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Wells are Deeper Than You Know: Elma Sands

What do we miss when we’re not looking for stories? How are little-known stories preserved by chance? Are we participating in history simply by existing in public space? 

Gulielma Elmore Sands and Levi Weeks were both boarders at 208 Greenwich Street in 1799. On the night of December 22, they planned to elope. Gulielma bundled up in a shawl and a hat to brave the cold night and find her soon-to-be husband. They were going out to meet somewhere private, she told another boarder. This was the last time Gulielma was seen alive.

The next week, neighborhood residents claimed they saw an article of women’s clothing floating in Manhattan Well. Gulielma was missing.

Her body was found eleven years later on January 2, 1800, with strangulation marks on her neck, in a well in Lispenard’s Meadow. Today, Lispenard’s Meadow is Spring Street, the remains of the well are in the basement of upscale SoHo clothing store, and Gulielma’s murder is still unsolved.

The newspapers called it The Manhattan Well Murder as the rumors and speculation began. Gulielma’s parents even put her corpse on display outside the boarding house to encourage outrage and conjecture. Some believed Levi Weeks impregnated Gulielma Elmore Sands before killing her, others believed they’d heard splashes in the well on the night of the murder, and the public rallied against Levi Weeks in the first 3 months of 1800.

On March 31, 1800, Levi Weeks was tried for murder. It was the first murder trial in American history to be fully documented by a court stenographer. Weeks was essentially an enemy of the public at this point, convicted in the court of public opinion, widely believed to be the murderer. However, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were on Weeks’ defense team, thanks to his very wealthy brother who wanted Levi to have the best possible legal council. Burr and Hamilton highlighted the possibility that Gulielma was a laudanum addict (a type of opiate), and argued that she couldn’t have made it all the way to the well in the dark by herself. They questioned all the men in her life. they questioned her physical condition (decidedly not pregnant, but her neck was broken before she was thrown in the well) and her mental condition. After a 2-day trial and 5 minutes of jury deliberation, Weeks was acquitted. He fled the city in the face of a horrified public.

The scandal cast a dark shadow over the century ahead. New Yorkers feared for the safety of their daughters, and the changing of their city from “safe” to “urban.” Young romance was suddenly weighed down by Gulielma’s tragic fate. The physical reminder of her violent in 1817. One of the first shops on this site was opened by Mr. O. Spotswood, selling a product to counteract tobacco addiction, as the area was quickly becoming the city’s center of shopping, drinking, smoking, and scandal. In a short time, a meadow became a shopping/drinking hub, a source of fresh water became the site of a brutal murder, and a young woman became a cautionary tale for others like her in 1800s New York.

The New York Times wrote about the well in 1869, and the paragraph-long article featured plenty of mention of Levi Weeks, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. Nothing about Gulielma–besides her nickname, “Elma Sands”–was discussed. Future mentions of the well addressed Weeks’ famous legal team, or even the ghost of Gulielma walking the streets of SoHo, warning young women not to sneak out with their lovers, but her story was seldom told. It was erased, shifted, and retold to appease a fearful public.

129 Spring Street became a German beer hall, and then it was empty for years before Manhattan Bistro, a family-owned restaurant, opened its doors in 1954. Around 1980, one of the owners decided to excavate; she’d heard stories about Gulielma and the well from patrons who came looking for it. In the restaurant’s basement: the remains of a brick well stood at 7 feet tall, buried under dust and dirt, telling the story of a 200-year-old case.

Today, 129 Spring Street is a Swedish clothing store. In the men’s section (down the steps, towards the back wall, to the left of the cash register, behind the mannequins), you’ll see what remains of the Lispenard’s Meadow Well. Picture this very place, 200 years ago when there was a Spring running through Spring Street and a young woman’s murder scandal running through the city. How does this context transform a public space? Does it detract from or enhance the present-day intention for the space?

Some believe that Gulielma’s ghost haunts the property. It has received notoriety as one of the most haunted places in New York City, and visitors often come looking for it. But many don’t know it’s there. Shoppers peruse the store and miss the story completely, as it is contained, only by chance, in a 7-foot brick tube in the basement.

Who is responsible for preserving the stories in architecture? Can the preservation of stories delay progress? Which structures are the most important to preserve?