Better Together? Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; Continent: North America

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 by Paul Collins

  • High-profile courtroom drama, celebrity lawyers and shocking truths played out 215 years ago
  • 304 pages (195 pages, excluding Acknowledgments, et cetera)

Manhattan, 1799 – the veterans of the Revolutionary War fought a generation ago and are aging now, but the United States of America still feels new. Calling someone a Loyalist or a British sympathizer is still a good way to cast aspersions on him. The press is free, but the politics are pretty fast and loose, too, and not everyone loves every bit of the Constitution. Significantly, this new country lacks its own legal precedents because the court system is so young. This curious aspect of living in a new nation means American lawyers often cite British case law in their own criminal or civil courts. That last bit surprised me until I thought about it, and it becomes relevant to the story.

In those days, Manhattan features landmarks like Lispenard’s Meadows, where gunshots ring from the efforts of gentlemen gone fowling. This less developed part of the island has a well. The well is familiar to nearby residents, but while the cartmen and other laborers who live nearby know it, it is hardly a place for the neighbors to converge and gossip. This well is the place where some local men discover the floating body of a young Quaker woman.

The Case Is Big…

During this time, Manhattan’s constabulary does not assume responsibility for solving a murder. That job goes to the city’s district attorney for the city, although once that gentleman identifies the culprit, the police will make the arrest. The prosecuting attorney names carpenter Levi Weeks, the brother of prosperous contractor Elias Weeks and resident of the same boardinghouse as young victim. The carpenter has been seen in the company of the deceased, and other boardinghouse residents believe he had some romantic intentions for the girl.

Weeks is a natural suspect, and no one struggles too much to rule him out before setting a court date. As Weeks languishes in prison ahead of his trial, the city’s newspapers have essentially decided upon his guilt. In fact, one propagates a ghost story in which spirits around the well identify him as the girl’s killer. Soon, the entire city seems to think the man guilty.

…And So Is the Defense Team…

Neither Alexander Hamilton nor Aaron Burr is independently wealthy in spite of his fame, and Burr in particular has credit problems. Therefore, each man continues to maintain his private law practice outside of his political career. In fact, both men owe money to the same contractor Elias Weeks, so Weeks can easily add these political heavyweights to his brother’s legal team.

Their contrasting styles seem to complement one another when teamed. Charismatic Burr makes opening and closing arguments, while exacting Hamilton draws out witness testimony. Even these distinguished gentlemen aren’t the entire defense team: the third lawyer rounding out the defense team will go on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Hamilton and Burr have opposed one another in court, worked with the prosecuting attorney, and worked together before. In fact, everyone in this court drama has some history with everyone else.

…But the Story Is Even Bigger

The murder story is superimposed on an even larger snarl of connections for this tale’s principal figures. Manhattan 215 years ago is among the biggest voting districts in the young nation, so it attracts national political figures like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as well as national attention generally. Both men are well-known, as is their mutual dislike, but they can’t help traveling in the same influential circles: the city is not yet so big that they can avoid one another. Burr comes and goes from the city, withdrawing at times to avoid creditors.

Aaron Burr has recently created a company to supply potable water to Manhattan (one day this company will become a bank, Chase Manhattan). He needs his water company to succeed for his political career, yes, but he also needs money. To accomplish the goal of piping fresh water to Manhattan residents, Burr’s company needs to use the well where neighbors discovered the girl’s corpse as a source for the water his company will pump around the settled part of the island. The other source of fresh water large enough for the project is Collect Pond, which isn’t as fresh as all that – the city’s refuse, tannery waste and dead animals end up in there. The connection of well and attorney may seem a coincidence, but the contractor who will make and lay wooden pipes around Manhattan is none other than Elias Weeks. When Burr is fighting to clear Weeks’ brother, he is really trying to clean up a public relations mess for his water company.

Style Counts

This is my second experience of a book by author Paul Collins. He likes a story with characters from history you’ve already heard of, and this one offers another juicy murder mystery he takes a stab at solving. He makes a pretty good argument for his hypothesis here, too.

If historical fiction is more your genre than nonfiction generally, you will like Collins’ narrative style. He doesn’t shy away from describing a creaking floorboard, for example, if it sets the mood without changing the meat of the story. This short book is one for vacation, though, when you can tuck into it for a nice chunk of time. There’s a lot going on here to manage in ten or fifteen minutes of bedtime reading, and you won’t want to give it up when it’s time for lights out.

Image: Illustration, “Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.” from Wikimedia Commons.

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