Literazzi – Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

Published June 4, 2013

Published June 4, 2013

WOW!!!  Just…all kinds of wow!  Don’t even read this review!  Just do yourself a favor: go read this book!

Now that that’s out of the way…  Seriously, this book is spectacular.  I’m not usually a person to read historical non-fiction books, though I am entertained by certain genres of history.  For me, I like my murder mysteries/thrillers strictly fictional.  It just so happens I was browsing through the other sections of Kindle Deals when I came upon this title.  And what an eye-catcher, eh?  If not the lengthy title, then surely “Alexander Hamilton” and “Aaron Burr” and “teamed up” were enough to grab your attention.  I mean, I like to think that almost everyone knows the famous story of the deadly duel between Alexander Hamilton – one of our nation’s founding fathers – and Aaron Burr – our country’s third Vice President during the Thomas Jefferson administration – but perhaps I’m off the mark.  For those of you who don’t know, let me give you a brief run-down:

Hamilton and Burr were what you might refer to today as “frenemies”: their political, social, and occupational endeavors often brought them together, yet – though pleasant with each other – they were actually quite bitter rivals.  The rivalry had started long before, but came to boil during the 1804 election for governor of New York, which was won by Burr’s opponent, Morgan Lewis.  Mr. Lewis rallied with and was backed by Hamilton.  This was obviously a huge annoyance for Burr.  Then, Burr reads some gossip in a news article about how Hamilton was at some dinner party throwing mad shade at him.  Awwww HELL NAH!  Burr writes a strongly worded letter to Hamilton demanding and apology!  Hamilton responds with a letter to Burr, in which he plays dumb and claims he never said anything of the sort.  Psh!  This causes the rumbling pot to boil over.  Burr writes back to Hamilton one final time and insists he is a douche bag, and challenges Hamilton to a duel.  They traveled out to New Jersey (because dueling was outlawed in New York) with their witnesses, take their paces…  Point, shoot, BOOM!  Hammy drops dead.  After that, Burr is pretty much exiled because he killed a beloved man of Manhattan, as well as a key figure in the birth of a country that is just taking off.

There’s A LOT more to that interesting story that I urge you dig into.  It’s really fascinating!  But…

That’s not what this story is about.  This story is exactly as it’s stated in the title: it’s a story about the aforementioned, knuckle-headed politicians putting aside their differences to defend an innocent man from being wrongfully accused of murdering a young woman in 1800’s New York City.

Summary: (courtesy of In the closing days of 1799, the United States was still a young republic.  Waging a fierce battle for its uncertain future were two political parties: the well-moneyed Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the populist Republicans, led by Aaron Burr. The two finest lawyers in New York, Burr and Hamilton were bitter rivals both in and out of the courtroom, and as the next election approached—with Manhattan likely to be the swing district on which the presidency would hinge—their  animosity reached a crescendo. Central to their dispute was the Manhattan water supply, which Burr saw not just as an opportunity to help a city devastated by epidemics but as a chance to heal his battered finances.
But everything changed when Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, was found dead in Burr’s newly constructed Manhattan Well. The horrific crime quickly gripped the nation, and before long accusations settled on one of Elma’s suitors, handsome young carpenter Levi Weeks. As the enraged city demanded a noose be draped around the accused murderer’s neck, the only question seemed to be whether Levi would make it to trial or be lynched first.  The young man’s only hope was to hire a legal dream team.  And thus it was that New York’s most bitter political rivals and greatest attorneys did the unthinkable—they teamed up.

My thoughts: In the beginning of the book Collins does a wonderful job of depicting Manhattan in the late 18th century.  He describes everything from the way of life, the business, attire, the layout of the city…  He discusses – in great detail and length – the yellow fever epidemics sweeping major cities, particularly Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.  As this is the first thing read in the book, I found myself wondering if I’d made the right decision in purchasing this book.  While interesting enough, it didn’t really have anything to do with the subject matter, other than aid in description of the era.  That, and totally gross me out!  But, I believe setting the scene is an important key to a good book, so I kept going.  Chapter 4 – “The Black Veil” – is when the story starts to get interesting, as this is when the young Quaker girl, Elma Sands, goes missing from her boarding house.  By chapter 7 – “The Glooms of Conscious Night” – I was flying through the pages.  When I finally got to the actual trial I could not wait to find out what these two notable men of history had come up with as a defense for Levi Weeks.  For one, Collins doesn’t tell the reader how or why these two men came together on this case in the first place.  I mean, not only were they rivals, but neither of them really practiced criminal law.  I’m wondering if there just wasn’t any information about how they came together on this case available…  Two, he doesn’t go into as much detail about their preparation for defense as he does the prosecution’s – which was led by Assistant Attorney General, Cadwallader Colden (yes, that’s his name).  But – for me – it was a smart move, because it left a little mystery when it came time for Week’s trial.  Collins made Weeks looked doomed to a guilty verdict – a guilty verdict that comes with a mandatory death sentence.  This is definitely the crescendo of the book, and everything beyond is simply aftermath (Collins does discuss the duel between Hamilton and Burr).  Though the excitement slowly fades, he does bring out a few surprises that kept me reading until the end.

Conclusion:  Collins does a spectacular job of writing this book as if it were fiction.  This book reads like a novel, yet is most certainly true.  One review I read suggests that this books is partially fictionalized, which I suppose is true in a way.  I’m assuming the reviewer was referring to the some of the settings in the book and/or the directly spoken dialogue of the characters.  But, you’ll notice at the end Collins lists TONS of sources – letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, historical recordings, almanacs, etc.  So to me, the outlining of the story is fictionalized out of truth, in a way.  Does that make sense?  Does that count as fiction?  One thing that is not fictionalized is the actual trial, as it was the first ever fully documented murder trial in the U.S.

I would recommend this book to anyone, no matter your genre preference.  It’s a great murder mystery/political thriller, and a pretty quick read.  A piece of advice (and maybe it’s just me), I would definitely make a list of people and who they are as you read the book.  Collins will mention a name briefly in passing and you won’t hear about them again.  Then, BOOM!!  Five chapters later they’re an important and crucial part of the story.  There are A LOT of names, so take notes, or you’ll find yourself going back and forth trying to figure out who is who.


Here are some quotes from the book that I found interesting or


The end of the pestilence had come just in time for the city’s Irish immigrants to indulge in their peculiar love of Halloween.  Living down by the muddy docks, they’d been hit worst of all by the fever.  Toasting loudly and singing lilting airs, they gathered that evening to roast nuts and apples over open fires, and drank whiskey in the graveyard as the autumn night of All Hallow’s Eve closed over them and their fellow Manhattanites.  They had survived.  (Ch. 2 – “A Boardinghouse By Candlelight”; on the end of the epidemic season)

Word raced down Wall Street as another letter from Alexandria was opened to reveal the same stunning news about the sixty-seven-year-old statesman: “He mad his exit last night between the hours of 11 and 12 after a short but painful illness of 23 hours…  We are all to close our houses, and act as if we should do if one of our own family had departed. (Ch. 4 – “The Black Veil”; on George Washington’s death)

“I guess she has gone to be married,” sighed Elizabeth.  A rather scandalous theory, to be sure, but young women were known to resort to running off – particularly when decency demanded that they do so.  (Ch. 4 – “The Black Veil”; on why women sometimes disappeared, as if it were an unspoken normalcy)

New York was still small enough that any citizen could easily cross paths with the founders of the young nation.  But watching them all gravely walking in procession was to behold the assembled might of the reborn city and nation before one’s eyes.  These were ambitious and brilliant men – powerful men – the sort who might hold a simpler man’s life in their hands.  (Ch. 5 “The Mystery in the Meadow”; on the funeral procession of George Washington)

Medical texts insisted such women could not claim rape as an excuse for having risked the procedure: Pregnancy was seen as a proof of willingness, for a number of doctors persisted in believing that a rape could not produce a child.  (Ch. 6 – “Some Person or Persons as Yet Unknown”; on abortion)

Elma Sands seized the imagination of writers, who conjured a forbidden romance: The beautiful young girl dressed in bridal clothes, taken by a fatal love into the fields beyond the snowy streets of the city; the muff, found floating in the water by an innocent child and given as a gift; the body, hidden mere feet beneath Lispenard’s Meadow, suspended in the cold and dark well that was to have brought new life to New York.  (Ch. 7 – “The Glooms of Conscious Night”; on the media frenzy of the Elma Sands case)

It was at Richmond Hill that young Burr and Hamilton first surveyed the great expanse of Manhattan and wondered how to wrest control of the country from the British.  Now – as rival lawyers and politicians – they wondered how they might wrest that control from each other.  (Ch.8 – “Whatever Is Boldly Asserted”; on the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr)

Burr had a reputation for harrying foes with blizzards of appeals and motions, and when the occasion called for it, the colonel’s attitude toward legal processes could possess a marvelous flexibility.  The law, he once explained, “is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.”  (Ch. 8 – “Whatever Is Boldly Asserted”; on Aaron Burr’s views of the law)

New York was the swing state in the upcoming presidential election – and Manhattan was the swing district in New York State.  Control the city, and you controlled the 1800 presidential race.  (Ch.9 – “A Perfect Monster”; on the election of 1800)

The overwhelmingly mercantile jury was no coincidence.  Jurors had to be men between the ages of twenty-one and sixty, and be taxpaying landowners holding property worth at least $250 – nearly a year’s wages for a common laborer.  The jury box was what women and the poor faced, not what they sat in.  (Ch. 11 – “The American Phenomena”; on jury selection during the 18the century)

Vice President Burr now found himself at the middle of the most shocking homicide case in America since – well, since the last one that he’d also been at the center of.  (Ch. 19 – “Duel at Dawn”; on the aftermath of his duel with Alexander Hamilton)





The Tale of the Demon Hair – Part II

darkhouse10“So what do we do now?” Heidi asked after a long silence.  They had escaped out the sliding glass door in the bedroom.  The hair was somewhere in the house, and their poor kitties trapped in there with it.

“I have no idea.  I mean, I’ve never had demon hair come to life and try to kill me in my sleep, so…  I have no idea how to battle it,” J said.

“Well we have to do SOMETHING!” shrieked Heidi, in a fit of hysterics.  “Our babies are in there!”

“Maybe we trap it.  Yeah, if we trap it we can kill it, right?” said J.


Calmly, J replied, “I don’t know, babe.  But– “

“And what the hell are we going to kill it with, huh?  Clearly scissors didn’t work.  We don’t own a gun, but it seems that wouldn’t make much difference because neither of us could hit it.  We don’t own a chainsaw, or a machete or a wood chipper or– “

“The lawnmower!” J exclaimed.  He realized what they had to do. “Ok, here’s what we’re going to do.  We’re going to grab the blanket off our bed, find the little bastard and trap him under the blanket.  We’ll bundle it up, beat it with a hammer so it’s stunned or…injured, if that’s possible, then we’ll throw it outside.  I’ll get the lawnmower and run the little fucker over!”

Bewildered, Heidi replied, “That is craziest fucking thing I’ve ever heard!  Are you serious?  Do you really think that will work?!?!?”

“Babe, we’re standing on our deck at 3 o’clock in the morning talking about how we’re going to kill a demon hair creature.  Yes, I know how crazy it is.  No, I have no idea if it will work.  But, we can stand around talking about how insane it is, or we can get inside and save our cats and annihilate that monster.”

Heidi was silent for a moment, contemplating what J had just said.  Finally, she sighed and said, “Ok.  Let’s give it a shot.  I mean it’s not like we can call the fucking Ghostbusters.”


 The house was eerily reticent as they crossed the threshold from the deck into their bedroom.  The night had a damp chill to it, but the hovering atmosphere of certain doom is what made Heidi shiver.  They deferred a moment by the door making certain the room was void of the demon.  J got down on his knees to check under the bed.  Heidi peeked hesitantly into the bathroom.  No evil lurking hair monster could be seen.  “We’re clear,” J said.  Heidi shushed him and began scooping up the comforter from the bed, which was still laying on the floor from the previous battle.  They looked to each other, nodded, and tiptoed quietly into the hall.

Stealthy as they tried to be on the hardwood floor, the house was callous to their efforts, groaning here and there beneath their careful steps.  Heidi and J cringed with every creak and pop of the floorboards.  By now, small beads of nervous perspiration had formed at J’s temples.  They both prayed silently beneath bated breath that their stirring did not rouse the demon.

As they made their way down the hallway, they suddenly heard the screeching and hissing of a cat fight.  J and Heidi halted momentarily, then rushed down the hall and burst into the kitchen, Heidi fumbling over the mass of blankets in her arms.  They recognized the cat screams coming from the great room.  Before they even entered they could see the demon monster in the center of the room, antagonizing the cats.  It would scream and hiss and start after one cat, and the other two would attack from behind.  As quickly as the attack happened the creature would turn on the other two.  Then the initial cat would retaliate.  Heidi and J stood in the doorway, mouths gaping at the sight.  J could hear the commentary in his mind as the battle unfolded:

 Wow!  What a move by Casey Cat, a modified body slam!  Wait a minute, wait a minute.  The creature has risen!  He’s hissing and screeching at his opponents.  Boy I don’t think this is going to end well.  The creature makes a move toward Diesel, and —  OHHHH!  The creature lands a hard blow to the throat.  And here comes Baxter…he’s ready to pounce…Casey’s positioning himself on top of the couch….*MEEEEEEOOOOOOOWWWWW* *HIIIIIIISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS* *MMMMRAAAWEEEOW*  BOOM!  Off the top of the couch! Casey delivers a diving elbow drop with a claw extension.  AND LOOK!  Now Baxter has the demon in a full nelson!  Have you ever seen anything like this?!?!?

Heidi dove into the living room, thrusting the blanket onto the pile of cats and hair demon.  “J HELP ME!!!” screamed Heidi.  “GRAB THE CATS!!!!”  J snapped out of his internal soliloquy and pounced on the blanket.  The rumpus under the blanket made it hard to keep them covered.  He knelt on the edge and reached under the blanket feeling for what he hoped was a cat.  When he was sure, he yanked it out by his tail.  *MEEEEOOOOOWWWWW*  Diesel ran down the stairs to the basement.  All of a sudden, Baxter broke free from the cover, sprinted across the room, up the wall, and huddled on the ledge of the ceiling window.  “Casey Cat!!!” Heidi yelled.  She flung herself under the blanket.  The demon had Casey by the paw as Casey gnawed and thrashed at the creature.

“Get away from him, you BITCH!” Heidi screamed.

Suddenly, the creature released its grip on Casey, who darted out from the blanket.  Heidi met the non-existent eyes of the monster and gasped as she tried to wiggle out of the blanket.  Before J could come to her rescue, the hair demon screeched and lunged at Heidi.  It wrapped itself around her wrist and pulled her back under.  “J, GET THE HAMMER!!!!” Heidi screamed.

J leaped to his feet.  Why didn’t I grab the fucking hammer first, he thought.  The closest thing he could think of was also the nearest to him – the meat mallet in the kitchen.  He sprang into action, sprinting to the kitchen.  He rummaged wildly through the drawer that held their cooking utensils until his hand came to grip on the mallet.  He could hear Heidi in the living room screaming and grunting as she wrestled the beast.  J flew into the living room and ripped the blanket off.  The creature was half way up Heidi’s arm as she struggled with the other hand to push it off.  J stomped hard on the other end of the hair demon and raised the meat mallet above his head.  With a wild, maniacal look he said, “Say ‘ello to my lit’le friend!”  And with that, he swung the mallet down on the beast with brute force.  The demon hair screamed and hissed as J pounded and pounded, grunting with each blow.  Finally, the demon released Heidi.  She crawled to the blanket and threw it at the creature.  J dropped the mallet and pounced on the blanket.  He gathered up the thrashing monster in a bundle in his arms, and said, “HEIDI!  QUICK!  GET TO DA CHOPPAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

J ran for the back door as Heidi scurried to the garage.  J flung open the door and darted for the yard, the creature-beast-demon monster from hell screaming thrashing in his arms.  He slammed the blanket down hard on the ground and stopped and stomped with all his might.  He heard the lawn mower start up.  Heidi came jogging around the corner, headed straight for the demon.  She stopped just short, yelling, “LIFT UP THE BLANKET!  LIFT UP THE BLANKET!”  Justin lifted the blanket and the creature reared back coming fully upright.  Heidi and J stared in horror as the beast let out a deep, demonic growl.

“QUICK, HEIDI!  RUN IT OVER!” Justin yelled.

“Yippee-ki-yay, motha fucka!”  And with that, Heidi ran the creature over.  The lawnmower groaned and popped as the demon howled.  Heidi could feel it fighting back against the blades of the lawn mower.  Just when she thought it was no use, the lawn mower lurched forward past the hair demon, grumbling to a stop.  Heidi and Justin looked at the demon.  It was in multiple pieces, motionless on the lawn.  Then, a demonic hiss erupted from one of the segments.

“Oh my god!  It’s not dead!” Heidi exclaimed.

“We have to torch it,” J replied.  He kicked the segments into a pile.  Heidi ran to the barbecue grill and grabbed the lighter fluid.  Empty.  What else, she thought. What else can I use?  She grabbed the book of matches and sprinted into the house, straight to the liquor cabinet.  She grabbed a bottle 100 proof moonshine from the top shelf and darted back out side.

“This is all we have,” Heidi said.  J grabbed the bottle from Heidi and took a swig.  He winced and coughed as he passed the bottle to Heidi, who also took a deep gulp.  Then, she poured the entire bottle on the demon and pulled the matches from her pocket.

“BURN, BITCH! BUUUUUURNNNN!” And she struck the match and let it drop on the pile of mangled hair.  The demon went up in flames, hissing and spitting and screeching.  Heidi and J hugged and cried, kissing each other and thrusting their fists into the air in triumph.  For that night, they had defeated the demon hair and sent it back to hell in a blazing fireball of glory.

The end.


Ok, so maybe we didn’t battle a demon hair creature.  But we sure as hell pulled one from the drain in our bathroom!  The scary part was…it wasn’t mine.  We only moved into the house in April, and I don’t use the shower from whence the hair came.  It just makes me wonder…  What does one really know about their house?  What secrets do the walls hold?  What sights have they seen?  What lurks just below the shower drain?

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  I’m a little dramatic.  There’s obviously no accurate description of the horror we encountered.  Why don’t you see for yourself?

The horror!

The horror!