The victim of a brutal 18th century murder still allegedly haunts the murder scene, now a cool clothes store. Unsurprisingly, the clerks don’t like the lights dimmed.
The SoHo branch of Swedish clothing store COS in Lower Manhattan is the picture of modernity—there’s nothing vintage or nostalgic about the stark white walls, simple furniture, and rows of color-coordinated sweaters and overcoats lining the walls. Which makes the massive brick well protruding from next to the cash register on the store’s lower level all the more incongruous. In front of this strange structure are two blank-faced, well-dressed models showing off the latest in European minimalism.
But the muted atmosphere is misleading. Since opening last month, employees of the high-end clothing store that’s sister to H&M have blamed all strange occurrences—stuck elevators, electricity problems, misplaced merchandise—on a ghost named Erma.
She resides in the store’s basement floor, in an ancient well that was once a crime scene so ghastly it inspired two centuries of rumor and speculation.
In 1799, a brutal murder rocked a young Manhattan. It would became one of the first great mysteries in the United States of America, as it was only then 23 years old. Thanks to the sensationalism of the crime and the collaboration of otherwise political enemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the legal proceedings that followed, it became simply known as the Manhattan Well Murder.
“Young men and maidens who pass the spot late at night testify they can hear her scream as she vainly implores her lover for her life.”
The victim was Gulielma “Elma” Elmore Sands (the employees have the ghost’s name slightly wrong), a 22-year-old living at her family’s boarding house on Greenwich Street. On Dec. 22, 1799, Sands told her cousins that she would be leaving to elope with a fellow boarder named Levi Weeks that night.
Sands was involved in a scandalous-for-the-time romance with the carpenter and there were rumors she was pregnant with his child. After getting dressed, she departed the house around 8 p.m. and was never heard from again.
A few days later a young boy spotted a fur muff floating in the well, and on January 2, an investigation found the body of Sands, strangled and drowned in the well, which was then in a section of Manhattan called Lispenard’s Meadow, a marshy area popular with couples taking sleigh rides in the frozen winter.
“Strange suspicions have been entertained that she has been willfully murdered,” an editorial in two of New York’s largest newspapers noted.
Weeks was widely considered the culprit, and to encourage vitriol against him Sands’ family actually displayed her corpse inside the boarding house for gawkers to get a better look at her bruises and cuts. When it became too crowded, they moved her into an open casket on the street. Manhattanites were outraged by what they saw, and a few months later, when the trial began in March, a crowd chanted “Hang him! Crucify him!” outside the courthouse.
“The concourse of people was so great as never before witnessed on a similar occasion in New-York,” an observer wrote of the trial.
Weeks retained an unparalleled legal team, which included bitter political rivals Hamilton and Burr. It may have been a bizarre pairing, but both had ties to the case: Weeks’ older brother, Ezra, was a well-known builder who had built Hamilton’s estate called The Grange, and the well belonged to Burr, who owned Manhattan Water Company and had also hired Ezra to fit it with wooden piping. They’re both thought to have owed money to Weeks’ brother.
Throughout the two-day long trial (an unheard-of-length in those days of instantaneous judgment), they argued that Sands was a woman with low moral standing and implied that the true murderer was an older resident of the boarding house.
According to the testimony of Sands’ cousin, she confronted Weeks multiple times about the whereabouts of his to-be bride, but he claimed not to know. “He turned pale, trembled to a great degree, was much agitated, and began to cry,” she told the court.
Luckily for history, the proceedings were the first ever to be transcribed in their entirely (by not one, but three recorders) and some believe also set a precedent for using reasonable doubt as a defense.
With a heavy hand from the judge, the court acquitted Weeks of all charges, though the mysteries didn’t stop. There was speculation that a curse had been cast upon those involved: after the decision was announced, Sands’ cousin apparently screamed at Hamilton: “I call upon the Almighty to curse you all, and He will do it!”
Four years later, he was killed by Burr. Though Burr himself was acquitted twice on murder charges, he ended up dying disgraced by a series of failures. Meanwhile, almost exactly 30 years after the trial, the judge left his home to board a steamboat and was never heard from again. Saved from the public gallows, Weeks was virtually exiled from the city, and wound up in Mississippi, where he raised a family.
After the trial, Manhattan continued to grow steadily and the meadows became sprinkled with buildings, including one that was built over the well 18 years after the murder. In the following centuries the building on top of the well has seen a rotating cast of businesses—from a tobacco addiction “curist,” to a German beer hall to a carpenter shop—but regardless of the current resident, speculation and haunting stories were never far behind.
There were rumors of shrieks and flashes emanating from the well, and reports of a figure in white. “Young men and maidens who pass the spot late at night testify they can hear her scream as she vainly implores her lover for her life,” an 1895 edition of American Magazine wrote.
SoHo has morphed from meadow to artists’ lofts to world-class shopping, but throughout all these incarnations, this well—a small piece of original Manhattan construction—has survived, and so have the stories of ghostly hauntings.
Until now, the well has never been publicly displaced. In the 1980s, the owners of the building, which then hosted a restaurant called Manhattan Bistro, decided to investigate rumors that there was a well underneath the ground level.
It was found off the basement, but kept out of sight of customers. Now, after a complete building renovation, it’s shown off among the stark fashions with prominence, and two-centuries of speculation can be dredged up from the old marshland once again.
Wahkeem Kelly, a men’s sales associate at COS, spends most of his day ringing up customers next to the well. “Personally, I deal with manners of righteousness and God,” he says. “I’m not into ghosts and stuff.”
But then he addresses Erma’s presence directly. “She must be pretty cool because she ain’t give me any issues,” he says with a laugh. His coworkers, on the other hand, have been known to freak out a bit when the building’s timed lights dim in the evening.
Manning the women’s dressing room upstairs, Emily Sena says she first heard the tale during employee orientation—everyone else already seemed to know. Now, she says, her coworkers are actively pranking each other and blaming it on the ghost. But she nods fervently when asked if she believes there could be hauntings, and says downstairs can be spooky during the store’s closing and opening times. “If she was murdered, she’d be here,” Sena says.
The well, ghost or no ghost, is certainly a piece of history with a bold presence. “It is safe to say that up to that period no crime had ever produced in New York such an excitement as the murder of Miss Sands,” an article in an 1872 edition of Harper’s read, offering a truly timeless observation. “For many years afterward it was a never-ending topic of conversation, and is more or less talked of even to this day.” And, 216 years after Elma Sands’ murder, even to ours.