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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 – June 4, 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 235 customer reviews

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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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition, 2nd Printing edition (June 4, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307956458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307956453
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (235 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #331,476 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Esther Schindler TOP 1000 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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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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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Duel with the Devil is a very good murder mystery, and the best thing about it is that the story is a genuine historical cold case. Author Paul Collins is a historian who did extensive research on one of the first sensational murder trials in American history, which took place in New York City in 1799. His recounting of that trial pulls quotes and details from first-hand sources, such as diaries of people who lived at the time and contemporaneous newspaper articles. The book is expertly written and reads more like a novel than a history.

The investigation into who killed Elma Sands is engrossing in and of itself, but this case has an added twist in that two greats of American history -- Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr -- joined with Brockholst Livingston, son of a famous family of the Revolution, to defend the young man who was accused, Levi Weeks. As many know, Burr and Hamilton were arch rivals, each one vying for a prominent place in American politics and each having a very different view of how the young nation ought to be governed. This adds to the drama of the book and also gives current readers an opportunity to understand that America's current, vituperative political climate is survivable. This is no small matter, as the constant bickering between the political parties of 2013 has given the impression to many that our republic is in danger of disintegration. Duel with the Devil makes clear that similar situations have existed before, and therefore gives hope that those of us alive today can overcome our frustrating political stalemate.

One of the features of this book that I especially enjoyed is that Collins references a wealth of details about the social and economic life of the people of early New York City.
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