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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
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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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But the subtitle--The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery--is a bit misleading, in that very little of the book is about that. Sure, Collins gives plausible reasons for both prominent lawyers to take on a carpenter's murder case (Burr had business ties to the defendant's brother, and Hamilton owed the brother a lot of money), but there's little light shed on how these political rivals actually worked together.
Collins' structure, which worked pretty well, focused first on the NYC political and economic scene at the turn of the century, then the people and events that set up the mystery, then the prosecution's investigation of the case, and, finally, the trial itself. Collins notes that, during at least one of the three months between discovery of the body and the trial, Burr and Hamilton were in Albany, serving in the state legislature, while the prosecution developed its case. There is no discussion of how they developed their defense. Instead, Collins saves their research for trial. This adds to the suspense, but tells us nothing of how they worked together. The description of the trial, too, is lacking. Collins doesn't explain how trials were conducted, but, based on his description, it appears that there were at least some critical differences from today's practice (for example, it appears that opposing counsel could interrupt the other lawyer's direct examination of a witness in order to ask questions as if on cross). How did Burr and Hamilton (along with their third co-counsel, Livingston) divide up the work?
I'm glad I read it, but Collins' true interest is in the murder mystery, and his conclusion as to what really happened over 200 years ago. I feel that featuring Burr and Hamilton in the subtitle was more about getting more customers to purchase it than an accurate representation of the focus of the book.
Collins complies his relatively brief book by doing four things: he gives the reader tons of background and context for the New York City in which the murder transpired and fleshes out the principals, he recounts the trial, he posits his own theory of who might have killed Elma, and he wraps up with the famous duel between the one-time co-counsels and long-time political enemies that cost Alexander Hamilton his life. I found Ezra Weeks to be a surprisingly interesting figure: we've all known of those "prominent citizen" types that seem to be able to pull all the strings, and he was able to get his brother two of the foremost attorneys in the city in a way that only one of those types could do. He was a local construction guy, and he had two customers with a taste for the finer things but without a budget to support that taste, who therefore owed him money: Hamilton and Burr.
The full-on Hamilton craze seems to have peaked a while ago, but there's still a lot of interest in his story. To be perfectly honest, this book, and the case at the center of it, aren't much more than a footnote in a life that managed to encompass a great deal despite its relative brevity. Collins does what he's trying to do here well enough, but there's nothing revelatory. If you've got an interest in cold cases or you've found out about this case in particular and wanted to know more, this book tells its story with clear, informative prose and is worth your time. If, however, you're more interested in Hamilton's entire career, I'd recommend Ron Chernow's Hamilton instead, which is very long but fascinating.
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I lived on this age thanks to the pages of this book . I recommend it!