Duel with the Devil
NPR 'literary detective' Paul Collins chronicles a gripping real-life murder mystery, set in New York City circa 1800 – the first truly tabloid crime in our nation's history.
Forget about that fictitious dog that didn’t bark. In Duel with the Devil Paul Collins serves up a historical “who done it” that will try your powers of deduction.Skip to next paragraph
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Who killed the fetching young Quaker woman is anything but elementary, my dear readers. This engrossing tale boasts the one-horse sleigh which doesn’t jingle, things that go bump in the night, and tantalizingly thin boardinghouse walls. And there is no shortage of suspects.
What more can one ask of a murder mystery, set in New York City circa 1800, the first truly tabloid crime in our nation's history? Well, for good measure, stir in two founding fathers, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (who detested one another), and a future Supreme Court Judge (Henry Brockholst Livingston), who formed the legal Dream Team defending the alleged killer.
The defendant needed all three: The whole city thinks he done it. But this is more than simply a good detective story. The book is as much about the time and the place and the people as it is about a devilishly twisted plot.
When Elma Sands, disappears on a late December night in 1799, suspicion quickly falls on Levi Weeks, a fellow boardinghouse resident whose lacerated knee recently had been tenderly tended to by the now missing miss. When she is found dead at the bottom of a well, suspicion turns to certainty.
The rumors that the young couple left together that fateful night and that they recently were betrothed were enough for the man and woman in the street. In those rough and ready times, Weeks’ life would have been in serious jeopardy had he not been arrested, jailed, and charged, on sheer speculation, with the murder. There was no evidence to speak of, nor, for that matter, even any absolute certainty that a homicide had been committed. But back then, it was arrest first, ask questions later.
Enter the legal glitterati: Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston, three of the best lawyers not just in lower Manhattan but perhaps in all the land. The first two were heavily indebted to Week’s brother Ezra, a wealthy and well connected contractor, and they would work the case gratis.
The trio didn’t disappoint, especially Burr, who would spring a classic ambuscade on one of the key prosecution witnesses, the purported gentleman who ran the boardinghouse where Weeks and Sands lived. Yes, he confessed warily, the walls between his establishment and its neighbor were astonishingly thin. He would regret this candid testimony soon enough.