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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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15 Surprising Facts About Hill Street Blues
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Until the impressive record was surpassed by The West Wing in 2000, Hill Street Blues held the title of most Emmy-awarded freshman series, with eight trophies for its debut season alone (despite its basement-level ratings). The drama that chronicled the lives of the men and women working the Hill Street police station beat has been credited with changing television ever since its debut in 1981.

Among Hill Street Blues's innovations are the use of handheld cameras, a large ensemble cast, multi-episode story arcs, and a mix of high drama and comedy—elements which still permeate the small screen today. Here are 15 facts about the groundbreaking series.

1. STEVEN BOCHCO AND MICHAEL KOZOLL CREATED IT, DESPITE NOT WANTING TO DO ANOTHER COP SHOW.

MTM Enterprises was specifically hired by NBC to create a cop show, so Steven Bochco (who later co-created L.A. Law and NYPD Blue) and Michael Kozoll (co-writer of First Blood) agreed to do it—as long as the network left them “completely alone to do whatever we want,” according to Bochco. NBC agreed, and the two wrote the pilot script in 10 days.

2. IT WAS INFLUENCED BY A 1977 DOCUMENTARY.

The show's creators looked to The Police Tapes, a 1977 documentary that chronicled a South Bronx police precinct during a particularly hostile time in New York City's history, for inspiration. NBC's then-president Fred Silverman was inspired to create a cop show in the first place after seeing Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), which stars Paul Newman as a veteran cop in a South Bronx police district.

3. BRUCE WEITZ HAD AN AGGRESSIVE AUDITION.

Bruce Weitz landed the role of undercover officer Mick Belker by playing the part. "I went to the audition dressed as how I thought the character should dress—and loud and pushy," Weitz recalled. "When I got into the room, I jumped up on [MTM co-founder] Grant Tinker's desk and went after his nose. I heard he said afterwards, 'There's no way I can't offer him the job.'"

4. JOE SPANO THOUGHT HE WAS MISCAST.

Joe Spano in 'Hill Street Blues'
NBC

Joe Spano auditioned for the role of Officer Andrew Renko, but ended up playing Lieutenant Henry Goldblume. “I was always disappointed that I didn’t end up playing Renko,” Spano told Playboy in 1983. Spano also wasn't a fan of his character's penchant for bow ties, which he claimed was Michael Kozoll's idea. "I fought it all the way," he said. "I thought it was a stereotypical thing to do. But it actually turned out to be right. You don’t play into the bow tie—you fight against it."

5. BARBARA BOSSON WAS BOCHCO’S WIFE, BUT WASN’T PLANNING ON BEING A SERIES REGULAR.

Barbara Bosson played Fay, Captain Frank Furillo’s ex-wife, who was only supposed to appear in the first episode in order to “contextualize” the captain, according to Bochco. But when Silverman watched the episode, he asked, “She’s going to be a regular, right?”

6. IT TOOK MIKE POST TWO HOURS TO WRITE THE ICONIC THEME SONG.

The composer—who also wrote the themes for The Greatest American Hero, Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order—was instructed by Bochco to write something “antithetical” to the visuals. Post wanted to add more orchestration to the piano piece; Bochco disagreed.

Post also spent four to five hours writing five minutes of new music for each episode of Hill Street Blues.

7. THE PILOT TESTED POORLY.

According to a network memo, among the many problems test audiences noted were that "the main characters were perceived as being not capable and having flawed personalities ... Audiences found the ending unsatisfying. There are too many loose ends ... 'Hill Street' did not come off as a real police station ... There was too much chaos in the station house, again reflecting that the police were incapable of maintaining control even on their home ground." NBC picked it up anyway.

8. RENKO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE IN THE FIRST EPISODE, AND COFFEY WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE AT THE END OF THE FIRST SEASON.

Charles Haid had other projects lined up, so he agreed to take the part of Renko, a man destined to die almost immediately. But another series Haid was relying on didn’t get picked up, and NBC claimed Renko tested too well for him to meet an early end. Ed Marinaro's Coffey was meant to be shot and killed in “Jungle Madness,” the final episode of the first season. The ending was changed to make it a cliffhanger, and Marinaro’s character survived.

9. THEY HAD HISTORICALLY BAD SEASON ONE RATINGS.

A 'Hill Street Blues' cast photo
NBC Television/Getty Images

In its first season, Hill Street Blues show finished 87th out of 96 shows, making it the lowest-rated drama in television history to get a second season. Bochco credited the show’s renewal to two things: NBC being a last place network at the time, and the NBC sales department noticing that high-end advertisers were buying commercial time during the show.

10. THEY NEVER SPECIFIED WHERE THE SHOW WAS LOCATED, BUT IT’S PROBABLY CHICAGO.

The exterior of the Maxwell Street police station in Chicago filled in for the fictitious Hill Street precinct for the opening credits and background footage. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1996 and is currently the University of Illinois at Chicago police department headquarters.

11. PLENTY OF FUTURE STARS MADE EARLY APPEARANCES.

Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Laurence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Danny Glover, Frances McDormand, and Michael Richards all found early work on the series.

12. SAMMY DAVIS JR. WANTED ON THE SHOW.

Sammy Davis Jr.
Michael Fresco, Evening Standard, Getty Images

Unfortunately, it never happened. Sometime after Bochco wrote in a reference to the singer, Davis and Bochco ran into each other. Davis said he loved it and started jumping up and down.

13. BOCHCO HAD A WAR WITH THE CENSORS.

Loving to use puns for titles, Bochco wanted to title an episode “Moon Over Uranus,” after Cape Canaveral was just in the news. Standards and Practices said no. Bochco eventually got his way, and proceeded to name the next two season three episodes “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel” and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy.”

14. DAVID MILCH AND DICK WOLF’S CAREERS WERE LAUNCHED FROM IT.

David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue and creator of Deadwood) went from Yale writing teacher to a TV script writer through his former Yale roommate, Jeff Lewis. His first script for the show was season three's “Trial by Fury” episode, which won an Emmy, a WGA Award, and a Humanitas Prize. He later became an executive producer on the show. The first TV script credited to Dick Wolf (creator of the Law & Order franchise) was the season six episode, "Somewhere Over the Rambow." His first sole credit, for “What Are Friends For?,” earned Wolf an Emmy nomination in 1986.

It’s also worth noting that journalist and author Bob Woodward received a writing credit for season seven's “Der Roachenkavalier” and David Mamet penned the same season's “A Wasted Weekend” for his first television credit.

15. DENNIS FRANZ’S CHARACTER HAD A BRIEF, COMEDIC SPIN-OFF.

Dennis Franz (later Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue) first played corrupt cop Sal Benedetto in five episodes, before reappearing for the final two seasons as Lt. Norman Buntz. After Hill Street Blues ended its seven-season run, Franz reprised the latter character in Beverly Hills Buntz, which ran for one season beginning in 1987. In the 30-minute dramedy, Buntz was a private investigator after quitting the police force. Only nine episodes were broadcast by NBC.

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20 Fascinating Facts About Investigation Discovery
Kim Cook/Investigation Discovery
Kim Cook/Investigation Discovery

Pop quiz: In which Colorado city did Joe Kenda spend more than 20 years as a homicide detective? If you knew the answer was Colorado Springs, you must be an ID Addict. In 2008, Discovery Communications launched Investigation Discovery, the 24/7 true crime network that has had fans (Lady Gaga among them) glued to their television sets ever since.

In honor of the channel’s 10th anniversary, we did a little investigating of our own and uncovered 20 things you might not have known about Investigation Discovery.

1. IT BEGAN AS AN ANCIENT HISTORY NETWORK.

Investigation Discovery began its life in 1996 as Discovery Civilization, a network dedicated to showcasing content related to ancient history. In 2002, The New York Times purchased a 50 percent stake in the network with an eye toward shifting its focus to current events; in 2003, it relaunched as Times Discovery. But that idea didn’t last long. In 2006, The New York Times sold its stake in the network, which is when Discovery Communications saw an opportunity to turn it into a 24/7 true crime network—and Investigation Discovery, as we know it today, was born.

On January 26, 2008, Newsday reported that, “Tomorrow, the Discovery Times digital channel morphs into Investigation Discovery. (ID, get it?) Premiere night features Deadly Women (tomorrow at 8 p.m.), about female killers, and a related episode of 48 Hours: Hard Evidence (tomorrow at 9 p.m., all on ID).” (Both programs are still staples of the channel’s lineup.)

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE SUCCESS OF LAW & ORDER AND CSI.

In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, ID group president Henry S. Schleiff said that part of the inspiration for creating a crime-all-the-time network was the long-running popularity of crime television franchises like Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS. Schleiff believed the network would be successful if they could brand it as “a place where viewers can consistently know that regardless of the hours, regardless of the day, that they will always be able to flip to this network and know that they are going to get a story of the mystery, crime, suspense genre.”

3. THERE WAS AN ECONOMIC BENEFIT TO CREATING A CRIME CHANNEL, TOO.

While there was data that told Schleiff and his fellow executives that there was a thirst for an all-crime network, the fact that it would be cost-effective didn’t hurt in swaying the powers that be. According to The New York Times, by filling a network with “ripped from the headlines” stories featuring reenactment actors (read: no stars), the cost to produce one hour of content for Investigation Discovery would be about $300,000—“roughly a tenth of the cost of an average scripted network drama.”

4. IT WAS WILDLY SUCCESSFUL FROM THE GET-GO.

While ID’s first two aforementioned iterations didn’t quite grab viewer interest, Investigation Discovery was a hit from the very beginning. “When Court TV became truTV in 2008, Discovery filled cable’s crime-story void with the renamed Investigation Discovery,” wrote The Washington Post in 2013. “In place of current affairs, suddenly, was Deadly Affairs.”

5. WOMEN LOVE IT.

A still from 'Deadly Women' on Investigation Discovery
Investigation Discovery

Investigation Discovery continually ranks among the top five cable networks for female viewers, and is particularly popular among the coveted 24- to 54-year-old audience.

When asked “Why are women obsessed with true crime television?” by Crains New York in 2016, Schleiff responded that, “Women love exercising their great puzzle-solving skills and intuition, which is really what most of our true crime stories are about. It’s an investigation, it’s a mystery, and women love that. The other thing that we hear in focus groups is that women say, ‘I want to use my free time in a useful way.’ Women feel that 
they can learn from watching ID. I don’t know if they are learning how to kill their husbands or not.”

6. MANY OF THE PERPETRATORS ARE FEMALE, TOO.

In addition to being the primary audience, the network produces several series that focus on female perpetrators with titles like Deadly Women, Wives With Knives, and How (Not) To Kill Your Husband. “I think when we think of women, we think of mothers, nurturers,” Detroit-based ID fan Kim Cumms told Jezebel. “So to see a woman who’s out there doing the killing simply because she wants to or because she had to, it’s like, ‘Wow, what pushes a woman to that point?’”

7. SERIES TITLES ARE THE RESULT OF GROUP BRAINSTORMS.

Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? Wives With Knives. Young, Hot & Crooked. I Married a Mobster. Investigation Discovery executives know that a great title can make or break a series, so they take the task of naming their shows seriously … well, sort of.

“We do have title brainstorms,” senior executive producer Pamela Deutsch told The Washington Post. “They are sort of fun to sit through.” When coming up with the title for what would eventually become Prison Wives, some people in the room were pushing for Penal Attraction. But according to Deutsch, “You know when you’ve crossed the line.”

“We have a completely dysfunctional group over here,” Schleiff told Crains New York. “I’m very proud of that. Our process is sitting at a table at a staff meeting; everyone yells out what might work. There’s no organization to it.”

8. THERE ARE SOME CRIMES THAT ARE OFF-LIMITS.

Though the network deals in death and crime, there are some topics that ID executives do their best to stay away from—number one being crimes that involve children. “It’s just too sad, and the audience will just push back,” Schleiff told the Washingtonian. Revenge crimes are also not ideal. “[Schleiff] calls it sad upon sad,” vice president of development Winona Meringolo said.

9. ONE REENACTMENT SCENE WAS A LITTLE TOO REAL.

Peter Muggleworth, who has done some reenactment acting for the network, was filming a scene for Nightmare Next Door, in which he played a kidnapper/murderer, when things got a little too real.

“When we were shooting the scene where I march the neighbor out by the highway and execute him, we had to shoot along a real highway, as the guardrail was essential to the accuracy of the scene,” Muggleworth told The Washington Post. The scene was also being filmed during rush hour, which led several motorists to believe that what they were seeing was real.

“A fleet of police cars come flying down the road and peeled into the field where we were shooting,” Muggleworth explained. “Apparently, they had received many phone calls from motorists who thought they had just witnessed a murder. Meanwhile, I’m standing in the field over the ‘dead’ body holding a prop .357 Magnum. I immediately threw the gun away and put my hands up.”

When the situation eventually got sorted out, a few of the officers agreed to become a part of the scene. “We got some good shots of them from their knees down walking around the corpse,” Muggleworth said.

10. LOOKING LIKE THE REAL PERSON IS THE MAIN CRITERIA FOR BEING A REENACTMENT ACTOR.

A still from 'Deadly Sins'
Investigation Discovery

While some ID series require a bit of acting experience on the part of its participants, the most important requirement for reenactment actors (many of whom do not have to deliver any lines) is to look like the real person involved in the case.

“The way they cast these things is by posting a photograph of a real-life criminal or historical figure and putting out a call for actors that resemble him or her,” an anonymous (and veteran) reenactment actor told Hopes & Fears. “That’s literally the only parameter. A lot of times you have people applying to these things because they see it as a stepping stone to more serious gigs or greater visibility. I can't count the number of times I’ve been sitting around a table in the holding area of casting with a bunch of people who have MFAs from Yale or Tisch worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are still doing this crap.”

11. THE PRODUCTIONS AREN’T USUALLY VERY LAVISH.

If you think that being a reenactment actor comes with craft services and lots of pampering, think again. The Washington Post reported that, “Cast members usually do their own makeup, bring their own wardrobe, and even compile their own research on the real-life people they portray.”

12. MURDERERS AND VICTIMS MAKE THE MOST MONEY.

If you’re considering a career in reenactment acting, you’ll want to aim for playing either a murderer or a victim. Mike Hoover, a sixty-something retiree from Virginia Beach, has appeared on a few different series and told the New York Post that he has been paid from $75 to $450 a day for the work.

“Depending on who you are playing, you may be there just for an hour,” Hoover said. “I worked my way up from being a family member to a witness to the victim. My next accomplishment will be the murderer—the murderer and the victim get paid the most.”

13. FOR SOME VIEWERS, IT’S CATHARTIC.

While the idea of watching violent acts play out on television may not be the preferred genre of entertainment for all audiences, some ID fans believe that the network can be a cathartic experience.

“I think most women in their lives have been in a bad relationship that either felt off or went really bad, and watching these stories sort of lets you play that out,” Rebecca Lavoie, a true crime writer who has appeared as an expert on several ID shows, told the Washingtonian in 2015.

In the same article, ID fan and sexual abuse survivor Jennifer Norris said that, “These shows help me see that I am not the only one that was crushed by the crimes of these people. They validate the way that I feel.”

14. IT’S THERAPEUTIC FOR SOME OF THE NETWORK’S STARS AS WELL.

That catharsis that viewers get goes the other way, too. “[Making this ID show is] therapeutic to me,” Homicide Hunter star, and retired detective, Joe Kenda told Jezebel. “There are many moments that you would like to forget, but you cannot forget … You can’t unsee certain things. I’ve said more to that camera than I’ve ever said to a person. There have been occasions when my wife will be watching the show. I’ll see her looking at me in front of the TV, I’ll say ‘What are you looking at?’ She’ll say, ‘I never knew you did that.’ What do you talk about when you come home, How was your day? Not in my business.”

15. JOE KENDA IS THE NETWORK’S UNDISPUTED STAR.

Joe Kenda stars in 'Homicide Hunter'
Kim Cook/Investigation Discovery

Though the network features dozens of original series, its highest-rated show is Homicide Hunter: Joe Kenda. The series, which showcases the celebrated career of the former lieutenant who spent more than 20 years working with the Colorado Springs Police Department, attracts an average of 1.6 million viewers.

16. WHEN VIEWERS TUNE IN, THEY STAY TUNED IN.

Based on Nielsen data, the Los Angeles Times reported that when the average ID viewer tunes in, he or she stays tuned in for an average of 54 continuous minutes—“the most of any broadcast or cable network in the women 25-to-54 age group.”

17. THERE ARE SOME VERY FAMOUS ID ADDICTS.

There are several A-list names among ID’s most devoted viewers. Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, and Nicki Minaj are just a few of the network’s famous fans.

18. FANS CAN GATHER AT IDCON.

In 2016, Investigation Discovery hosted its first-ever true crime fan convention, known as IDCON, in New York City. “This is the kind of thing our fans would quote-unquote almost kill to attend,” Schleiff told USA Today. He was right: Tickets to the inaugural event (which Mental Floss attended) sold out in less than 24 hours, and more than 7000 ID Addicts put their names on the event’s waiting list.

The event brings audiences together with some of their favorite ID personalities and hosts a range of panels and conversations on crime-related topics. In 2017, they hosted a second IDCON. While no dates have yet been announced for 2018, stay tuned!

19. KENDA BELIEVES ID'S POPULARITY IS BASED IN STRONG STORYTELLING.

While Kenda admits that, “The twists and turns, the unknown factor, gives people an opportunity to be an armchair detective in some way,” he believes that the network’s popularity can be attributed to something much more basic. “[T]here’s another fascination as well, and it’s been true for 6000 years. People have gathered around the fire and looked at someone and said, ‘Tell me a story.’ If you can tell a story in an interesting way, you have people’s attention. If it’s a subject that fascinates, you have their undivided attention.”

20. THE NETWORK HAS GONE GLOBAL.

A still from 'On the Case With Paula Zahn'
Miller Mobley/Investigation Discovery

Based on ID’s popularity in America, the network began expanding into global markets just a year after its launch. “Crime is universal,” Discovery Communications president/CEO David M. Zaslav told The New York Times. “The stories are set in an American town, but it could be anywhere.” As a result, ID programming has rolled out into hundreds of international markets, including England, Ireland, France, Denmark, Mexico, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Greece, India, and South Africa.

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