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 goodreads.com) 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

thought-provoking:

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)

 

 

 

Literatzzi – My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away by Rue McClanahan

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Published April 10, 2007

My obsession with The Golden Girls is no secret among friends.  It’s practically become part of my description, falling between “I love cats…” and “I once made an earwax candle…”.  But, for those of you who don’t know me:

“Hi!  My name is Heidi and I want to be a golden girl when I grow up.”

I began reading this particular book in desperate need of a change.  This is not to say that I found myself so desperate to read something different I picked up the first book that I saw and this was it.  No, I had this book in my crosshairs for some time.  My desperation came when it was clear I needed a break from my usual mystery/psychological thriller.  I was having bad dreams, in a foul mood, depressed…  I don’t care what anyone says; fiction or non, I think books can have a profound effect on a person’s outlook.

So, I finished a terribly depressing book (The Silent Wife, by A.S.A. Harrison, which I chose not to review on my blog because it’s just too damn depressing) and needed something refreshing.  I needed something lighthearted and something that didn’t take too much thought.  I know that sounds completely asinine, but it’s true.  I wanted a straight read with a feel-good story and happy outcome.  Enter Rue.

Summary (courtesy of Amazon.com):  Raised in small-town Oklahoma in a house “thirteen telephone poles past the standpipe north of town,” Rue developed her two great passions—theater and men—at an early age. She arrived in New York City in 1957 with two-weeks worth of money in her pocket, hustled her way into a class with the legendary Uta Hagen, and began working her way up in the acting world against the vibrant, free-spirited backdrop of the sixties. That’s when she met and married Husband #1—a handsome rogue of an aspiring actor who quickly left her with a young son. Still, she was determined to make it on the stage and screen—and in the years that followed, rose to the top of the entertainment world with a host of adventures (and husbands) along the way.

From her roles on Broadway opposite Dustin Hoffman and Brad Davis, to her first television appearances on Maude and All in the Family, to the Golden Girls era and beyond, My First Five Husbands is the irresistible story of one woman’s quest to find herself. Now happily married to her soul mate, Husband #6, Rue is proof that many things can and do get better with age—and that, if she keeps her wits about her, even a small-town girl can make it big.

My Thoughts:  I picked up this book to add a little fluff to my dreary reading routine.  But, I was surprised at how dark Rue’s life became at times.  Ever the optimist, she was always looking on the bright side and always managed to keep on trudging.  It was a little difficult at times to keep reading, knowing she was going to make another huge mistake in love and life.  And – in my opinion – she didn’t seem to sugar-coat it.  She made bad decisions and knew she made bad decisions, some even while she was making them.  I admired that, and my heart broke a little each time for her, monotonous or not.

Rue is wonderful and easy (both of these traits apply to her writing as well).  But, as absolutely charming as she was, I was surprised at how hard she had to work for so little and for so long before she finally “made it big”.  She does a very good job of tooting her own horn in this book, though, so maybe that’s why I’m so impressed with her résumé.  Whatever.  Toot away, girl.  You worked damn hard.

I also found myself sympathizing with her battle in love and loss.  I’m a bleeding heart and so is Rue.  Don’t get me wrong, there were many times I was shaking my head thinking, “how could she be so stupid”, or, “not AGAIN“!  But, there were many times I thought, “I’ve been there before…”.  No matter what, she stayed strong.  No matter how long it took her, she would finally come to her senses.  And – six husbands later – she finally got it right!

Conclusion:  Another reason I picked up this book is for my love of The Golden Girls.  I will warn you right now this is NOT a book about The Golden Girls.  I repeat: THIS IS NOT A BOOK ABOUT THE GOLDEN GIRLS!!!!  This is a book about Rue, which – I think – is one of the reasons behind some of the not-so-great reviews.  People picked up this book and expected it to be a juicy, gossipy tell-all of The Golden Girls behind the scenes.  It’s NOT!!!  I also think another reason is that Rue was brutally honest about her love life, spilling very matter-of-factly all the juicy details about her romances.  One reviewer was quite offended.  Another said: “Rue spent a little too much time trashing herself recounting her sexual appetite. Who cares?”  Um, hello?  I don’t think this reviewer read the title of the book…  What the hell did they expect it to be about?!?!?!

In my opinion – for what it’s worth – this is a great read.  Honestly, as much as it is about her relationships with men, it’s about her journey and career as an actress.  Rue McClanahan is a legendary woman who helped revolutionize women in the entertainment industry.  I would recommend this book to anyone who asked about it, and even those who don’t.  Rue might not be in this world anymore, but she sure left an impression in it.

*Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book.*

“Some decisions actors have to make along the way are gut-wrenching.  The only thing that makes them possible is when the compulsion to become an actor is unshakable. Like an edict from God.  I don’t understand it, myself, but I experience it every time I walk out onto a bare stage in a dark, empty theatre.  It’s a religious experience for me.  I stand on that stage and feel complete, blessed, at home, where I belong.” (pg. 43, on the trials and tribulations of an actor)

“Life and gravity have a way of teaching us what we need to know, and in those years, I scaled a few forbidden fences and took a few hard falls myself.  And it wasn’t fun.” (pg. 105, on life)

“Soaps aren’t funny.  They’re soggy cereal.  Personally, I like snap, crack, and wit, fast-paced top-rate writing, brilliant costars, bravado challenges.  And, kids, there ain’t much of that in soaps.  Or anywhere else on TV, for the most part.  Top-of-the-line writing is extremely rare.” (pg. 163, on television writing)

“The bottom of my world had dropped out, and I fell through the hold into panic.  Grief doesn’t describe it.  Grief is painful, but it makes sense.  Panic is pervasive, unreasoning terror, and the dark of my panic had always been the fear of losing Mother.” (pg. 205, on the loss of her mother)

“It’s not easy to get through life without injuries – internal or external – and I’ve acquired my quota, but they’re just battle scars, mostly attributable to my own dumb mistakes.” (pg. 211, on life’s inflicted wounds)

“There are sea-change moments in a sitcom when cast members move on, writers move on, child actors grow up, or an older actor dies.  The little snow-globe world that was so carefully created over the years is suddenly shaken up.  The trick is knowing when to persevere through the ensuing blizzard and when to call it quits.” (pg. 228, on the ending of the TV series, Maude)

“Yep, nothing says “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” like a three-speed sex toy, right?” (pg. 264, on the tacky gift from her first husband)

“Blanche Devereaux is a masterful rebounder, never down for the count, always back up to fight again, to look again on the bright side.  I loved that about her.” (pg. 265, on here character from The Golden Girls)

“Four strong-minded, talented women tossed into the sitcom soup together.  Things got pretty spicy once in a while, but what mattered most to each of us indvidually and all of us as a group: the chemistry worked.  We were damn funny.  And we did it together.  That’s what counts at the end of the day.” (pg. 272, on her work on The Golden Girls)

“There were problems, of course.  Oh, boy, were there problems!  But who builds a house without problems?” (pg. 287, on building her dream home)

“(It’s been said that they call it menopause because “mad cow disease” was already taken.  And frankly, “spontaneous human combustion” doesn’t do it justice.)” (pg. 303, on menopause)

“Youth is not a time of life, it’s a state of mind.  It’s not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips, and supple knees, it’s force of will, quality of imagination, and vigor of emotions.  It’s the freshness from the deep springs of life, and the idea that every day is God saying to you, “May I have this dance?”” (pg. 334, on being young)

“Not all important people are famous, and not all famous people are important.” (pg. 325, on fame)

“All I know is that at this moment, I am happy.  I love my life as it now is.  I hate the madness going on in the world, but in my personal life, the beauty stays ahead of the ugliness, and in my professional life, good work hasn’t stopped coming my way, bringing joys and challenges.” (pg. 334, wrapping up her book)