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

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