Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

This title had been on my to be read pile for quite some time.  One of the upsides to the Covid Crisis has been that I am working my way through some really good books that I had never gotten around to reading.  In stark contrast to Star Spangled Scandal, this narrative nonfiction offering delivers the goods.  It is highly engaging, well written, and offers a glimpse of a lesser known episode in history.  I mean, who doesn’t love a murder mystery?  And unlike attempts to unmask Jack the Ripper, the solution turns out to be pretty convincing to the reader.  

The subtitle here is revealing:  The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Murder Mystery.  Indeed!  The year is 1800.  Erstwhile frenemies and uber-competitive New York Lawyers Burr and Hamilton are co-counsels for the defense and they definitely put on quite a show.  However, Hamilton-mania aside, there is much more to the book.  The lives of women and workaday people are revealed here as well.  When the body of Elma Sands was found in a well belonging to Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company (the water company he founded to get around banking monopolies held by Federalists in NY), he is already invested in trying to keep the scandal manageable.  But when Levi Weeks, master carpenter and general good guy is accused of the murder, he and Hamilton, along with Brockholst Livingston are hired by Ezra Weeks, Levi’s influential architect brother, to represent him at the trial.  All of this occurs during a Yellow Fever epidemic, no less.

The public were already convinced of Levi’s guilt, so it was something of an uphill battle.  Along the way, the reader is privy to many of the details of Burr’s and Hamiltons’s personal histories together. Fascinating stuff and much less worshipful of Hamilton as some kind of champion for the little guy, since he was not–that role actually belongs to Burr of all people. Fans of the musical may be unhappily surprised to find that Hamilton was not as great a hero, nor Burr a villain as portrayed, but I digress.

In the end, Burr and Hamilton pull off a Perry Mason–they accuse someone else of the murder and get their client off.  The author then does the reader the kindness of solving the crime and tidying up the loose ends.  Altogether, this is a highly readable, extremely interesting slice of Early Republic life, complete with the tangled webs of connection between families in New York society. The book is painstakingly endnoted and sources are listed for those who want to read more.

I impatiently await Burr the Musical

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What was the most surprising thing you found out while reading this book?  What surprised you about it?
  2. What would you like to learn more about after reading this book?  Why?
  3. Do you think the author was correct in his solution of the murder?  What did you find most or least convincing?
  4. How were the courtroom scenes different to what you expected?
  5. Was there anything not included in the book that you thought should have been, or included that you thought should have been left out?  Why?

Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.

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