Book Review: Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

Hamilton and Burr. Sounds like a law firm you might see advertised on television. And they were lawyers. But that’s not what really ties these two men together. They are Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. For history buffs, the names may bring to mind the ongoing political battles in the 1790s between Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and Burr, a U.S. Senator who defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law to gain the seat. Most Americans, though, remember the two from an event more commonly mentioned in American history classes — in 1804 Burr, then vice president of the U.S., killed Hamilton in a duel over derogatory comments Hamilton supposedly made.

Their enmity is one of the hooks for Duel with the Devil, an account of what was 18th Century New York City’s “Trial of the Century.” Paul Collins draws on numerous resources, including the trial transcript, in describing how two such foes both end up defending Levi Weeks, a young carpenter, in his trial for murdering Elma Sands, a young woman who lived in the same boarding house.

duelAlthough it is the pivot, the trial doesn’t actually begin until more than halfway through the book. In fact, the oddity of Burr and Hamilton being allied is, like the trial, a vehicle to explore the social and political landscape of New York City as the 18th Century drew to a close. Largest in the country with a population of 60,000, it’s a city where the streets are muddy, two miles of meadows and pastures separate it from Greenwich Village and getting potable water is a central concern. In fact, a project to install underground wooden pipes to bring in water is equally crucial. That project was the Manhattan Company’s, whose founding directors included Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston, who would be on the U.S. Supreme Court less than seven years later. And the prelude to and trial itself give insight to the public attitudes and criminal justice system of the day.

When 22-year-old Gulielma “Elma” Sands’ body is found in a well outside the city on January 2, 1800, (in what is now SoHo in Lower Manhattan), suspicion immediately turns to Levi Weeks. Weeks, 24, lived in the boarding house owned and run by Elma’s cousin and reportedly was the last to be seen with her when she disappeared on December 22. Rumors were they were sneaking off to be secretly married. Between his arrest and trial at the end of March, virtually the entire city is convinced of his guilt. In fact, the day trial begins at City Hall, the building is swarmed by what one observer reported to be the largest crowd in the city’s history. And when it starts, Weeks is represented by Burr, Hamilton and Livingston. How does a common carpenter end up with such a high powered defense team? His brother, Ezra, is one of the city’s biggest contractors and not only does his wealth help, but both Burr and Hamilton are reportedly deeply in debt to him for various construction work.

Duel With The Devil unfolds slowly and even has a whodunit feel through the end of trial. The modern reader sees not only an early New York City but how legal procedures have changed over the years. While a judge was the chief presiding officer, he was joined by the city’s mayor and recorder. Jurors had to be men and possess $250 worth of property, about what a common laborer would earn in a year. Even murder trials usually took less than a day so, as a rule, they proceeded until complete. Here, though, the first day’s testimony went until 1:30 the next morning, with the jurors sleeping on the floor of a second story room in which they were sequestered. The second day went until 2:30 a.m. Seventy-five witnesses testified. The prosecution’s case was circumstantial; the defense decimated what we would today call the prosecution’s forensic evidence and suggested she committed suicide. Once the jury retired to deliberate at about 3 a.m., the not guilty verdict took minutes, perhaps aided by the fact the judge instructed the jury that he, the mayor and the recorder all believed the evidence was insufficient to convict Levi.

Levi didn’t testify during trial. That was a matter of custom in capital cases, where defendants were viewed as having a hopeless bias against conviction, creating a “disqualification of interest.” As Collins observes, though, that seems to have been about the only conflict of interest that was recognized. Not only did the city recorder sit on the board of the Manhattan Company at the time of trial, the company “owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, and had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk [of courts.]”

New York City was so fascinated with the trial that within hours of the verdict a 16-page pamphlet about it was being snapped up. Another, more complete pamphlet appeared two days after that and within two weeks the clerk of courts published the full transcript, the first such in the new nation. Collins incorporates that testimony in portraying the evidence and machinations at trial. His detail tends to be better focused than in earlier chapters, where there are occaionsal diversions into matters that don’t seem quite germane to the story or the portrayal of New York City in 1800. That said, the straightforward, almost journalistic approach, makes this a satisfying look into a unique coalescence of events and personalities.

Collins doesn’t abandon the participants once the trial is over. While it didn’t establish who killed Elma, Duel With The Devil does. Livingston, Hamilton and Burr would go on to joust in the courtroom and, for the latter two, in politics. Hamilton would meet his fate along the Hudson River in New Jersey. The duel would bring Burr’s political career to an end and he would stand trial for (and be acquitted of) treason in 1807, less than nine months after Livingston reached the Supreme Court. As for Levi Weeks? He would leave New York City several years later and go on to become a successful architect in Natchez, Miss., perhaps thankful he never achieved the fame (or infamy) of his legal “dream team.”


The jury box was what women and the poor faced, not what they sat in.

Paul Collins, Duel with the Devil

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponBookmark/FavoritesFarkShare

Weekend Edition: 7-19

Bulletin Board

  • Although I doubt he or she is reading this, I just wanted to tell the asshat in Provo, Utah, who tries to hack the site several times a day that using different IP addresses ain’t gonna help. There’s also a dickwad in KC who’s not quite so pesistent.

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • Easeful death (“Death is a fearful thing, but it is the pain of life that leaves many ill people in despair.”)
  • Because War is a Form of Language (“[Israel and Hamas] are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they’re communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.”)

Arrest of the Week

  • A Connecticut man was arrested after stabbing a watermelon with a butcher knife and leaving it in the kitchen for his wife to see

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse

David Bowie, “Changes,” Changesbowie

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponBookmark/FavoritesFarkShare

Weekend Edition: 7-12

Prior Post Update

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • Quitting the Cancer Battle (“Cancer patients are betrayed by our culture’s dishonesty.”
  • Hell-bent (“…one thing’s for certain: in the US, hell isn’t going up in flames anytime soon.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Least Surprising Blog Headlines of the Week

Most Pain-Inducing Blog Headline of the Week

Week’s Best Blog Post by a Federal Judge

  • “Next term is the time for the supreme court to go quiescent – this term and several past terms have proven that the Court is now causing more harm (division) to our democracy than good by deciding hot button cases that the Court has the power to avoid. As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu.” (and with a link to “stfu” on Urban Dictionary)

Diagram Best Describing Me and Bookstores

new books

Bookish Links

Nonbookish Links


Every book teaches a lesson, even if the lesson is only that one has chosen the wrong book.

Mason Cooley, City Aphorisms, Sixth Selection

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponBookmark/FavoritesFarkShare

Book Review: Secret Lives of the Tsars by Michael Farquhar

As the recent July 4 holiday reminded, America isn’t fond of royalty — unless they’re showing up in the celebrity gossip. In fact, the Declaration of Independence lays out a laundry list of what King George III did to establish an “absolute tyranny” in the colonies. But he never went so far as to kick his eldest son’s pregnant wife in the stomach and, when the son objects, striking him with an iron-tipped staff and killing him. What royal would do that? A man appropriately called Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first tsar.

Such an incident would seem to make Russia’s history fertile ground for tales of the seamier side of royal life, especially for an author who’s previously written on history’s royal peccadilloes. But this bit of history is in the introduction to Michael Farquhar’s Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia. As the title conveys, he finds more than a instances of royal misbehavior and villainy. But there’s also a subtle but significant hint in the title indicating there’s more here than just the sordid.

tsarsFarquhar’s book looks at the Romanov tsars so its focus actually begins some 30 years after Ivan the Terrible died. But the Romanovs also seemed to have few qualms about killing or imprisoning family members, although those occasions tended to actually involve some forethought.

Michael Romanov became tsar in 1613, starting a three century dynasty. Attempting to hold true to the promises of its title, the core of Secret Lives of the Tsars begins in 1862 with the joint rule of Ivan V and his half-brother Peter, crowned when they were 15 and 10, respectively. Ivan was mentally and physically disabled so his older sister actually ran the country. Peter forced her out seven years later and became sole ruler upon his half-brother’s death at age 29.

For Westerners, Peter is probably the first recognizable tsar after Ivan the Terrible. Peter became “the Great” because his sweeping reforms and military adventures turned Russia into a true empire. But Farquhar points out, those accomplishments also came with bizarre and at times vicious behavior. For example, when his companions at an anatomical dissection became squeamish, he made each go up and take a bite out of the body. Following an abortive revolt in 1698, Peter spent weeks personally interrogating and torturing rebels outside his country estate. Even those examples are indicative he did not see it necessary for the tsar to voluntarily constrain his powers.

There are times the book’s effort to spotlight some of the tawdry behavior of the Romanovs stretches a bit. In introducing his chapter on Catherine the Great, Farquhar observes that “her legendary love life remains her most enduring legacy.” Granted, Catherine had a variety of lovers throughout her reign and Farquhar freely informs the reader about them. But to suggest this is the imprint of her rule gives short shrift to what this Prussian-born woman accomplished. After wedding the future tsar at age 16, she used political savvy to unseat her husband six years later, barely six months after he assumed the throne (with debate still existing over whether she was complicit in his death.) Her 34 years as Empress would be considered a Russian golden age and a Russian Enlightenment. Like Peter the Great, she wanted to modernize Russia and acted to expand its territory. She was conversant with and opened the country to more Western ideas. While Secret Lives of the Tsars discusses these aspects of her rule, it seems undercut by the introductory reference to her sexuality and casting much of the discussion by way of the role her lovers played in her life.

But even though Catherine introduced Western ideas, the serfs still struggled. The underlying fractures in Russian society were aggravated by the eccentric, if not bizarre, actions of her son Paul when he became emperor. Not only did he alienate the military, Farquhar reports that Paul believed the way to resolve the European conflicts was by publicly challenging his fellow monarchs to face each other in a series of duels. He lasted less than five years before members of the military assassinated him. Once Paul’s successor, Alexander I, defeated Napoleon (with the help of the Russian winter), many of the nefarious activities of the tsars came in their efforts to protect autocratic rule.

Thus, the 30-year reign of Nicholas I, Alexander’s younger brother and successor, was built upon repression. On the day of his coronation, he ended the so-called Decembrist revolt but ordering the military to fire cannons on some 3,000 protesters in a public square. One of his closest advisers was the minister of education, who Farquhar says was “charged with a simple task: to keep the people stupid.” Censorship was such that words deleted by censors could not be replaced with ellipses for fear the reader “fall into the temptation of thinking about the possible contents of the banned part.” While successive rulers would make some moves to liberalize the country in response to growing social discontent, all still adhered to the idea that ultimate rule rested in their hands, a belief that would continue until the forced abdication of Nicholas II in 1917.

Significantly, the first word in the title describing the tsars’ lives is autocracy. Many of the activities coming after it flow from the concept. Absolute rulers generally need not fear their own ongoing intrigues, repressions and personal lapses. One of the keys to understanding Russia during the Romanov era is recognizing how the autocratic power of the tsars affected their actions and society. Although often employing some of their baser acts, Secret Lives of the Tsars explores that without allowing it to suffocate the work. As such, it is a highly readable history of the Russian tsars and a fine survey for those who may be interested but don’t want or need a studious approach toward the subject.


[Alexander III's] entire education consisted of what one courtier described as an “unshakable belief in the omnipotence of the tsars of Russia.”

Michael Farquhar, Secret Lives of the Tsars

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponBookmark/FavoritesFarkShare

Weekend Edition: 7-5

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

Blog Headline of the Week

Legal Defense of the Week

  • A Wisconsin man charged with 13 counts of voter fraud, including casting five votes in one election, claims he has temporary amnesia, and doesn’t remember the elections.

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


Fate … is what happens to us; destiny is what we do with it.

Andrew D. Kaufman, Give War and Peace a Chance

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponBookmark/FavoritesFarkShare

The Declaration of Independence in plain American

I’ve long been a fan of H.L. Mencken, the iconoclastic journalist and critic of the early 20th Century. Just last summer I read A Religious Orgy in Tennessee, a collection of his coverage of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” for the Baltimore Evening Sun. That’s why I was surprised this week to discover I was unaware that in 1921 Mencken “translated” our founding document into “The Declaration of Independence in American.”

Mencken was adept at using humor, often quite biting, to make serious points. Writing in the wake of the Palmer Raids and the country’s first “Red Scare,” Mencken suggested that Declaration had become “unintelligible to the average American,” i.e., the government and those who supported the raids. He suggested that putting the Declaration into vernacular might “serve to prevent, or, at all events, to diminish that sort of terrorism.”

I think he astutely translated what is to me the heart and soul of the Declaration, its “self-evident” truths: “[F]irst, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn[.]”

Given the way things have been going this century, it looks like we need to start widely circulating Mencken’s translation.


But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more … then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much[.]

H.L. Mencken, “The Declaration of Independence in American

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponBookmark/FavoritesFarkShare