On December 22, 1799, a young woman named Elma Sands disappeared from her New York City boarding house and was found 11 days later at the bottom of a well owned by Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company. Sands’ suspected lover and killer, Levi Weeks, was defended in court by co-defense counsel Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston. The case, which was America’s first recorded murder trial, has been the subject of several non-fiction and fictional accounts. In preparation for my talk at Federal Hall on July 13, 2015, I read several of these accounts as well as the newspaper accounts and transcripts of the trial.
One account I particularly enjoyed was Eve Karlin’s historical fiction novel City of Liars and Thieves. Karlin’s book presents the story of Elma’s disappearance and the subsequent high profile murder trial through the lens of Catherine Ring, Elma’s cousin and close friend. By putting the story through the eyes of a character who would normally be relegated to the historical background, Karlin offers a fresh new perspective on a historical mystery. The novel provides insight into the turmoil and unrest in New York in 1799, after the city was recovering from a yellow fever epidemic, reeling from the news of George Washington’s death in December 1799, and struggling to provide clean water for its citizens. Amidst all of these events, Elma Sands’ murder prompted a massive outpouring of public sympathy and fascination.
The death of Elma Sands brought the entire City of New York to a standstill and prompted an unprecedented degree of national curiosity. Karlin weaves historical facts in with a richly imagine backstory of conspiracy, mystery, and tragedy for a gripping read. The trial of Levi Weeks, her supposed lover and son of a prominent builder who had connections with three of the most prominent lawyers of the day, led to throngs of people flocking to New York’s City Hall.
Urban legend tells us that at the conclusion of the trial, after Levi Weeks was affected, Catherine Ring pointed in the direction of counsel’s table and cursed Hamilton that if he should die a natural death there would be no justice in heaven. The formal trial transcripts don’t capture this aside, but Karlin’s novel imagines the need for answers and sense of helplessness that the victim’s friends and family may have suffered.
The ebook is available from Amazon for $2.99. If you’ve read it, share your thoughts in the comments section!
The infamous Manhattan well where Elma Sands was found (now located at a COS store in SoHo) and the site of the trial (Federal Hall National Memorial) are both accessible to the public, so if you’re in New York and interested in the historical mystery, I encourage you to visit both!