Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

Like most Americans who stayed awake in U.S. History, when I saw the subtitle of this book, I thought, "What? No way! But Hamilton and Burr hate each other!" Turns out--not entirely true. Or at least they didn't always hate each other.

But the book really is about the murder case more so than these founding fathers. A young woman, Elma Sands, went out one night in December 1799, and was found many weeks later, drowned in a closed-up well. A young man in the boarding house where she lived, Levi Weeks, was accused of the murder and nearly strung up before the trial could even take place.

Back in 1800, it was shocking for a trial, even a big murder trial with a lot of witnesses, to last two whole days (both of which stretched well after midnight.) I found that kind of funny. And Levi had three attorneys actually, not two (the third, Livingstone, was the only one of the three who turned out well, instead of embroiled in scandal.) It's also interesting how, through the distance of more than two hundred years, a reasonable conclusion to what really happened back then, can be drawn. Of course Mr. Collins has some experience with historical true crimes, and he is good at them. He does a great job of evoking the time and place, through details about the clothing, the food, even details such as that certain kinds of laborers would not give directions by using addresses but instead by using landmarks and that was appropriate. Also in that era, all the shop signs told where the owner was originally from, so that his fellow emigres would support him. You can tell he really did his research, but he didn't overload the book with needless tedious facts. Just enough to sketch the picture well. A well-told history of a slice of life in a long-gone Manhattan.

I bought this book at Shakespeare & Co., an independent bookstore in New York City.

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