Beneath the cast iron facades and pop-up shops of SoHo, there lies an old well with a dark past. Built in the 1700’s and excavated in 1980, this historic landmark can still be seen in the basement of 129 Spring Street and is considered one of the most haunted places in New York City. If you’ve ever wandered around SoHo, you might be surprised to hear of this well. The neighborhood has a shopping center feel to it, sporting high-end clothing stores and specialty restaurants. It’s one of those neighborhoods where you could spend hundreds of dollars on accident. In fact, the building that houses the well is a COS, a minimalist fashion boutique. It’s one of the last places someone would expect to find a 200-year-old haunted landmark. So why is it there?
In the winter of 1799, Gulielma Elmore Sands (Or “Elma Sands” as many have dubbed her) was having a secret, torrid affair with Levi Weeks. Sands lived in poverty, but Weeks came from money and ran with a rich crowd. If their affair was revealed, Weeks would be a laughingstock and shunned from high society. Sands, on the other hand, had no interest in keeping the relationship to herself. She would often tell her friends of her gentleman friend, confiding in them that her struggles would soon be over once Levi proposed. It seemed like her dream would come true when Weeks suggested the two elope. On the night of December 22nd, Elma dawned her best attire and left to meet her lover. She was never seen alive again.
Several weeks later, on the morning of January 2nd, two children were playing by the SoHo Well (Then known as the “Manhattan Well”) when they saw a piece of clothing float to the top. Authorities were sent to investigate and found the body of Elma Sands. She had been in the well for days and had noticeable bruising on her neck as well as scratches on her back, as though she had been strangled and dragged. Suspicion immediately turned to Weeks, who was arrested and tried for murder. Weeks knew the evidence was against him, but luckily his brother knew a few good lawyers:
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the ones you’re thinking of. Weeks hired Burr and Hamilton to represent him in the first recorded murder trial in the United States (It was even mentioned in Hamilton, but Lin Manuel Miranda switched the dates around for the show). The well murder became national news and the court of public opinion already turned against Weeks. However, Burr and Hamilton were the best lawyers of the time. Even though Sand’s body showed signs of strangulation and multiple eyewitnesses saw the couple walking into the woods together, Burr and Hamilton’s story was that Weeks never intended to marry Sand’s. When she learned this, she threw herself in the well. Weeks was found innocent after only five minutes of Jury deliberation.
Whether jilted lover, or murdered mistress, Sand’s never got the justice she so rightly deserved. After that, the well was, understandably, no longer used as a water source. Instead, a house was built around it in 1817. First it became an office for a tobacco addiction specialist and then a beer hall before the building was abandoned. However, even when the shop had no life inside it, some say it was never empty.
Ghostly activity at 129 Spring Street isn’t new, or even isolated to the building. In 1895 American Magazine was quoted saying, “Young men and maidens who pass the spot late at night testify they can hear [Sands] scream as she vainly implores her lover for her life.” Reports of screams or crying have persisted over the years, but strongest activity started the well was excavated.
In the 1950’s, SoHo staple “The Manhattan Bistro” had its grand opening. The family that owned the restaurant heard stories of “The Ghost of Spring Street” but didn’t think much of it. Sure, silverware would disappear and certain spots in the building would suddenly become cold but those are not the weirdest occurrences when you own a restaurant in New York City. Yet the stories kept coming up and the family got curious. The basement had been filled in with sand and dirt sometime in the early 1900’s, so in 1980 they decided to excavate the basement to see what was down there. Low and behold, they found the well, and the paranormal activity went into overdrive.
Things began disappearing much more frequently, and people would hear voices and whispers. Staff and patrons began reporting glasses, plates, and silverware moving by themselves; even being thrown across the room in some cases. If you’re brave enough to go down to the basement at night, you might see a swirling mist around the well, or even the full body apparition of Elma Sands. She weeps next the well, drenched and torn as though she just crawled out of it. Paranormal investigators were frequent visitors and have even called it the most haunted building in New York.
The Manhattan Bistro closed in 2014. H&M’s sister brand, COS, has been there ever since, and have embraced their ghostly resident. In a New York Post interview from 2014, Martin Andersson, the head of Men’s Design for the company, joked, “We imagine it being dressed in all white…a modern minimalist ghost.” The reports of hauntings are less frequent, but power surges and missing inventory are often blamed on Sands.
SoHo is no stranger to the macabre and the destitute. It’s one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city today but, back during the depression, it was called “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” It housed the poor and the destitute just as it did when Elma was alive. Today, millions of people visit the neighborhood seeking pop-up bars and high-end clothing, including the COS that houses the well. The glitz and glamor often mask the history of the neighborhood. The only reminders of the past are the tight, cobblestone streets and the cast iron facades. If you ever find yourself walking down those streets and past those facades late at night, you might just hear the soft, desperate weeping of Elma Sands.
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528