Book Review | “Duel with the Devil”

Review By Francene DePrezDuel-with-the-Devil-by-Paul-Collins

This book reminded me of the song David Allen Coe sang, ‘You Never Even Call Me By My Name,’ with the verse: “Well, a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song and he told me it was the perfect country and western song. I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the perfect country and western song because he hadn’t said anything at all about momma or trains or trucks or prison or gettin’ drunk.”

Duel with the Devil, The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery is just like that song. It is the perfect murder mystery because it is a true story, it has familiar famous people, politics, and love.

I chose the book for these reasons plus it was written by Paul Collins, an assistant professor at Portland State University, where I took a few college classes, in Portland, Oregon where I was raised.

The book starts out January 2, 1800 when a muff, used to cover the hands in cold weather, is found floating in a well owned by Aaron Burr. The murdered woman, Elma Sands, is a beautiful young Quaker woman who lived in the same boarding house as Levi Weeks. After being pulled from the well, the victim was taken back to the house, and then carried out of the house to the local coroner. One man incited the crowd outside the house, yelling “Levi Weeks is to blame. He’s who she was last with”. The constable felt he had to act immediately, “even on mere hearsay and reasonable suspicion.” He set off to Levi’s workshop and put him under arrest.

The author writes that “The unusual court coverage of this affair – the first fully recorded murder trial in U. S. history – allowed me to draw upon eyewitness testimony to a degree that is extremely rare for this era.”

Collins weaves politics in and out of the story and gives us a picture of what the Federalist and Republican parties were like. Burr and Hamilton were controversial political figures on opposite sides of the aisle.

Surprisingly, they were not much different than Democrats and Republicans today! Because yellow fever ran rampant throughout New York City, Aaron Burr, a Republican, promoted the building of a private water system through the city as a great public service.

General Hamilton, a Federalist, reluctantly agreed to support his bill. The bill that Burr presented to the state legislature was not as represented to Hamilton. Passed when many lawmakers had already left for home, one friend of Hamilton’s “snorted that Burr had begotten it on the body of the Legislature when it was lulled into a profound sleep by his arts and misrepresentations”.

This doesn’t sound much different than politics today! Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are asked to represent Levi Weeks by his brother, Ezra, who is the contractor for the water system. Investigating a murder was difficult in the early 1800’s. The police were just watchmen and the prosecutor handled the crime investigation.

Cadwallader Colden, assistant attorney general, was trying the case. He has just had a very public murder trial overturned and he needed to win this case to recover his career. However, it seemed that he didn’t do very well exploring this case either.

The book includes fascinating detail of the trial from actual court records. “The ambush Burr had planned for the Weeks trial would be one of the most remarkable of his long legal career – and this time, he’d mapped it out alongside General Hamilton”.

The jury found the defendant “not guilty” in less than ten minutes. It was the longest murder trial in the city’s history, and is still a cold case today. The author has an interesting theory of who murdered Elma Sands.

The book has a surprise ending which I won’t reveal here. However, this quote will be sure to entice you to check this book out from Jefferson Carnegie Library, “At one time Aaron Burr had battled to defend New York’s most notorious accused murderer. Now the notorious killer he’d have to defend was himself.”

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