“Duel With the Devil”: Murder in Old New York

Before their fatal duel, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up in court to save a man from the gallows

Topics: What to Read, Must-Do, Books, Editor's Picks, Nonfiction, History, American History, New York City, True crime, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Murder,

"Duel With the Devil": Murder in Old New York

Crime and punishment: Dostoyevsky was far from the only writer to recognize how much a society reveals about itself in the way it handles both. For novelists, a detective can serve as a roving eye, licensed to peer into the secrets of every social stratum, while a trial, with its pitched adversaries and high stakes, becomes a dramatic way to decide not only what happened but who, if anyone, is to blame.

That’s how Paul Collins uses the famous real-life murder mystery at the center of “Duel With the Devil.” This sensational crime took place in Manhattan in December, 1799, on the very brink of a new century (or not quite, if you’re the sort of pedant who insists that the millennium didn’t really turn until New Year’s 1801 — and yes, those people were around back then, too!). The body of a young Quaker woman, Elma Sands, was found at the bottom of a well in Lispenard Meadows, a swath of marshy, undeveloped land that separated New York City proper from Greenwich Village, approximately where the neighborhood of Soho stands today. The guy almost everyone liked for the killer was Levi Weeks, a carpenter who lived in the same boarding house as Sands, an establishment run by Sands’ cousin, Catharine Ring, and her husband, Elias.

Weeks had given every indication of courting Sands, and Catharine Ring testified that the night Sands disappeared she had said that she and Weeks planned to marry. Ring furthermore maintained that she’d heard someone leave the boarding house with Levi Weeks that night. Rumors of these and other bits of evidence against Weeks (some of it fabricated) flowed through the city at remarkable speed, almost as if someone were deliberately spreading it. Even without cable news or Nancy Grace, the public quickly leapt to the conclusion that Weeks was the culprit, and it began to bay for his head.

Weeks worked for his brother, Ezra, who happened to be one of the town’s most prominent building contractors, and whose house Levi was visiting during the night of the murder. Ezra hired a threesome that Collins calls “the best lawyers in Manhattan” to defend his brother: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston. This made for “the greatest criminal defense team New York had ever seen,” even if two of of the attorneys were political adversaries. Hamilton and Burr were “the worst of friends — or, perhaps, the best of enemies,” as Collins puts it, Revolutionary War heroes and founding fathers who still sometimes dined together with their families but who plotted each other’s political downfall. Four years later, Burr would shoot Hamilton dead in New Jersey, and spend many long years afterwards living it down.

The Manhattan Well mystery is part of New York lore, as well as the occasion of a legal milestone: It was the first murder trial to have its proceedings fully transcribed, thanks to the popularization of shorthand. The transcript itself was published as a book by the court clerk, William Coleman, who later went on to become the first editor of the New York Post, a newspaper founded by Hamilton. Hamilton was the first secretary of the treasury and established the Bank of the United States. Burr was a former senator and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. “Duel with the Devil” is littered with names that even the most historically-illiterate New Yorker will recognize because those names were given to streets, neighborhoods and subway stations. The cast of this drama is illustrious to a fault.

But that’s not how Collins plays it. “Duel with the Devil” is the story of a small town, a place where everyone knew everyone else and the fix was always in. Lively, immediate and dishy in the style of a top-notch tabloid columnist, he has distilled what must have been months of primary-source research into a slender volume that fizzes with the energy and irreverence of an infant republic. Collins tells you what the street signs said (“Antoine Arneux, A la Paris, Marchand Tallier … Shopkeepers mentioned their hometowns in the hope of landing customers from their newly arrived countrymen”); what libations tavern drinkers favored (“cherry bounce, a sweet dram of cherry brandy spiked with extra sugar” or “blackstrap, a witches’ brew of rum, molasses and herbs”); what entertainments people sought out on their days off (an exhibit boasting a “Mongooz, a beautiful animal from the Island of Madagascar”); and what the auctioneer across the road was crying out (“Port wine! Cognac! Capers and olives! Herring and shad!) when Weeks arrived at Bridewell prison to be locked up pending his trial.

In addition to all this color, Collins provides a saucy breakdown of the twisty and interlocking interests behind Weeks’ case. Both Burr and Hamilton (who never billed for their legal services in this trial) were beholden to Levi’s brother Ezra for assorted construction projects, past, present and future. The disused well where Sands’ corpse was discovered belonged to Burr’s Manhattan Company, a complicated venture ostensibly created to pipe fresh water into the city (which it did), but in actuality a Trojan horse used to set up an alternative to Hamilton’s monopolistic Bank of New York. One of Burr’s most ingenious gambits, the Manhattan Company helped break the political stranglehold with which Hamilton’s Federalist Party controlled the city, and thereby made the election of a Republican president, Thomas Jefferson (not to mention his Republican vice president, Burr), possible. The outfit later became Chase Manhattan bank.

This is New York politics in all its gritty glory — which is to say not much in the way of glory at all. While sober-minded and reverential accounts of the founding fathers’ lives have their place, it helps to be reminded now and then that these fellows weren’t saints and that the early days of the U.S. were as rife with partisan rancor and shady shenanigans as our own. A surprising number of the luminaries who appear in “Duel with the Devil” were beaten up in the streets at one point or another by someone they’d offended, and Collins depicts an episode in which Burr used his ruthless legal expertise to intimidate a legitimately aggrieved creditor. And as for the personal life of the secretary of the treasury, well: “Nobody needed to ask why Martha Washington had nicknamed her tomcat Hamilton.”

The trial itself provides a window on the legal procedures of the time. They were very keen on jury sequestration (the jurors had to sleep on the floor in the portrait room of the courthouse) and not so finicky about conflicts of interest. Collins writes, “Burr’s company owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, and had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk, and political alliances and rivalries with his fellow counselors, the mayor and the judge.” The prosecution’s chief medical experts had only examined the body after it had been dragged out onto the streets by Sands’ family in attempt to drum up public outrage. The court’s officers balked when it seemed that the trial might extend to the unprecedented length of three days.

As for the crime itself, Collins has his suspect, although a blurb that boasts “the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years,” is probably overstating things. I will not spoil it. Lispenard Meadow is long gone, but to this day, if you drop by the (reportedly dreadful) Manhattan Bistro on Spring Street and ask to be let into the basement, you can still see the over-200-year-old Manhattan Well where Elma Sands died. However much the surface of the city may change, the deep-down stuff remains the same.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>