The sensational Manhattan well murder of 1799

It was a murder—and subsequent trial—that captivated the young city.

Levi Weeks, a carpenter and the brother of a renowned architect, was courting pretty, 21-year-old Gulielma Sands.

Nicknamed Elma, she lived in the same boarding house as Weeks did in Lispenard’s Meadows, a marshy area near Greenwich Avenue and Spring Street.

On the night of December 22, Elma left her house. Supposedly she told her sister and a friend that she and Weeks were eloping.

She was never seen alive again. Two days later, her possessions—and her beaten body—were found at the bottom of a nearby well. Weeks was quickly indicted for her murder.

The evidence was circumstantial. A sleigh holding two men and a woman was seen by the well the night Elma disappeared; Elma’s sister said Weeks returned to the boarding house that night “pale and nervous.”

To defend himself, Weeks assembled the original dream team of lawyers, including Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Even though most New Yorkers thought he was guilty, Burr and Hamilton got him acquitted. 

Weeks left town fast and moved to Natchez, Mississippi. He became an architect and built many of the city’s loveliest homes.

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14 Responses to “The sensational Manhattan well murder of 1799”

  1. Sean Says:

    I believe the well in which she was found was located on current Spring and Greene Streets.
    In fact, if you walk up the west side of Greene about 100 feet, there is an alley abutting a modernist one-story building that sells sneakers. I believe that is where the well once stood.
    Some basements on that block of Spring Street still flood when it rains, as a result of the high water table there.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks Sean, I’m going to check that out. Amazing to think that whole area once was rural.

  3. petey Says:

    i’ll be on greene street tonight, may have a look.

    • petey Says:

      so i found the alley. it was around 8 pm, so getting dark. there’s a gate but it was open. at the back, on the left there’s a building with a fire escape which goes one level below current street level, as if to a previous street level – a real 19th c. look and feel. and on the right there’s a sump, a round one, like … a well. while i was looking at this i heard a door creak open behind me – but just a worker in the next bldg coming out for a smoke. no ghost or anything.

  4. Sean Says:

    I’ve passed that spot a million times and never thought of going inside. I’ll have to do it.
    Walking past today, I noticed that is really the only “alley” in SoHo. It makes no sense, since all the corner bldgs are built right up to the adjacent bldg.
    Then it dawned on me that it may be an old easement for access to the well. Wonder who actually owns the passageway?

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Wow, okay, now I have to make it over there and check it out. Thank you both for pointing it out and wandering over.

  6. modestine Says:

    I just came across your website and think it’s really something special. I am going to link to it from the Caprices section of Bookpod (www.bookpod.org). The link will be up from Sunday, May 23 to Sunday, May 30.

  7. Lost in Manhattan again « Bookpod Says:

    [...] allegedly murdered his fiance in a boarding house in the vicinity. You can read about it in The sensational Manhattan well murder of 1799 in Ephemeral New York, a WordPress blog I stumbled into — the way I stumble into all kinds of [...]

  8. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you so much!

  9. tischler Says:

    I just stumbled upon this site and have a little info to share. Better late then never. The well is still there. It’s intact and in the basement of the Manhattan Bistro. A lot of unexplained thing have happened there. Flying bottles and glasses flying across the place. Faucets running on their own. The owners are convinced that Elma’s spirit is still there haunting the bistro.

    • Zook Says:

      tischler, you watched “Ghost Stories” last night too? I loved this story. If I were only closer I would have to check out Manhattan Bistro simply for its ghostly ambiance! Elma’s story saddens me though…she trusted the wrong man.

  10. Jani Says:

    As a matter of fact im watching ‘Ghost Stories’ right now and this story is showing at the moment…Very Interesting! Would love to visit the MAnhattan Bistro and the area just bc of this story.

  11. Maggie Says:

    The Manhattan Bistro was built over it. That well is…evil.

  12. Violence against women is about Anger and Control « The Confluence Says:

    [...] If he wasn’t being watched so carefully, we’d undoubtedly have a similar situation to Nicole Brown Simpson, Bonnie Lee Bakely,  or Lana Clark.  Two of the three dishonored men in those murders got away with it.  This has been the usual case, even in history. Just look into the sensational Manhattan well murder… [...]

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