Monday, July 15, 2013

Guest Review: Duel with the Devil

Summary: Duel with the Devil is acclaimed historian Paul Collins’ remarkable true account of a  stunning turn-of-the-19th century murder and the trial that ensued – a showdown in which iconic political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr joined forces to make sure justice was done. Still our nation’s longest running “cold case,” the mystery of Elma Sands finally comes to a close with this book, which delivers the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years.
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—with Manhattan likely to be the swing district on which the presidency would hinge—their  animosity reached a crescendo. Central to their dispute was the Manhattan water supply, which Burr saw not just as an opportunity to help a city devastated by epidemics but as a chance to heal his battered finances.

But everything changed when Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, was found dead in Burr's newly constructed 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. -- Crown

Here's something a little different for Mystery Mondays -- a review for a non-fiction mystery book. And better yet, it's written by Booking Pap Pap. I knew the minute I saw 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 that my dad would be interested in this story.

As most of us know from our schooling, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were generals who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. They were bitter political enemies and Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. What I learned from reading DUEL WITH THE DEVIL, is that in 1800 Hamilton and Burr, both highly regarded New York attorneys, set their personal feelings aside and teamed up to defend Levi Weeks, a man charged with murdering Elma Sands, a young Quaker women. I guess you could say they were the original legal “Dream Team”. What is so astounding to me is that this trial took place when their disdain of each other was at a peak and only a short time before the presidential election of 1800 when each man was the leader of their respective political party and obviously played important roles in the election. Could you picture today’s politicians doing something like this?

Because of the participation of Burr and Hamilton and the nature of the crime (she was found dead at the bottom of a well), this became one of the first sensational murder mysteries in the United States. The case became more interesting once it was revealed that the well was built by a company owned by Aaron Burr to provide water to New York City. Additionally, the money for Levi’s defense was provided by his brother Ezra, an influential architect who worked for both Burr and Hamilton.

Author Paul Collins gives the reader a great picture of New York City as it existed in the late eighteenth century with its population of 60,000, its battle with yellow fever and its efforts to supply clean water to the people. Collins also provides a political and social perspective of the day as he describes the nation’s reaction to the death of George Washington in 1799; Burr’s effort to undermine the Federalists Bank of the United States by forming his own Bank of Manhattan; the passing of the eighteenth century; the political climate with the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Republicans headed by Burr; and the controversial election of 1800, the first election where the candidates actually campaigned.

Relying on newspaper accounts, personal diaries and court transcripts Collins provides an interesting look at the legal system that existed at the time. For example, Levi Weeks had his trial within three months of the crime; most trials lasted only one day (this three day trial was very unusual); and in addition to the attorneys, the judge and jury were able to question the witnesses. It’s interesting to compare these processes and others to today’s legal proceedings. It was also the first court case in the United States that a full record of the proceeding was made.

DUEL WITH THE DEVIL is a thoroughly researched, excellent true story murder mystery with an interesting perspective on the social and political climate of the time. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys early American history or enjoys a good crime mystery.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel and to Booking Pap Pap for his terrific review.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


bermudaonion said...

Wow, it sounds like that gives a fascinating peek into the history of New York and our trial system.

Kim@Time2Read said...

Great review. This is definitely going on my 'to read' list. Although I've heard of both Hamilton and Burr and knew a bit about the duel, that is most of what I know, so this will be interesting.