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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8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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Why an Ex-FBI Agent Recommends Wrapping Your Keys in Tinfoil Whenever You Leave Your Car
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iStock

A car thief doesn't need to get their hands on your keys to break into your vehicle. If you use a wireless, keyless system, or fob, to unlock your car, all they need to do is steal the signal it emits. Luckily there's a tool you can use to protect your fob from hackers that you may already have in your kitchen at home: tinfoil.

Speaking with USA Today, retired FBI agent Holly Hubert said that wrapping car fobs in a layer of foil is the cheapest way to block their sensitive information from anyone who may be trying to access it. Hackers can easily infiltrate your car by using a device to amplify the fob signal or by copying the code it uses. And they don't even need to be in the same room as you to do it: They can hack the fob inside your pocket from the street outside your house or office.

Electronic car theft is a growing problem for automobile manufacturers. Ideally fobs made in the future will come with cyber protection built-in, but until then the best way to keep your car safe is to carry your fob in an electromagnetic field-blocking shield when you go out. Bags made specifically to protect your key fob work better than foil, but they can cost more than $50. If tinfoil is all you can afford, it's better than nothing.

At home, make sure to store your keys in a spot where they will continue to get protection. Dropping them in a metal coffee can is a lot smarter than leaving them out in the open on your kitchen counter.

[h/t USA Today]

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