America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.
Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.
Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.
—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815
On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.
Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.
On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water.
* * *
If Elma and Levi are remembered at all today, it’s because he was arrested and tried for Elma’s murder and, with the help of a wealthy brother, retained the legal services of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who worked on the same side in what’s widely recognized as the first recorded murder trial in United States history.
The trial was about two objects, the first being Elma’s body. Was she pregnant? No. Was she a laudanum addict? Maybe. Was her neck broken, indicating she’d definitely been killed before being thrown into the depths of the water? Yes.
The second was the well itself. The defense team spent hours challenging witness statements, planting the seeds of doubt: Could this woman really see all the way to the well in the dark? Could that man really hear water splashing all the way from Broadway? Amid the pomp and circumstance of the eighteenth-century court transcripts, Hamilton in particular stands out—he questions experts and incidental witnesses alike with an electric slyness that would not feel out of place on television today. You can see where he’s going long before everyone else in the room gets there.
Elma’s body and the well in which it had been found served as twin omens for the rapidly expanding city. If beauty like hers—vibrant, hopeful, alive—could be mangled by the brute ugliness of murder, what beauty was safe? What mother, what caretaker could ever again let a beloved daughter out of the house alone past dusk? Every interaction between young people was tainted by the tragic drama of Elma and Levi. It was as if a pipe had burst and the muck of 1800 covered the clean streets of 1799. They got even filthier when, after a two-day trial and a five-minute jury deliberation, Levi was acquitted. While he was the obvious suspect, suspicion had fallen upon nearly every man Elma had known in New York, including the husband of her landlady (with whom she may or may not have been having an affair), and long after the jury asserted Levi’s innocence, public opinion was still largely divided on the subject. Levi, for his part, promptly skipped town—a prudent move, perhaps, but not great for instilling faith in the legal system.
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.
The prostitutes working in SoHo brothels embodied the fears of New York much in the way Elma Sands had decades earlier—they were taking something allegedly sacred, something that formed the basis of marriage and family, and twisting it. Day and night, they walked on a meadow-turned-city, water source-turned-murder site, woman-turned-cautionary tale.
But how many of those women (and men) had even heard of Elma? On April 18, 1869, the Times ran a paragraph-long item about the discovery, in a Greene Street alley, of the cover to a long-disused well, notable for being the site of a famous turn-of-the-century murder. The reporter mentions Hamilton, Burr, and Levi Weeks, but only the name of Elma, and only the barest details of the story, for “the old well was known to exist, but its precise location had passed from the memory of the ‘oldest inhabitant.’ ”
The well was forgotten again. Every few decades, it seems, someone might mention the case in passing, usually as an aside in a Hamilton or Burr story. There were a few ghost stories—Elma’s slim figure haunting the streets of SoHo, condemned for all eternity to reside at the bottom of the well as a reminder to girls not to sneak out with their sweethearts in the middle of the night. And there was, in 1870, an account of the trial published by a granddaughter of the boardinghouse keeper—emphatically it insisted upon Levi’s guilt, Elma’s beauty, and the fact that while the city might’ve covered the well with bricks and concrete and cast iron, it was still there.
After the tobacco cure shop closed, 129 became a German beer hall, and for a while after that it was nothing at all.
In 1957, the Times sent another reporter into SoHo to find the well. The area was deserted—the entertainment district of the mid-nineteenth century had been supplanted by industry, and the Belgian-block streets were still a few years from being claimed by artists and their associates. The cover was still there, of course, along with, the reporter assumed, the well itself.
The thing about burial is that unless you can convince the earth to do the work of decomposition for you, what’s put underground usually stays there. For a period in the late nineties and early 2000s, 129 Spring Street was a restaurant. The owners wanted more space for storage, so they excavated the cellar. Guess what they found?
As they told the Travel Channel—during one of those ghastly specials on Very Important Haunted Places that always feature ghosts who are both filled with rage and yet totally harmless—the well looked as though it hadn’t changed a bit since the eighteenth century. Looking at pictures, it’s taller than I expected, and sturdier. It’s sinister, maybe, or it just looks like a rebuke from two hundred years ago. How can you be eating sous vide salmon, I imagine it asking. Don’t you know what’s down here?
When I’m standing on Spring Street peering through the windows of 129, my heart isn’t in it. Were the restaurant still open I might try to identify myself as a historian, someone deserving of a trip to the basement to press my hands against the stone of the well, but the restaurant closed, and now at the corner of Spring and Greene, in the former Lispenard’s Meadow, sits the future location of CoS, the high-end offshoot of H&M. The store isn’t open yet, but I assume I won’t be able to talk my way into the basement, and if I could I’d probably find it filled with vaguely architectural jackets for the modern woman.
I want, as should be obvious by now, to think of the well as some sort of telltale heart, beating the narrative of sex and danger and death and fear into the air of the store, but H&M is a Swedish company, and one imagines them having an insurance policy preventing such nonsense.
* * *
One of my worst habits, I think, is refusing to acknowledge that anything is new, because, in fact, nothing is new. Walking in SoHo the other night, I loudly, and probably a bit boorishly, mentioned that before the neighborhood had hosted artists it had been a place of commerce—department stores almost outnumbered brothels—and so we may as well get used to it as such a place again. If I really wanted to be pedantic, I could’ve suggested tearing everything down and making the space a meadow once more; we could uncover the well and tell the story of Elma and Levi again, though I suppose in a sense we’ve never stopped telling it.
In 1957, when the Times reporter went downtown to stand on the well, or near it, or both, he took a cab back to the office:
The cab driver who had brought the reporter to that lonely spot wondered what it was that brought him to the alley. The reporter said, “Just checking on a murder; a girl was killed here.” The cabby said, “I think I read about it a coupla days ago.”
Angela Serratore is the deputy web editor at Lapham’s Quarterly.