The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day 8: The Manhattan Well Murder

Guilelma Sands, known as Elma, lived in a boarding house in New York City. In December 1799, she was in a relationship with another tenant, a carpenter named Levi Weeks. The couple made plans to elope on December 22.

Around 8 pm that evening, Elma’s cousin, Catherine Ring, heard the front door open and close. She assumed it was Elma sneaking out to meet Levi. But Levi showed up at 10 pm demanding to know where Elma was. This unexpected development led to a search of the neighborhood.

Witnesses saw Elma in Lispenard’s Meadow, a nearby lover’s lane of sorts, walking with two unidentified men. Lispenard’s Meadow was also the site of the Manhattan Well. On January 2, Elma’s body was pulled from the well. She’d been dumped there, her neck broken.

Levi Weeks was accused of Elma’s murder. For his trial, his wealthy oldest brother Ezra hired the best lawyers in town: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The two-day trial was the first recorded murder trial in American history.

The case was expected to be a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Levi Weeks was in a relationship with Elma, and he was the last person to actually be seen with her. There were rumors (untrue) that Elma was pregnant, which seemed to give Levi motive for her murder.

But Hamilton and Burr knew their business. They cast serious reasonable doubt on the case, painting Elma as a loose woman, addicted to laudanum. Any guy could have killed her, they said. After only five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Levi Weeks not guilty.

Not that it did him any good. Weeks was so hated after the trial, he had to leave town. And Catherine Ring, Elma’s cousin, had a few tart words for Alexander Hamilton.

“If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven!”

Catherine’s curse backsplashed on pretty much everyone involved in the trial. Hamilton was killed in 1804, in a duel with his former partner, Aaron Burr. The judge in the trial simply disappeared after leaving his hotel one night. And Burr was loathed for killing Hamilton, tried for treason in 1807, lost his beloved daughter Theodosia to shipwreck in 1812, and died broke in 1836, the same day his divorce was finalized.

In 1817, houses were built in Lispenard’s Meadow. The Manhattan Well ended up hidden in the basement of a four-story building at 129 Spring Street. The upper-middle-class home eventually became commercial property. In 1954, the building was purchased by the DaGrossa family, who opened a restaurant. In 1980, Manhattan Bistro had grown so much that they needed more storage. They excavated the cellar, and exposed the well that had been buried for nearly 200 years.

Since then, the spirit of Elma Sands has made her presence known. Witnesses have heard her screaming for her life, and have seen the apparition of a young woman, soaking wet, dressed in 18th-century clothing.

Restaurant manager Thomas King had many paranormal experiences during his time at the Bistro. One evening, he went down to the basement to get a bottle of wine from the large cage where the liquor was stored. He unlocked the gate, leaving the key in the lock, and went to the back wall for the bottle. When he turned around, he found the gate locked behind him, trapping him in the cage. The keys had been removed from the lock and placed on a box just out of reach. King was down there for an hour before other employees realized he was missing and came downstairs to rescue him.

Manhattan Bistro went out of business in 2013. In 2014, the building was gutted, renovated, and became an upscale clothing boutique. The well was preserved, and is now in the corner of the men’s department.

This story, and many others, can be found in Grave Deeds and Dead Plots, which is the first volume in a series of true crime books spiced with a touch of the paranormal. It’s available at Amazon in paperback and as an ebook, and at Bookshop.org.

Darren Marlar’s up to something, I just know it. He’s over at www.weirddarkness.com, and he’s put together a whole bunch of spooky podcasts for you to rock out to. Go, check it out! Go! Shoo!

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