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The Well from the Manhattan Well Murder of 1799

Oct 25th, 2017 | By | Category: Haunted Hollywood, This and That

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Oh, do I love a good ghost story!  Back in 2014, my friend Owen, from the When Write Is Wrong blog, sent me an article about a well in New York that was the site of an infamous 1799 murder.  The seven-foot by five-foot well, situated in the basement of a SoHo building that housed a restaurant for many years, but at the time of the article’s printing was being transformed into a COS clothing store outpost, was cited as one of the most haunted spots in the U.S.  With the clipping came a note from Owen, saying, “If you come to NYC, maybe you can get access to the basement for a future Haunted Hollywood post.”  As you can imagine, reading the blurb had my tongue wagging.  I immediately added the address to my Manhattan To-Stalk List and began researching the case, despite the fact that I had no plans of traveling to the Big Apple.  Flash forward to April 2016.  Shortly before the Grim Cheaper and I headed to New York for a last minute trip, I started madly combing through my list of area locales to compose a coherent stalking itinerary.  (Said itinerary was even color-coded!  I kid you not.)  One of the spots I, of course, looked into was the well.  By then, COS had opened and I was thrilled to discover, via countless photos on the boutique’s Yelp page, that the well was no longer located in an inaccessible basement, but in the men’s department on the shop’s lower level!

For those not familiar with the case, here’s a brief breakdown.  On the evening of December 22nd, 1799, Gulielma Elmore Sands, or “Elma” as she was better known, walked out of the Greenwich Street boardinghouse where she lived, never to be heard from again.  Though she had informed her cousin, Catherine, that she was planning to elope with her rumored boyfriend, Levi Weeks, that night and the two were later spotted by several witnesses riding on a sleigh together, at some point things took a sinister turn.  When Elma failed to return home, Catherine asked Levi about the events of the evening, but he claimed not to have been with her.  It wasn’t until eleven days later that her body was discovered thanks to some boys who noticed a piece of clothing floating at the top of a Manhattan Water Company well near where they were playing and notified police.  Using grappling hooks, detectives probed the well and quickly uncovered Elma’s waterlogged corpse.  Her neck showed the telltale signs of strangulation.  Levi was charged with her murder shortly thereafter.  But the young defendant had a trick up his sleeve.  Thanks to his wealthy brother, Ezra, he secured Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr) as his legal counsel.  The two-day trial that followed, the first recorded murder trial in U.S. history, became a maelstrom of media reports and public scrutiny.  It was definitely the Trial of the Century – the 18th century.

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The case was considered a slam-dunk for the prosecution.  Not only was Levi reported to have been in a romantic relationship with Elma and the last person to see her alive, but Sands was rumored to be pregnant, which pointed to a motive.  Public outcry against Weeks hit the zenith point.  Hamilton and Burr were no slouches, though.  They painted Elma as a woman of highly questionable morals and fingered pretty much every other man in the county as possible culprits, creating a massive amount of reasonable doubt.  After just minutes of deliberation, the jury found Levi not guilty.  Sounds a lot like that other so-called Trial of the Century.  In fact, many articles about Elma’s murder refer to Burr and Hamilton as the “original Dream Team.”  The events that followed the verdict also parallel the O.J. proceedings, with Week’s lawyers faring about as well post-trial as their 1995 counterparts.  Hamilton was killed in a famous duel in 1804, shot by former legal partner Burr, which destroyed the one-time Vice President’s political career.  Rumor has it the judge who presided over the trial just up and vanished one day, never to be seen again.  And Weeks was so hated, he was forced to skip town.  Elma never found justice via the court system, but maybe karma stepped in on this one.  Amazingly, the case is still talked about today, more than 200 years after the fact.  That is in large part thanks to a restaurant named Manhattan Bistro.

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In 1954, the four-story Federal-style building that had been erected on the site of the well in 1817 was purchased by the DaGrossa family, who opened up a Franco-American eatery on the lower level.  Manhattan Bistro became a local favorite and in 1980, the family decided to excavate the basement in order to create space for an office.  During the project, a large brick well was unearthed.  I am unsure of how its connection to Elma Sands was determined and, while some dispute its affiliation with the famous case (you can read their thoughts here and here), it did not take long for stories about the murder to spread once again.  Tales of the building being haunted by a woman followed and soon patrons were asking to be shown the well while dining.  The rest, as they say, is history.

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In 2010, the well was even detailed in an episode of the Travel Channel series Ghost Stories – Season 2’s “Elma Sands,” which you can watch here.

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Restaurant manager Thomas King tells of many instances of hauntings in the episode.  One such tale, which was also chronicled in the book Ghosthunting New York City, had me shuttering.  As King tells it, one evening he ventured down to the basement to grab a bottle of wine from the large cage that contained the eatery’s liquor.  He unlocked the space, left the key in the lock, and stepped to the back wall to grab the bottle.  When he turned around a few minutes later, he saw that the gate had been locked behind him and the keys placed on a box just out of reach.  It was an hour before anyone noticed Thomas missing and headed downstairs to rescue him.

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While Manhattan Bistro looks like it was a cute little spot, it was shuttered in 2013 after more than five decades in business for reasons I am not aware of.  Perhaps Elma cursed the place.  I mean, its Yelp reviews were downright terrible!  In May 2014, Schimenti Construction was hired to gut and reconstruct the building as a COS (short for Collection of Style) clothing store.  According to the article Owen sent me, though the overhaul was major, Schimenti was asked to preserve the site’s windows, façade, and infamous well.  The boutique opened its doors in December 2014.

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COS’ head of communications Atul Pathak touted the site’s famous past in a 2015 The Village Voice article and described the lengths the company went to in preserving the well, saying,  “The historic prevalence of the space only adds to its appeal, as we are a brand that is committed to maintaining and restoring the original aspects and individual features of all of our buildings.  At COS, we appreciate the importance of incorporating our core aesthetic of modern, timeless, and functional design into our store interiors.  Prior to the store’s opening in December 2014, repairs were made to some of the bricks and mortar and the left side of the well, which was broken, was repaired.”

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  What’s odd is that, for a company that went to such pains to restore the well, the employees could not have been less interested in speaking about it, to the point that they were downright rude.  When I first arrived at COS, I ventured up to one of the women working on the main level to ask if she could point me in the direction of the well.  She rolled her eyes and said it was downstairs.  I asked if she happened to know any tidbits about the restoration or why the company had been so keen on salvaging it and she told me she had no idea what I was talking about.  Still hopeful (I’m nothing if not an eternal optimist), I then ventured downstairs, where I happened to come across another employee and a manager of some sort.  They had just about as much interest in speaking with me as the woman upstairs and claimed not to have any idea why the well had been kept intact.  Their demeanor was rather surprising considering this sentence in The Village Voice: “Just like the diners of yore, the store, Pathak expects, will have some inquisitive customers — and he says COS is pleased to provide a setting where the structure can be a focal point of the store’s interior.”  Sadly, that was not my experience.

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In fact, the employees were almost hostile in their attitude toward me, so much so that the Grim Cheaper, who literally never shops (especially at pricier places like COS – he didn’t earn that nickname for nothing!), had been looking at a blazer while we were there and was shockingly about to purchase it (had it in his hands and was heading to the counter) when he overheard my interaction with the manager.  As I walked over to him, he turned on his heel, returned to the rack, hung the blazer back up, and said, “No way I’m patronizing this place.”  Judging from the Yelp reviews, I am hardly the only one who has had a bad experience at the store.  Maybe Elma really has cursed the building, condemning any business that operates there to a lifetime of bad Yelp reviews!  Regardless of the rather unfriendly employees, I was still thrilled to see the haunting relic in person.

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For more stalking fun, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Los Angeles magazine and Discover Los Angeles.

Big THANK YOU to Owen, from the When Write Is Wrong blog, for telling me about this location!  Smile

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Until next time, Happy Stalking!  Smile

Stalk It: COS is located at 129 Spring Street in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.  The well from the Manhattan Well Murder of 1799 can be found in the men’s department on the store’s lower level.

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One comment

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  1. Owen says:

    Well done! Get it, well done? (Groan.) Of course, I’m still bummed you and the GC decided to stalk this on one of the days I wasn’t with you in the Big Apple. I suppose you two don’t play well with others. That doesn’t sit well with me. Oh, well. Farewell.


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