Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery – Paul Collins’ long-winded title pretty much sums this book up, although it’s way more dramatic than the story warrants.
Most Americans may recall from their U.S. History classes that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were two Founding Fathers on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, whose differences ended in tragedy when Burr shot and killed Hamilton during a duel. Very few individuals probably realize that they were both lawyers and politicians in New York City and, while opposing each other frequently, also occasionally teamed up. Historian Paul Collins tackles America’s oldest cold-case, a turn-of-the-century murder mystery and the sensational ensuing trial, to reveal a new side to these historic figures.
It’s 1799 in New York City, the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Republicans led by Burr were fighting fiercely for political power in the fledgling country. With a swing election on the horizon and both men gunning for the presidency, a large aspect of the struggle for votes centered on the Manhattan water supply. But when the body of young Quaker woman Elma Sands was found in Burr’s newly constructed Manhattan Well and her rumored suitor Levi Weeks was considered the chief suspect, their indebtedness to Week’s brother Ezra drew these rivals together to bring justice and save their client.
Collins weaves multiple stories together. On one hand, there is the inquiry into what happened to Elma Sands, followed by the trial of Levi Weeks and the hypothesized solution to the crime. On another, it delves into Hamilton and Burr’s personalities/personal histories as well as their relationship to the city and country they helped build. Additionally, Collins includes side discusses on topics including sanitation, tabloid journalism, carpentry, and the day-to-day life of the average Manhattanite in the early 19th century.
I found the balance between these threads to be choppy. I began the book assuming it would focus on the true crime aspect, which it certainly did in parts, but I felt distracted by all the other pieces he wove in as my interest wavered in the drier sections. While I enjoyed his speculation on the true story behind these events, there wasn’t quite enough mystery behind this murder to live up to my expectations.