Thursday, April 18, 2019

Book 177: Duel With The Devil

"This room, filled with the most distinguished legal eminences in the state, might have seemed a Gordian knot of tangled conflicts of interest: Burr’s company owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk, and had political alliances and rivalries with his fellow counselors, the mayor, and the judge. In any other time or place, all this might have at least raised an eyebrow. But in Manhattan in 1800, it was just how business was done."

Dates read: September 15-19, 2017

Rating: 4/10

True crime, it seems, has never been more popular. It's always had a fanbase: look at Unsolved Mysteries, or America's Most Wanted, or Ann Rule's entire career. But ever since the first season of Serial took the country by storm (it was the first podcast I ever subscribed to, and I don't think I'm alone in that), it seems like it's everywhere, from other podcasts like My Favorite Murder to TV shows like HBO's stellar The Jinx. And there's never-ending source material: there will always be cold cases and shaky convictions all over America every day. What remains to be seen is if this is a trend that's here to stay.

One of America's oldest cold cases is the basis of Paul Collins' Duel With The Devil. Elma Sands, a young, often sickly Quaker woman who had come to New York City with her cousin, Catherine, and lived in a boarding house there, was found dead in a well in her best clothes. Suspicion quickly turned on Levi Weeks, a fellow boarder, who'd been seeing Elma and who she'd reputedly left her room the night she was killed to secretly marry. Levi happened to be the brother of Ezra Weeks, who was a well-connected businessman and arranged for Levi's defense by what was likely America's first legal Dream Team: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Henry Brockholst Livingston. Despite the almost overwhelming public opinion that Levi had done it, the defense managed to echo (pre-echo?) the OJ Simpson case in another respect: he was found not guilty. His legal victory did nothing for his PR woes, though, so he left the city not long thereafter and ended up in Mississippi, where he lived out the rest of his life being mostly pretty boring.

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 I listened to on audio and is very long but fascinating. 

One year ago, I was reading: Chosen Country

Two years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Three years ago, I was reading: Dune


  1. It's an interesting period in time. Too bad it wasn't a little better.

    1. It was pretty awful for women particularly, it would seem