Saturday, July 29, 2017

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

The body of a young woman, Elma Sands, was found in a well outside of Manhattan on the second day of 1800. A carpenter who boarded in her family’s house, some suggested he was her secret lover, was immediately accused. The case led to one of the first sensationalized, broadly followed murder trials in the young United States. Paul Collins recounts the events in Duel with the Devil.

The carpenter, Levi Weeks, might well have been convicted of the crime had he not had a legal dream team with the competence to show the weakness of the prosecution case and suggest an alternate explanation for Sand’s death. That is one of the interesting things about his trial. His defense team consisted of political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr along with their fellow Revolutionary War veteran Brockhurst Livingston.

The political and legal elite of New York state, and especially Manhattan, of those days was close knit and often resulted in odd combinations. Hamilton and Burr were both in debt to Weeks’ brother Ezra, a prominent builder, which may explain their participation.

Weeks was found not guilty after what was considered a very long trial for the time, mainly due to the great number of prosecution witnesses. Sands’ murder was never properly solved.

She was probably killed by another roomer in her house, Richard Croucher. He had fled England to escape the insane asylum after his behavior led him trouble and criminal charges. Shortly after Weeks’ trial, he was convicted of raping his 13-year old stepdaughter. He was released after three years on the agreement that he would leave the country. He went to Virginia instead, where he fleeced the merchants of Richmond. It appears he eventually made his way back to England, where he continued criminality led to his execution.

Hamilton and Burr famously faced declines. They dueled and Hamilton died from the wound he received. Their co-counsel fared better; Livingston went on to serve as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Weeks left Manhattan. We worked his way west and became a successful builder in Natchez.

Collins’ book reads almost like a novel. It is interesting, quick-reading history.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Collins, Paul. Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery. New York: Crown, 2013.