When you walk into COS’s first East Coast store, in Soho, the last thing you expect to find is a seven-foot-high, eighteenth-century well lodged in a corner of its downstairs men’s department.
Whether or not it’s a well remains to be seen, but the structure could be a vestige of the centuries-old unsolved murder of Gulielma Elmore Sands. The 21-year-old was last seen on December 22, 1799, when she sneaked out of her Greenwich Street boardinghouse to meet her secret lover and fellow boarder Levi Weeks. Her body was later discovered in a well on Lispenard’s Meadow, now Spring Street, on January 2, 1800. She had what were believed to be strangulation marks on her neck.
Weeks was accused of homicide, and the case was famously dubbed by the press as the “Manhattan Well Murder.” The trial remains notable today for two reasons: It is the first murder case is U.S. history to be documented by a stenographer. And, secondly, Weeks had an outstanding defense team consisting of Alexander Hamilton and (his own eventual murderer) Aaron Burr. Weeks was found innocent, but the public outrage got so intense that he had to skip town.
These days, the towering red-brick structure at 129 Spring Street stands behind two mannequins, offering a pointed contrast with its 21st-century environs of gray-and-white walls, spotlights, and racks of Scandinavian-minimalist fashions. It is five feet wide, with slabs of stone now covering its opening at the top.
Before COS, the structure sat in a restaurant called the Manhattan Bistro. Since 1954, the building belonged to the family of Maria DaGrossa, the restaurant’s owner. Back in its bistro days, the well sat in a dark storage basement and curious diners had to request to see it. But with its new owner, the well is visible for all to see.
“The historic prevalence of the space only adds to its appeal, as we are a brand that is committed to maintaining and restoring the original aspects and individual features of all of our buildings,” says COS’s head of communications, Atul Pathak. He adds that he isn’t worried about the well’s presence potentially affecting the ambiance of the new store, which opened on December 5, 2014.
“At COS, we appreciate the importance of incorporating our core aesthetic of modern, timeless, and functional design into our store interiors,” he tells the Voice. In an attempt to restore the well to its “former glory,” COS made some repairs to its brickwork and mortar. Prior to COS, parts of the left side of the structure had broken off.
Just like the diners of yore, the store, Pathak expects, will have some inquisitive customers — and he says COS is pleased to provide a setting where the structure can be a focal point of the store’s interior.
But some archaeologists are unconvinced that the edifice is an actual well — or, for that matter, the exact location where Sands’s body was found.
“Wells from 1799 were typically made of stone, not brick,” says Joan Geismar, a founding member of the Professional Archaeologists of New York City. Geismar has excavated numerous ancient cisterns — which, she says, were typically made of brick. And the COS “well” is more like the usual size of a cistern.
According to Geismar, the only record that probably hints at the location of the Sands well is a May 1872 Harper’s Weekly article by Edward Sherman Gould that said the well was “in the rear of a carpenters shop at the end of an alley, No. 89½ Greene Street, a hundred feet or more north of Spring Street.”
The Manhattan Water Company (a corporation built in 1799 to provide water to Lower Manhattan) was located near the Fresh Water Pond, says Geismar, about a half-mile away from 129 Spring Street. And most wells were usually located close to the pond. Geismar’s research also reveals that the water company never owned that property and typically didn’t build wells where it didn’t own property.
The matter can be put to rest, she says, if archaeologists can visit the bottom of the “well” and see if it has a mortared bottom, or if it’s open to collect water. Geismar suggests excavating inside the structure. “It can be done relatively easily by just removing some bricks to see [its] base,” she says. Though she admits her doubts could be unfounded, Geismar believes “circumstantial” evidence suggests that “this is not the well from the Manhattan Well Murder.”
But because the structure sits on private property, the matter has never been fully investigated. In the 1820s, the existing building was unknowingly constructed on top of it. When DaGrossa’s family purchased the property, the structure wasn’t at street level. And around 1980, DaGrossa’s mother excavated around it and the mysterious structure became visible again.
Well or not, legend has it that the structure is haunted, and over the years it has made several lists of top haunted spots in New York City. And DaGrossa once told the Wall Street Journal that on two occasions, “bottles have inexplicably shot off the shelves” behind the bar at her restaurant.
And Angela Serratore, deputy Web editor for Lapham’s Quarterly, wrote in The Paris Review that there were of couple of ghost stories of “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.”
But COS menswear designer Martin Andersson thinks of Sands’s ghost in a more friendly light. It’s “a modern, minimalist ghost,” he told the Post. “We imagine it being dressed in all white.”
[You can read a full account of the trial of Levi Weeks here.]