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Fascinated by history of Auburn, McGehee compiles houses history

Published 12:00am Sunday, September 17, 2006

A rchitect Levi Weeks put distress and infamy behind him when he came to Natchez to start a new life.

That second chance at life is what fascinated Bill McGehee, when he began to dig into the history of Auburn, the 1812 Natchez mansion and masterpiece attributed to Weeks&8217; hand.

&8220;My wife became associated with Auburn,&8221; McGehee said of his wife, Dottie, who joined the Auburn Garden Club a few years ago. &8220;She kept nagging me to research, and that&8217;s how I began researching the people associated with Auburn, beginning with Lyman Harding and going all the way to the garden club ladies who saved the place.&8221;

Auburn was saved twice, he said, first by members of a women&8217;s club in the 1930s and then again in 1972 by the Town and Country Garden Club, which became the Auburn Garden Club.

Recently, members of the Auburn club installed a marker in memory of Levi Weeks in the Natchez City Cemetery near the grave site of Harding, the first owner of Auburn who commissioned Weeks to build the house.

Dottie McGehee said it was the right thing to do. &8220;We needed to do something to honor his memory,&8221; she said. &8220;Don Estes at the cemetery helped us get a better stone than we might have been able to get.&8221;

Some facts about the life of the talented architect are clear &8212; that he married Ann Greenleaf in Natchez; that they had four children; and that he died in 1819, when he was only 43. No one knows where he is buried.

His life before Natchez began in Greenwich, Mass., where he was born in 1776.

&8220;Levi Weeks had an older brother who was a successful building contractor in New York,&8221; Bill McGehee said. The younger Weeks moved in 1798 from the family&8217;s home in Massachusetts to New York City to work there with his brother, Ezra Weeks.

&8220;He began studying architecture with his brother. And in 1799 he was engaged to marry a young lady,&8221; McGehee said.

With the mysterious murder of Gulielma &8220;Elma&8221; Sands, his betrothed, in late December 1799, Weeks became the prime suspect, was indicted and stood trial for the murder early in 1800.

Many ironic twists add to the drama of this real-life story, McGehee said. One is that, in addition to the prominent attorney Brokholst Livingston, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton together represented Weeks. Only four years later, in 1804, the famous Burr-Hamilton duel took place, resulting in Hamilton&8217;s death and bringing disgrace to Burr.

The Manhattan well in which the young woman&8217;s body was found was built by the Manhattan Company, owned by Burr.

And in the book &8220;The Trial of Levi Weeks or the Manhattan Well Mystery,&8221; author Estelle Fox Kleiger writes:

&8220;Since New York society was so small and tight-knit, it is not surprising to note that Ezra Weeks had also had business dealings with Aaron Burr; he had supplied wood for pipes for the Manhattan Company water system, which owned, coincidentally, the Well in Lispenard Meadows in which Elma&8217;s body had been found.&8221;

Also notable about the Weeks trial is that it was the first case ever to be recorded by a court reporter.

Furthermore, Burr and Weeks both became associated with the Natchez area in the years to come.

&8220;Levi Weeks was found innocent of the murder charges,&8221; McGehee said. &8220;But it was sort of like the O.J. Simpson trial. Public opinion didn&8217;t agree with the verdict.&8221;

To escape the hostility in New York, Weeks began to look for work in other places in 1805, making stops in Ohio and Kentucky before settling in Natchez.

Burr, in 1805, after leaving Washington, D.C., began plans for a military expedition into the West that would lead to charges of treason. At Natchez, early in 1807, a grand jury refused to indict him.

&8220;He hired a lawyer named Lyman Harding,&8221; McGehee said. &8220;Burr was brought before the grand jury, which basically ridiculed the charges and refused to convict him.&8221;

Burr left Natchez in secret but was found and arrested in what is now the state of Alabama. He was tried in Richmond, Va., of the treason charges and found not guilty.

The stories are unending, McGehee said. &8220;It&8217;s like you walk into a room, and there&8217;s a door at the end of it. You open that door and then another and you just keep on going.&8221;

His research into Harding&8217;s life revealed that the lawyer was a graduate of Harvard who did not do well when he started his practice in Louisville, Ky., McGehee said.

&8220;He took a job as a deckhand on a keelboat and wound up in Natchez almost penniless when he arrived in 1798,&8221; he said.

The Mississippi Territory was a new U.S. territory. Many documents awaited proper scribes. &8220;Lyman Harding had a beautiful handwriting and began drafting documents. He also started his law practice. Within six months he was attorney general of the territory,&8221; McGehee said. &8220;He had a knack for making money. By 1805, he had accumulated $10,000, which he invested in baled cotton and sold in New York for a huge profit.&8221;

The stories go on and on. McGehee is compiling his research into a small book on the history of Auburn and the people associated with it. He hopes to have it available for sale by March, he said.