On January 2, 1800, the body of a young woman named Gulielma Sands was found in a well in New York that had been developed by Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company. The chief suspect in the murder was Ms. Sands’ suspected lover, Levi Weeks. Weeks was the brother of Ezra Weeks, a notable architect who had assisted with the construction of Hamilton’s Harlem home. Ezra Weeks was able to retain Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston as Levi’s defense counsel. The Weeks trial was the first recorded murder trial in American history and people followed it with rapt attention. The grueling trial lasted 44 hours and had approximately 75 witnesses testify with only a single break in between the proceedings. Ultimately, Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston convinced the jury to acquit Mr. Weeks in less than 10 minutes. I’ve spoken in detail about the trial in my talk at Morris-Jumel mansion (the talk will be available online soon and I will post it on this blog) and the full digitized transcript from the Library of Congress is available here.
Although most of the participants of the famous trial have long since perished or disappeared, one remains: the infamous well itself.
The well and its creator were integral components of the murder mystery and subsequent trial. One early newspaper account of the discovery of Ms. Sands’ body is from the January 4, 1800 New York Spectator and states: “Yesterday afternoon, the body of a young woman…was found dead in a well recently dug by the Manhattan Company, a little east of Mr. Tyler’s….Strong suspicions are entertained of having been willfully murdered.”
The Manhattan Well was commissioned by Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company, which had engendered controversy both for unnecessarily increasing the scope of its powers and for allegedly doing a poor job of delivering water to the citizens of New York. The charter of the Manhattan Company provided that in addition to providing water for New York City, the Company could form a bank and sell insurance subscriptions, among other things. The Manhattan Company eventually morphed into JP Morgan Chase, which is now the largest bank in the United States.
A May 1, 1799 editorial in the New York Gazette bashed Aaron Burr, John Church (Hamilton’s brother-in-law and Angelica Schuyler’s husband), John Watts, and the other founders of the Manhattan Company and stated that they were concerned with speculating and increasing their power rather than furthering the goal of clean water for New York.
“A law my fellow Citizens, more impolitic, alarming and corrupt has not been passed by any legislature since the Revolution. A law every clause of which is stamped with damning proof, that it was intended not to benefit the public; but to raise up an object of speculation to enrich those who were interested in it.”
Brian Phillips Murphy, who is now a history professor at Baruch College, published his 2009 dissertation on the Manhattan Well. The paper is entitled “‘A very convenient instrument’: The Manhattan Company, Aaron Burr, and the Eelection of 1800” and is a fascinating read if you are interested in learning more about the history of the Manhattan Company.
The Manhattan Well was referenced repeatedly during the trial of Levi Weeks. Several witnesses recounted hearing screams come from the vicinity of the well. For example, Catherine Lyon, a neighbor of Sands and Weeks testified:
“About a half an hour or less after I saw Elma, I heard from the field behind the hill at Lispernards a cry in the woman’s voice of ‘murder, murder, Oh save me!'”
Additionally Arnetta Van Norden, who lived 100 yards from the well testified:
“We live about half way from Broadway to the well. About 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening, my husband heard a noise, and he stood up and observed it was from the well. I then looked through the window, and we heard a woman cry out from towards the well, ‘Lord have mercy on me, Lord help me.”
“In 1817, a four-story building was built at 129 Spring Street, just south of the well. An 1872 Harper’s Weekly article stated that the well was located “in the rear of a carpenters shop at the end of an alley, No. 89½ Greene Street, a hundred feet or more north of Spring Street.”
During the years of 1852-1853 and 1854-1855, the Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York lists 129 Spring Street as the location of a pawnbroker named Leah Silver.
According to Angela Serratore of the Paris Review the area around the well was home to a brothel and an anti-tobacco shop:
In a small town, the well might’ve become a legendary destination, frequented by tourists and sulky, rebellious teenagers, but lower Manhattan refused to stay put, and soon the only physical reminder of Elma Sands was covered up. In the 1820s, the once-bucolic meadow became a neighborhood full of upper-middle-class row homes, including one at 129 Spring Street, which is today the legal address of the well. By midcentury, it was a destination for shopping, entertaining, and sinning.
Just half a block down from the well, at no. 111 Spring Street, there existed a brothel kept by a Mrs. Hattie Taylor, described in an 1870 guide to whorehouses as “a third class house, where may be found the lowest class of courtezans. It is patronized by roughs and rowdies, and gentlemen who turn their shirts wrong side out when the other side is dirty.” During this period, 129 Spring was a shop run by a Mr. O. Spotswood, the peddler of an antidote to tobacco addiction, leading the modern reader to ruminate upon the kind of person who, in 1862, is both hooked on smoking and desperate (one dollar for a packet of five remedies!) to quit.
On April 18, 1869, the New York Times published a paragraph about the well (containing some inaccurate statements about the trial):
“The old well, known as the Manhattan Well, down which was thrown the corpse of Gulielma Sands, murdered, as is believed, by her lover, Levi Weeks, some seventy years ago, and the locality of which had been forgotten, has been rediscovered by the occupant of the building No. 115 Spring-street. The well was found while the flower-garden of No. 115 was being dug. It is of large diameter and was covered over with large flat stones.
The supposed murderer invited the girl Sands to take a ride with him one Winter’s evening, and that was the last seen of her alive. Weeks was tried for the murder, and was defended by Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Edward P. Livingston. The evidence was insufficient to convict, but he found it convenient to leave the City as soon as the trial was concluded. The old well was known to exist, but its precise location had passed from the memory of the ‘oldest inhabitant.'”
On December 4, 1932, Bruce Rae of the New York Times noted in a book review:
“New Yorkers may be interested to know that they can still shout ‘Who killed Elma Sands’ into the very well where her body was found. It stands in an alley off Greene Street just above Spring.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that the DaGrossa family, who owned the property at 129 Spring Street and ran it as the Manhattan Bistro, excavated their basement in 1980 and found the well “buried in a dirt-filled area off the basement.” While the Manhattan Bistro was in existence, the well was kept in the basement and was not on public display.
Several websites mention the well and discuss the murder mystery. In 2013 Curbed NY named the well one of the thirteen most haunted places in New York City (along with Morris-Jumel Mansion, St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and others).
Currently, the well is open to the public in the men’s department of the COS clothing store. I visited the store during my visit to New York last month. The well now has some stylish mannequins around it and seems to be doing quite well. Talk about living history!
My January 9, 2015 talk on Rutgers v. Waddington at the Museum of American Finance is available on Youtube now, via the AHA Society’s Youtube channel.
In the case, newly minted 27-year old lawyer Alexander Hamilton controversially defended Loyalist merchant Joshua Waddington in a case brought by widow Elizabeth Rutgers under the Trespass Act. The Trespass Act was the most aggressive in a series of anti-Loyalist legislation passed by the New York State Legislature at the close of the Revolution. Hamilton argued that the Trespass Act was inconsistent with the Treaty of Paris and with the law of nations, as articulated by Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel. Hamilton also believed that specifically targeting the Loyalists for their participation in the war would be detrimental to the economic rebuilding of post-war New York. In all, Hamilton argued approximately 47 Trespass Act cases on behalf of Loyalists before the law was partially repealed in 1787.
Thanks to the AHA Society for again putting on a fabulous program of events and to the Museum of American Finance for hosting my talk! Special thanks to Sergio Villavicencio for recording and editing the video.
After seeing Hamilton for a second time on Friday, January 23, 2015, a few additional aspects of the show stood out to me:
The choreography: Watching the show for a second time allowed me to take in more of the exuberant, dynamic choreography. The amount of movement on stage and the use of all aspects of the set made the Newman Theater seem large enough to set the stage for the American Revolution and the battles over the American founding. Quite an accomplishment for choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who also did the choreography for In the Heights and Bring It On. Blankenbuehler gave a brief interview published by Dance Magazine this month that provides some additional insight into his process for developing the show’s choreography
The ensemble was extremely talented and their performances contributed significantly to the dynamism of the performance. Everyone moved seamlessly, enabling the show to transition rapidly through three decades of American history. The performers in the ensemble included: Carleigh Bettiol, Ariana Debose, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Jon Rua, Seth Stewart, Betsy Struxness, and Ephraim Sykes.
Burr as the narrator- Odom’s Burr was a complex, morally ambiguous, and undeniably charismatic narrator. The show furthered his role as narrator by inserting him into various events in Hamilton’s life, Forrest Gump style (i.e. the Laurens-Lee duel, Hamilton’s wedding, the Reynolds Affair). Odom did an incredible job of humanizing Burr and expressing his inner conflicts.
Angelica Hamilton- Renee Elise Goldsberry (who also played the recurring role of ASA Geneva Pine on the CBS show Good Wife) brought her great voice and stage presence to several songs. The deep friendship and affection between Hamilton and his sister-in-law has long been a subject of historical speculation, and although the show took some liberties with history to bolster artistic effect (Angelica Schuyler eloped with John Church in 1777, three years before Alexander Hamilton met both sisters), I thought Angelica’s character worked very well and I enjoyed Goldsberry’s moving performance Friday night.
I thoroughly enjoyed the score and all of the songs and am already excited for the album. Some of my absolute favorites (without giving anything away) were:
“Alexander Hamilton”- way to start off with a bang. Loved this opening.
“You’ll Be Back”- Brian d’Arcy James had insane chemistry with the crowd as the hilarious yet manically sinister King George
“In the Room Where it Happens”- Leslie Odom Jr.’s rendition of the song during the second act was incredibly catchy and also made for some great character development. This is one I’ll be humming all the way back to Los Angeles.
“The Reynolds Pamphlet”- Daveed Diggs’ cocky exuberance made this song.
On Wednesday, January 21, I had the opportunity to watch the second showing of Hamilton at the Public Theater. Alternately hilarious and tragic, the show took a rapt audience on an emotional roller coaster ride through Hamilton’s life. While the show took some artistic liberties with Hamilton’s story, I was impressed by how much history was squeezed into the production. The show clocked in at just under three hours, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.
The multi-talented cast had great chemistry. Every cast member truly embraced his or her role. As Hamilton’s crew of friends before and during the Revolution, Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens), and Okierete Onadowan (Hercules Mulligan) captured the upstart ambitions of young revolutionaries on the precipice and in the throes of war. Brian D’Arcy James (who originated the role of Shrek on Broadway) made a hysterical King George and the audience was in stitches every time he came on stage. Phillipa Soo was incredibly moving as Eliza Hamilton, and brought me to tears with some of her numbers towards the end of the play. Leslie Odom Jr. played Aaron Burr with a captivating combination of moral ambiguity, insecurity, ruthlessness, and charisma. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was incredibly battling a sinus infection during the performance, truly inhabited the role of Hamilton and brought his sense of ambition. Renee Elise Goldsberry brought an elegant pathos to the role of Angelica Schuyler, and her voice was amazing. In a brief, but memorable role as Maria Reynolds, Jasmine Cephas Jones (who also played Peggy Schuyler), brought to life Hamilton’s femme fatale. Christopher Jackson played George Washington as a reluctant but committed leader, and the dynamic between Jackson and Miranda was fascinating. Daveed Diggs brought a hilariously cocky energy to his role as Thomas Jefferson, and the rap battles between Miranda and Diggs (MC’d by Jackson’s George Washington) over key issues of the day were both enlightening and uproarious.
The orchestra was off-stage, but the music was breathtaking and set the pace of the alternating emotions of the show (cannot wait to buy the soundtrack). The set was elaborate, and the venue at the Public Theater was intimate. The crowd rose to its feet after the three hour production, and the emotion exuding from both the cast and audience was palpable.
Props to the entire cast and crew for creating theater magic! I am torn between wanting everyone in America to see this play immediately and wanting to preserve the magic of this cast, in this venue, in Hamilton’s city. I’m already excited to see the January 23rd Friday performance before heading back to Los Angeles.
If you get a chance to see Hamilton during its run at the Public Theater, post your impressions in the comment section below!
Hamilton Origami Figure available on Etsy for $44.95: “Up for sale is a beautifully crafted origami Alexander Hamilton Figurine. He’s wearing a Baseball Cap and a business suit and he’s jamming a guitar! The head is made of a $10 bill and the rest is made of $1 bills.”
I recently upgraded my iPhone and switched over to the iPhone 6. I previously had three different Hamilton-related covers for my iPhone 4S, but was on the hunt for something new. Here are the contenders I looked at:
Red Bubble has an “Alexander Swagilton” cover featuring Hamilton in some impressive stunner shades, available for $25. The description states: “Need I say more? The genius of finance comes all the way from St. Croix to hang out on your pillows, walls, and other swag-enabled places. Don’t tell Jefferson.”
They also have a “Ham the Man” design. The description states: “Alexander Hamilton: financial whiz kid, self-explanatory.”