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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

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BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE EDGAR FINALIST, MURDER OF THE CENTURY

In the closing days of 1799, the United States was still a young republic. Waging a fierce battle for its uncertain future were two political parties: the well-moneyed Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the populist Republicans, led by Aaron Burr. The two finest lawyers in New York, Burr and Hamilton were bitter rivals both in and ...

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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

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Overview

BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE EDGAR FINALIST, MURDER OF THE CENTURY

In the closing days of 1799, the United States was still a young republic. Waging a fierce battle for its uncertain future were two political parties: the well-moneyed Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the populist Republicans, led by Aaron Burr. The two finest lawyers in New York, Burr and Hamilton were bitter rivals both in and out of the courtroom, and as the next election approached, their animosity reached a crescendo. 
             
But everything changed when beautiful, young Elma Sands was found dead the Manhattan Well. The horrific crime quickly gripped the nation, and before long accusations settled on one of Elma’s suitors, handsome young carpenter Levi Weeks. As the enraged city demanded a noose be draped around the accused murderer’s neck, the only question seemed to be whether Levi would make it to trial or be lynched first. The young man’s only hope was to hire a legal dream team. And thus it was that New York’s most bitter political rivals and greatest attorneys did the unthinkable—they teamed up.

At once an absorbing legal thriller and an expertly crafted portrait of the United States in the time of the Founding Fathers, Duel with the Devil is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

A FEW THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR, AND AMERICA'S OLDEST COLD CASE

  • Manhattan's municipal water system had just debuted when the body of Elma Sands was found in one of its wells in 1800. Now in modern-day SoHo, back then the area was part of "Lispenard's Meadow"—and Greenwich Village really was still a village.
  • Aaron Burr created NYC's water service as cover for a banking scheme that would turn the 1800 election against Alexander Hamilton. Their rivalry had high stakes: Manhattan was the swing district of the presidential election's swing state.
  • Not only did the plan work, Burr's bank ploy took on a life of its own; his Manhattan Company eventually became Chase Manhattan.
  • Hamilton and Burr were also the city's top lawyers, but served together on just one murder case: in defending carpenter Levi Weeks for the murder of Elma Sands. The trial attracted thousands of spectators, and was the nation's first fully recorded murder case.
  • Hamilton's first outing as a criminal defense lawyer was less auspicious. He defended a client charged with dueling—and lost.
  • Defendants in capital cases were rarely allowed to speak in their own behalf; they were considered hopelessly biased. They had good reason to be: conviction for murder earned a sentence of hanging and dissection.
  • The murder trial of Levi Weeks was the longest NYC had ever known; its jury had to be put up for the night in City Hall. Afterwards, both Hamilton and Burr claimed to be the one who figured out the real murderer.
  • Now in the basement of the Il Pozzo restaurant at 129 Spring Street, the infamous Manhattan Well is one of the oldest surviving unsolved crime scenes in the city.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Lively, immediate and dishy in the style of a top-notch tabloid columnist…fizzes with the energy and irreverence of an infant republic…Collins provides a saucy breakdown of the twisty and interlocking interests behind Weeks’ case. This is New York politics in all its gritty glory.” Salon

“In Paul Collins's gripping, true-life courtroom drama, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton form the ultimate team of rivals.” —Parade

“Collins not only skillfully squeezes the maximum juice out the combined history and mystery of his story, but may even have solved the crime.” Christian Science Monitor

“[Collins] paints a rich portrait of post-Revolutionary Manhattan, a muddy little burg wracked by fever and drink, where everyone knew everyone...[A] deft narrative.”—Los Angeles Times

“Collins is a vividly evocative writer who conjures up the atmosphere and emotions of a bygone day...Masterful.” —Washington Times

“In Collins's hands, historic figures stand up and live on the page...A rollicking read.”—Oregnonian

“This is more than an account of an old case; it is an absorbing legal thriller...This is a cold case that has suddenly become quite hot.” —Larry Cox, King Features

“NPR's "literary detective" once again applies his skills as a historian to a now obscure crime that was a cause celebre in its day…Using the court transcript as a primary source, Collins makes the most of the inherent drama of the case, and goes one step further to unearth convincing proof of the identity of the real killer.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
 
“This tautly constructed narrative, infused with period atmosphere, holds the reader’s attention…Collins delivers fine true-crime verisimilitude.”
—Booklist
 
“The author’s New York is a fascinating place [and] once the trial begins, the narrative truly takes off, as Collins reveals the immense talents of the three attorneys…A rousing tale of the longest murder trial to that date in Manhattan…the author’s conjecture as to the true villain is spot-on.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Duel with the Devil begins as a wonderfully creepy historical murder mystery and becomes a riveting story of two acclaimed lawyers battling for justice in an unsympathetic courtroom. But, in the talented hands of author Paul Collins, it also becomes something morea startlingly insightful look at early American history and the men who helped shape a young country. The book delivers on so many levels that you'll find yourself, as I did, reading it more than once.”
—Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
 
“A nimble and vividly evocative reconstruction of a long-forgotten New York murder mystery with an unforgettable cast of characters. Duel with the Devil is a fascinating book that unfolds like an early-American episode of Law & Order, with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as the celebrity guest stars.”
—Gary Krist, author of City of Scoundrels
 
Praise for THE MURDER OF THE CENTURY

"Revealing but also enormously entertaining...Collins has a clear eye, a good sense of telling detail, and a fine narrative ability." Wall Street Journal

"Collins has mined enough newspaper clippings and other archives to artfully re-create the era, the crime, and the newspaper wars it touched off....A riveting account." New York Times

"Collins...brings considerable talent to the project. He has an eye for the wacky relics of the era....In the end, Collins has crafted a book that won't disappoint readers in search of a book like Erik Larson's DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. THE MURDER OF THE CENTURY is entertaining." Washington Post

"Simply a fantastic, factual yarn, and a reminder that abhorrent violence is nothing new under the sun." Oregonian

"One of the most exciting true crime books of the summer... simply put, this is crime reporting at its very best." King Features Weekly Syndicate

"A wonderful reminder that we have often been just as we are: fools for spectacle, short of memory, cheered by the invigorating shock of the immoral." Willamette Week

"Wonderfully rich in period detail, salacious facts about the case, and infectious wonder at the chutzpah and inventiveness displayed by Pulitzer's and Hearst's minions. Both a gripping true-crime narrative and an astonishing portrait of fin de siècle yellow journalism." Kirkus Reviews

 "No writer better articulates our interest in the confluence of hope, eccentricity, and the timelessness of the bold and strange than Paul Collins." —Dave Eggers

"Paul Collins's account of the headless torso murder that led to an all-out newspaper war and then a dramatic trial has all the timeless elements of a great yarn—a baffling mystery, intriguing suspects, and flawed detectives. It's compelling history that's also great page-turning entertainment." —Howard Blum, author of THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN and AMERICAN LIGHTNING

Publishers Weekly
NPR’s “literary detective” once again applies his skills as a historian to a now-obscure crime that was a cause célèbre in its day. With a novelist’s touch, Collins (The Murder of the Century) opens with the January 1800 discovery of a woman’s body in a Manhattan well, before flashing back six months to provide the back-story to that grim find. The victim proves to be Elma Sands, a Quaker woman who had disappeared from her lodging house under circumstances that led authorities to suspect carpenter and fellow boarder Levi Weeks. Fortunately for Weeks, his defense fell to two of the most prominent and skilled lawyers of the day—bitter political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, whose later fatal duel casts a somber pall over the suspenseful account of the crime, the trial, and its aftermath. Using the court transcript as a primary source, Collins makes the most of the inherent drama of the case, and goes one step further to unearth convincing proof of the identity of the real killer. Agent: Michelle Tessler, Tessler Literary Agency. (June)
Library Journal
In this latest in a series of curious works from the wide-ranging Collins (The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars), NPR's "literary detective," may have created a new subgenre of early republic true crime. He delves into the true story of Elma Sands's murder in 1799 New York City. When the beautiful Quaker woman's mutilated body was discovered in famed lawyer Aaron Burr's Manhattan well, public outcry rose against the prime murder suspect, her suitor Levi Weeks. Burr joined with his rival Alexander Hamilton to defend Weeks both in the courtroom and to the clamoring public. Not only does Collins provide an absorbing mystery, he also offers an entrancing account of the era's yellow journalism (think Pulitzer and Hearst) while illuminating the legal acumen of two of our country's greatest trial lawyers—and he solves the cold case of Elma Sands's murder to boot. VERDICT With an historian's dedication to detail, Collins brings to life the dusty story discovered in voluminous trial transcripts and newspaper clippings. An entertaining read is in store for those lucky enough to find this book.—Reba Kennedy, San Antonio, TX
Kirkus Reviews
Ostensibly the tale of a dramatic murder trial with three famous defense attorneys, "the first fully recorded murder trial in U.S. history," but actually more of an intriguing exploration of Manhattan in 1799. Collins (The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, 2012, etc.) ably brings New York to life; this would be a great reference book for authors looking for site descriptions. The author's New York is a fascinating place, one that only covered the southern tip of Manhattan and still had no potable water. The Manhattan Company was commissioned to build a pipeline, and those involved in it were major players on both sides of the crime: the murder of a Quaker woman, Elma Sands. There are many characters in the book, and it takes some time before we can identify the victim and suspect. The defense attorneys, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston, don't appear until halfway through the book. The question of how the plaintiff, a mere carpenter, could afford such a dream team may have something to do with the suspect's builder brother, who happened to hold past-due notes from Burr and Hamilton. Once the trial begins, the narrative truly takes off, as Collins reveals the immense talents of the three attorneys. The story is an interesting view of the new nation struggling to establish its own judicial system, but there's too much extraneous information, such as the life stories of peripheral characters and criminal backgrounds of those who shared the jail with the accused. A rousing tale of the longest murder trial to that date in Manhattan, and the author's conjecture as to the true villain is spot-on--but he should have focused more on the trial.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Paul Collins might have called this book The Murder of the Century had that title not belonged to his previous book, which focused on a grisly 1897 homicide. This time around, NPR's "literary detective" looks back a century earlier, to another lurid New York City crime: the 1799 killing of Elma Sands, a young Quaker woman whose body was pulled from the Manhattan Well, setting in motion a remarkable trial that generated obsessive interest at the time ("Scarcely any thing else is spoken of," one socialite wrote in her diary) but has been largely forgotten until now. Collins's spirited, entertaining book is called Duel with the Devil, and its subtitle — The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take On America's First Sensational Murder Mystery — hints at its historical interest: four years before Burr would fire a lethal shot at Hamilton in the nation's most infamous duel, the rival Founding Fathers worked together to defend Levi Weeks, the carpenter charged with Sands's murder.

Before Collins gets to Hamilton and Burr, however, he reconstructs the crime and its aftermath, and his account is greatly enriched by the fact that Weeks's was the first murder trial in the United States to be fully transcribed. As soon as it was over, two brief catchpenny accounts were published to satiate a public hungry for information on the case. William Coleman, the clerk of the court, had been planning all along to write his own account and was outraged that he'd been beaten to the punch. To one-up his competitors, he published a complete, ninety-nine-page transcript of the proceedings (which he'd recorded in the recently popularized art of shorthand), establishing, in Collins's words, "an explosive new form of literature." Collins draws heavily from Coleman's work, using it to lend drama and suspense to his narrative.

Collins has also consulted enough historical sources to create a vivid portrayal of life in Manhattan, which was more small town than Big Apple in the early days of the Republic. Elma lived in her cousin's boardinghouse on Greenwich Street along with Levi, who likely was courting her. She left the boardinghouse on the evening of December 22, 1799, and never returned; by the time her body was found in the well in Lispenard Meadows (today's SoHo neighborhood) on January 2nd, seemingly all of New York was ready to string up Levi Weeks. In the days since she'd vanished, rumors had been flying that Elma and Levi had been intimate but that he'd balked at marrying her.

Luckily for Levi, his brother was the prominent architect Ezra Weeks; luckier still, the chronically debt-ridden Hamilton and Burr — Revolutionary War heroes who'd set up competing law practices in Manhattan — both owed Ezra substantial sums of money for building their competing New York mansions. (The small-town connections hardly end there: Burr was in fact owner of the well where Elma was found, and Elma's cousin had submitted a rejected bid to Burr's company to pump water to the city.) With two of the city's finest attorneys lined up to provide their services free of charge, America's first legal Dream Team was born.

What followed, described by Collins blow by blow, was the "longest murder trial in the city's history," lasting all of two days. The jury took just minutes to acquit Weeks. In a brief epilogue, Collins reports on the post-trial fates of the players, including the fellow tenant of Elma and Levi who he believes was the perpetrator of the crime. Collins runs through Burr's engineering of the Republicans' 1800 election victory (at the expense of Hamilton's Federalist Party), his undistinguished term as Thomas Jefferson's vice president, and, finally, his duel with Hamilton, the outcome of which destroyed his political career and his reputation.

Despite its grim subject matter, Duel with the Devil is a cheerful book. Collins delights in the material, gleefully reporting on Burr and Hamilton's digs at each other and on their caddish reputations ("Nobody needed to ask why Martha Washington had nicknamed her house's tomcat Hamilton," he snickers). And though it's a slim volume, the author is bursting with information, looking to squeeze in every fascinating detail he's unearthed, whether rap sheets for Levi's cellmates in Bridewell prison or a summary of the double bill at a theater Elma and Levi would have passed on their way to church before her death. After he describes the Weeks trial as a spectacle, he adds, apropos of very little, "It was a spectacle, as surely as the two-shilling show in the side parlor of the City Hotel. There New Yorkers beheld 'The American Phenomena,' a single cage containing the improbable menagerie of 'A Fine Little Bird, A Beautiful Flying-Squirrel, & A Rattle-Snake' — all living, gawkers were assured, in confounding harmony." You can almost hear him thinking, "I've got to get that menagerie in there somewhere!"

Ultimately, you'll be glad he did. Collins is having a good time, and his enthusiasm for this intriguing sliver of American history is infectious.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307956460
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 75,197
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

PAUL COLLINS is the author of eight books. An assistant professor of English in the MFA program at Portland State University, Collins is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the founding editor of the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney's Books. His work has appeared in Slate, New Scientist, and the New York Times, and he is regularly featured on NPR's Weekend Edition as their "literary detective."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 12, 2013

    This is a brilliant true crime novel. It is less about the teami

    This is a brilliant true crime novel. It is less about the teaming up of lawyers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr than it is about Elma Sands, the murdered girl found in the municipal city well, and her suspected killer, Levi Weeks. Nicely researched and fleshed out with documents of the time. Any fan of true crime will appreciate this work.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 10, 2013

    This is such a well researched book on New York in 1800. It is f

    This is such a well researched book on New York in 1800. It is filled with great detail including newspaper articles from the time. The author really did some digging around to get this information and he lays out a good case for who the real killer was. Duel with the Devil was a great find and I one I will keep on my shelf for others to read. 

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2013

    I don¿t know that ¿the mystery of Elma Sands finally comes to a

    I don’t know that “the mystery of Elma Sands finally comes to a close with this book.” It offers an interesting counterpoint and brings into focus who was more likely her killer, but let’s not threaten to hang that man either before he has a proper trial. The trial itself was not terribly interesting but the back story on Levi Weeks, accused murderer, and the young Elma was interesting. 

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 22, 2013

    Interesting.

    The content was interesting enough to hold my attention, but I thought it was poorly written.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2014

    Boring...

    Very slow beginning. Could never get into. After 50 pages I gave up.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2014

    Exceptionally good book. This book will "take you

    Exceptionally good book. This book will "take you there" during life and events in New York City, 1800. It is very well researched and written, a suspenseful courtroom drama with high profile and colorful characters. I have read 32 books so far this year (30 non-fiction), and would rate this one near or at the top.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2014

    Early Murder trial.

    Very interesting telling of a murder trial with Hamilton and Burr as codefense council.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 13, 2014

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    Posted August 1, 2013

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    Posted July 18, 2013

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    Posted November 11, 2014

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    Posted August 31, 2013

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