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.”
According to the Wall Street Journal:
“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!
4 thoughts on “The Manhattan Well: A Haunted History”
Please see my new novel on Elma Sands’ murder and Levi Weeks trial: CITY OF LIARS AND THIEVES: Love, Death, and Manhattan’s First Great Murder Mystery
[…] infamous Manhattan well where Elma Sands was found (now located at a COS store in SoHo) and the site of the trial (Federal […]
The Book City of Liars and Thieves was a fantastic book and has led me to start reading The Trial of Levi Weeks. I live in Manhattan and will visit that well!!
This was a very interesting story of American history. There are countless stories such as this covered by the blanket of time. It’s a shame that only a few of us who walked this earth will ever be brought to light, if only for a brief second. I for one would have liked to have known Elma and her real struggles in life that ended so violently and then burried by time itself.