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Revisiting the First 'Trial of the Century,' More Than 215 Years Later

Like calling any up-and-coming actor who lands a plum role “The Next Big Thing,” assigning the “Trial of the Century” moniker to any legal proceeding that gains even a tiny bit of national or international attention has become almost rote (see: Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorius, and/or Jodi Arias). Many people point to the 1907 trial of Harry K. Thaw, who was tried for the murder of famed architect Stanford White, as the first recorded use of the phrase. But the real first “Trial of the Century” happened more than 100 years earlier, when frenemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend Levi Weeks—a well-to-do young man accused of murdering his girlfriend—while the whole world looked on.

On the evening of December 22, 1799, Gulielma Sands—a young Quaker woman known as Elma to her friends and family—left the West Village boarding house where she was staying and never returned. Several days later, an earmuff that Sands had been wearing on the night she disappeared was discovered floating in the Manhattan Well, at the intersection of Greene and Spring Streets (the well is still there and, while not open to the public, is occasionally available to take a peek at on request). Shortly thereafter, the well was probed, and on January 2, 1800, Sands’s body was discovered at the bottom of the well.

Immediately, all eyes turned toward Levi Weeks, a fellow resident at Sands’s boarding house—and her alleged paramour. In fact, Sands confided to her cousin, Hope (another boarding house resident), that she and Weeks had planned to marry. For his part, Weeks denied that any such romance existed.

Weeks had another thing going for him: His brother, Ezra, was one of the most prominent builders of the time, and he used his connections to gather the best defense team around. And what a team it was: Individually, Henry Brockholst Livingston (a future Supreme Court Justice), Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton were three of New York City’s top attorneys. Together, they became the first legal “dream team.”

Coupling the salacious nature of the crime (rumors swirled that Sands was pregnant, which was not true) and its extreme violence (it was confirmed that Sands’s neck was broken before she was thrown into the well) with the many prominent people who were involved in its proceedings, the public’s interest in the trial was piqued, and it became the first transcribed trial in the history of the United States. (You can read the full transcription of it [PDF].)

The trial itself commenced more than 215 years ago, on March 31, 1800, and it didn’t take long for Weeks’s team to prove exactly why they were considered three of the most brilliant legal minds of the time. (It also helped that Hamilton and Burr, while not the closest of friends, were actually on speaking terms.)

Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader D. Colden (who would become New York City’s 54th mayor 18 years later) spoke first on behalf of the prosecution, acknowledging his formidable competition in his opening statement:

"In a cause which appears so greatly to have excited the public mind, in which the prisoner has thought it necessary for his defense, to employ so many advocates distinguished for their eloquence and abilities, so vastly my superior in learning, experience and professional rank; it is not wonderful that I should rise to address you under the weight of embarrassments which set circumstances actually excite."

Aaron Burr gave the opening statement for the defense’s side, and didn’t shy away from playing up the superlatives that Colden had already sent his team’s way. “The patience which you have listened to this lengthy and tedious detail of testimony is honorable to your characters,” Burr told the courtroom. “It evinces your solicitude to discharge the awful duties which are imposed upon you and it affords a happy presage, that your minds are not infected by that blind and indiscriminating prejudice which had already marked the prisoner for its victim. You have relieved me from my greatest anxiety, for I know the unexampled industry that has been exerted to destroy the reputation of the accused, and to immolate him at the shrine of persecution without the solemnity of a candid and impartial trial. I know that hatred, revenge and cruelty, all their vindictive and ferocious passions have assembled in terrible array and exerted every engine to gratify their malice.”

The prosecution was clearly outmatched, both in their oratory powers to sway the jury and in their stockpile of actual evidence against Weeks, which was largely circumstantial. The trial lasted two days, back in a time when cases rarely took longer than one—the jury slept at City Hall—finally concluding at 2:25 a.m. on April 2. Exhausted, the prosecution asked for an adjournment before presenting closing arguments, which the judge denied, deeming them unnecessary. Before sending the jury in to deliberate, the judge noted that “the court were unanimously of the opinion that the proof was insufficient to warrant a verdict against [Weeks] and that with this general charge they committed the prisoner’s case to their consideration.”

It took the jury just five minutes to come back with their verdict: not guilty. Levi Weeks exited the courtroom as a free man.

Four years later, one member of Weeks’ dream team would be dead at the hands of another member when Burr shot Hamilton during their infamous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]

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