moment later she heard some one descend the stairs, after which the front door was opened and closed. Thereupon Mrs. Ring ran to the door and looked out. As there were many people passing she could not distinguish Guilelma or Weeks among them.

At ten o'clock that evening Weeks returned to his boarding house. Mrs. Ring was still up and he asked her if Guilelma had gone to bed. Mrs. Ring replied that her young cousin had gone out and had not returned, whereupon Weeks expressed his surprise that she had stayed out so late. Mrs. Ring said that Guilelma had not gone out alone, and in reply to Weeks' inquiry as to whom she had gone with, the Quaker housewife exclaimed:

"Indeed, Levi, to tell thee the truth, I believe she went out with thee."

"If she had gone out with me," answered Weeks, "she would have come in with me."

Mrs. Ring sat up almost throughout the remainder of the night, but Guilelma Sands did not return. Weeks, who shared her vigil, seemed, as she described it, unnatural and moody. Indeed, at one time he broke down and cried out that if Guilelma did not reappear to clear him he was a ruined man.

According to the testimony of some one who claimed to have seen her, Guilelma entered a sleigh when she left the Ring house, and that was all that was known as to her departure from her home. Chancellor Ferris, of the New York University, writing to a historian in 1861, said:

"An old aunt of mine, who knew her (Guilelma Sands) well and who saw her on the night of the fatal sleigh ride when she was just ready to step into the sleigh, always spoke of her as the most lovely creature she ever saw, and especially fascinating at that moment."

A few days after Guilelma's disappearance her muff was found in the lonely Lispenard meadow in a well which the Manhattan Company had dug to supply a part of New York city with water. On January 2d a search of the bottom of the well-revealed Miss Sands' body. Her hat was off, her shoes and stockings had been pulled from her feet and her clothing above the waist was torn. There were bruises and discolorations about her neck.

New York was thrown into an uproar by the discovery of the body. A coroner's jury on January 6th found that the young woman had come to her death at the hands of a person or persons unknown, but the public clamored for vengeance, and, as Weeks was the only one whose name could possibly be linked with that of the beautiful victim, he was arrested and brought to trial. A post-mortem upon the body showed that there were no physical reasons why Miss Sands should have desired to end her life or why Weeks should have wished to rid himself of her. Moreover, the young man bore an excellent reputation for propriety and sobriety of conduct, and Miss Sands had, immediately before her disappearance,' been in an unusually cheerful mood that offset any suspicion of a quarrel between her and her lover.

These points were brought out at Weeks' trial, which began on March 31, 1800, in the old City Hall. It was one of the most famous criminal trials in American history, and the chief actors were national figures destined to contribute dramatic incidents to the history of their country. The trial judge was Chief Justice Lansing, who was later to figure in one of the most sensational disappearance mysteries that ever stirred the metropolis; and the defendant's counsel were Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, who were soon afterward to fight their celebrated duel. So great was the excitement during the trial that a volunteer guard of prominent citizens had to be formed to protect the accused while he was being conveyed between the courthouse and the prison, and it is chronicled that the street outside the court was so crowded and the trial rooms so noisy that at times the court officers had to clear the neighborhood before the hearing could go on.

There were witnesses who swore that Weeks had been at his brother's house between 8.30 and ten o'clock on the night of the tragedy and that he had shown no undue excitement during the visit. According to one account, Aaron Burr saved Weeks by resorting to a sensational trick. Turning aside from his examination of a witness, he rushed up to an unknown spectator and, with a pair of lighted candles in his hand, held them up to the latter's face shouting:

"Gentlemen, here is the real murderer!"

The effect of this dramatic incident was the mysterious suspect's flight "in virtual acknowledgment of his guilt." When the prosecution closed its case, it was half-past two in the morning, and the judge, after refusing to permit adjournment until the trial was ended, charged the jury that from the evidence proffered Levi Weeks could not have murdered Guilelma Sands in the few minutes that he was away from his brother's house. The court then recommended a verdict of "not guilty" and the jury, after four minutes' deliberation, acquitted the defendant.

The murder was a favorite theme of historians and other scribes for many years after its occurrence. It afforded the plot of Theodore Fay's novel, "Norman Leslie." Its solution remains today as hopeless as it was more than a century ago.

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