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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 Hardcover


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (June 4, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307956458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307956453
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #69,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

From Booklist

Set in New York City in 1800, the murder case that Collins re-creates began with the discovery of a young woman’s body in a well. It was a politically connected well, owned by a company controlled by Aaron Burr. The accused in the killing had his own influential connection––to Alexander Hamilton––through a brother who built houses for the city’s elite. So, strangely, those Revolutionary War heroes, intense political rivals, and future duelists became the defense lawyers for Levi Weeks. Resident of a boardinghouse in which victim Elma Sands also lived, Weeks at trial faced a circumstantial case. With no eyewitnesses to the murder to confront, Burr and Hamilton pounced on weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, and the jury returned an acquittal. Derived from what Collins reports is one of the first trial transcripts in American legal history, this tautly constructed narrative, infused with period atmosphere, holds the reader’s attention on the fate of the participants, including the well, which still exists. Collins (The Murder of the Century, 2011) delivers fine true-crime verisimilitude. --Gilbert Taylor

More About the Author

Paul Collins is a writer specializing in science history, memoir, and unusual antiquarian literature. His 8 books have been translated into 10 languages, and include Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (2003) and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars (2011). His freelance work includes pieces for the New York Times, Slate, and New Scientist, and he appears on NPR Weekend Edition as its "literary detective" on odd old books.

Collins lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University.

Customer Reviews

A young woman in 1799 New York City was found dead in a municipal well.
Schuyler T. Wallace
This book is well written, easy to read, has new research and more detail then prior books on the subject.
E. Coffman
The book is expertly written and reads more like a novel than a history.
B. McEwan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Esther Schindler TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I wasn't sure that I'd like this book. I've always been "eh" on books that are classified as "true crime," which always seem intent on creeping me out. This meticulously-researched book about true events reads far more like a historical mystery, though -- with humor and a dozen points where I said, "How about that!"

The "tl;dr" summary of the events: In early 1800, a young woman died from Nefarious Means in a well in what today is lower Manhattan. A young man, who also lived at the same boardinghouse, was accused of the murder. It became one of the first BIG DEAL THE NEWS IS EVERYWHERE trials -- especially with the legal "dream team" that included Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr... one of whom would later shoot the other in a duel, in case you've forgotten your high school American History. (Shame on you!)

That might have been written about in an "eh, so what?" way, but Paul Collins really REALLY makes this story come alive, with an immediacy that I admire. First, he does a superb job of bringing us (or, well, ME) into the era: When yellow fever season was feared, when Greenwich Village was a two-mile trip away (very much a separate village), and when New York was understood to be the "swing state" in the upcoming election. One effect, for this born-and-raised-in-NY gal, was several "Oh DUH!" moments in which I realized that all those downtown street names came from somewhere; the city mayor was Varick, for instance, and I don't know how many times I walked down Varick Street by present day city hall.

Because this WAS the trial of the century, by the then-standards, the entire matter was extremely well documented, though it's obvious from the huge reference section just how many of those newspaper accounts, books, and other records Collins pored through.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By charles falk VINE VOICE on June 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In DUEL WITH THE DEVIL, Paul Collins recounts the gripping story of the murder of a young Quaker woman in New York City in 1800 and the subsequent trial of her fiancée as if it were a story dominating the TV news channels of today.He breathlessly reports the gossip of neighbors, statements of public officials, mob demonstrations against the accused, and - best of all - the legal ploys of the defendant's celebrity defense team. That team included New York's two most prominent lawyers who were also two of the young nation's most prominent politicians: Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. For good measure Collins supplies the probable solution to the mystery of Elma Sands' death.

The body of Elma Sands was found on January 2nd 1800 in a well located in an open field known as Lispenard's Meadow which separated New York City from its northern suburb, Greenwich Village. Just two days earlier a huge memorial parade (arranged by Hamilton) honoring George Washington who had died on Dec.14th had marched down Broadway past the meadow. Elma, who was unmarried, had been living for the past three years in a rooming house owned by her cousin Catherine and her husband Elias Ring. Another tenant, an upstanding young carpenter named Levi Weeks, was accused of the murder.

The well in which Elma's body was found belonged to a new municipal enterprise named the Manhattan Company, which had been chartered by the state legislature to provide the city with clean drinking water. Elias Ring, an inventor as well as a rooming house owner, had patented a water wheel which he proposed using to lift water out of the "Collect" a large pond east of Broadway.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By M. Hyman VINE VOICE on May 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A classic New York murder mystery -- a young maiden is found murdered, and suspicion immediately falls on a handsome resident of the same building -- he's thrown in jail, and the public demands swift justice -- but a legal dream team helps defend him and he is exonerated. It sounds like something from most any night on supposed news channels, but there is a twist -- the murder took place in 1800, and the legal dream team included Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr -- the same ones of the famous duel that lead the Vice President to end his life in disgrace. With intrigue, and undercurrent of sex and violence, and a heavy dose of history thrown in, this book is a fun and heavily entertaining yet at the same time educational and a great exploration of early American history.

Well done... a great read you can devour in one sitting.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Randy Keehn VINE VOICE on May 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I must confess that I originally got "Duel with the Devil" in the misconception that it was about the Burr/Hamilton duel. When I got the book and had read to around page 28 (out of 218) with one brief mention of Aaron Burr, I figured something was wrong. I re-read the synopsis and realized that "Duel with the Devil" was about a somewhat obscure murder in New York City in 1800. Well, I might as well keep reading and find out about the murder. After all, I had already read a lot of interesting trivia about the not so big city of New York during the turn of the century in 1800.

As the murder and the subsequent trial became the focus of the book, I found myself a bit disappointed. It may have been "America's First Sensational Murder mystery" but the way trials were conducted back then was probably more interesting than the trial itself. For example, the trials back then kept going without stopping unless it took 3 days or more.

The book finishes well as the author, Paul Collins, brings us up to date with the main characters. That includes a fairly nice yet succinct account of the Burr/Hamilton duel.

I'm glad I read it but "Duel with the Devil" did not grab me much either as history nor as court room drama, nor any sort of whodunit. My guess is that this book would have a bigger audience as a New York regional history selection.
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