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)

 

 

 

MTV’s Video Music Awards – A Review

I have to be honest.  I didn’t watch the VMAs on  Sunday night along with the rest of the world.  I spent the day playing with my godson and then spent the evening watching Dexter.  But, when I heard all the commotion the next day about the show, I just had to see for myself (I ended up watching the replay on Monday night).  My conclusion?  Well, let’s take it from the top.

Lady Gaga – A-

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It’s no secret that I’m a HUGE fan of Lady Gaga.  Say whatever you want about her, but the woman can sing; the woman can play multiple instruments.  I’ve seen it.  She’s the real deal.

As for her performance, she was fabulous!  What I loved the most about it was how toned down it was.  Now, let me be clear – I LOVE her crazy, over-the-top performances!  They are always entertaining, spectacular, and often a bit controversial.  If you’ve ever seen her live you would enjoy every minute of it.  Though I love it, I think sometimes the spectacle she puts on overpowers her true talent.  That’s why I loved her performance on the VMAs.  There are some of you out there that probably think she was still nuts, what with the whole nun thing and the 5 different costume changes, but let’s think about it.  She had a more natural face, no extravagant props, her back-up dancers were clad in normal attire, and she sounded effing awesome!

The only thing I didn’t like was the song.  I hate “Live For the Applause”.  She can do better.  Also, homegirl rocked the shell bikini (and looked better baring all than some others we’ll discuss later), but I would have much rather seen her in the audience in some crazy-ass dress than in the g-string.  Love you, Mama Monster!

Best Pop Video

“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
“We Can’t Stop” – Miley Cyrus
“Mirror” – Justin Timberlake
“Come and Get It” – Selena Gomez – WINNER
“Carry On” – Fun.

My pick – “Love Somebody” by Maroon 5.

Robin Thicke/Miley Cyrus/2 Chainz – D-

What the hell is she doing with her tongue?  Wow, that’s a fucking hideous costume!  It looks like a gangsta 80’s cartoon gone wrong!

Those were my immediate thoughts as Miley began her performance. It was horrible!  She didn’t even sound good, which is pretty sad because she has an amazing voice!  She has a lot of potential and I hope one day she puts it to better use.

I will say this, though.  Are you really that shocked?  IT’S THE MTV VMAs, PEOPLE!!!  This is not the first time – nor will it be the last – that somebody has done something vulgar and shocking on stage.  The Britney/Madonna kiss of 2003.  Lady Gaga’s meat dress of 2010.  Diana Ross feeling up Lil’ Kim in 1999.  I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s MTV for shit’s sake.  Celebrities might be throwing sex in our faces, but MTV is their mighty vessel.  And, whether you liked her performance or not, you were all talking about it, which is exactly what Miley wanted.

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As far as Robin Thicke goes, I just wish Miley wasn’t part of it.  It was his song and his moment.  Get the hell off stage, Miley!  I’m not sure her absences would have made much difference, though.  The couple of times I’ve heard him live, he’s really not that great.  I love the song “Blurred Lines”, but it has the potential to be a one-hit wonder.  I’m afraid the only person he’ll have to top is himself, which is easier said than done.  I also happen to think he’s a pretty handsome dude, but I couldn’t help but want to scream “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!!!” at the screen when I saw him.  What was with that?

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In all the dancing was below average, the singing was terrible, and the costumes were fucking awful (a mix of teddy bears/football pads/cotton candy girl?).  I don’t know why expected anything more, though.  Have you seen their music videos?  Not much creativity.  Not much hope for these artists.

Best Hip Hop Video

“Can’t Hold Us” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis WINNER
“Started From the Bottom” – Drake
“F—— Problems” – A$AP Rocky ft. 2 Chainz, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar
“Power Trip” – J. Cole
“Swimming Pools (Drank)” – Kendrick Lamar

My pick – “Can’t Hold Us” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Kanye West – B

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I’ve never really been a fan of Kanye.  Sure, I like some of his songs, but for the most part I don’t really care for his music and I really can’t stand him.  However, he did a great job during his song “Blood on the Leaves”.  I liked the shadow thing, but I wonder what it looked like from the crowd.  I’m guessing not the same at all.  He has a really powerful voice, but I almost wish I could have heard it sans the voice synthesizer, as cool as it was.  He danced, he sang, and he didn’t act like an ass, so kudos to you, Kanye!  That’s really all I have to say about that one…

Best Female Video

“I Knew You Were Trouble” – Taylor Swift WINNER
“We Can’t Stop” – Miley Cyrus
“Heart Attack” – Demi Lovato
“Just Give Me A Reason” – Pink ft. Nate Ruess
“Stay” – Rihanna ft. Mikky Ekko

My pick – “Just Give Me A Reason”

Justin Timberlake – A+

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Where do I begin?!?!?  I mean…WOW!!!  I was absolutely blown away by his performance!

I liked the montage of his music videos that played before he began singing.  It brought me back, though for the sake of this review I did my best to keep my 13-year-old self at bay.  Initially, I could have done without the scenes in the lobby, but from his first note to the stellar back-up crew, I knew I was in for a treat.  And I was right.  Opening with “Sexy Back”, the crowd was immediately on their feet.  There they stood/danced/partied for the next 10 minutes.  J.T. and crew never missed a beat of dance and the groove was definitely in the air.  Other songs such as “Senorita”, “Rock Your Body”, and “Cry Me A River” among others had Selena Gomez and T. Swift on their feet singing along.  Will Smith and family knew every word to every song, Lady Gaga and crew were dancing and cheering, and even One Direction had to pause and pay homage to the man who helped pave the way for their future success. Besides being a little off-key during “My Love”, it couldn’t have been any better.

Until it got better…

Right before my eyes, all members of NSYNC appeared on stage, looking better than they every have, sounding like they were fresh on the music scene, and dancing as if they had never left.  Needless to say, I could no quiet my teenage heart.  As if it were only yesterday, I was sitting on my bed trying to decide which one I would marry, singing along with all the songs, and gushing to my besties via Facebook.  *sigh*  You made my night, guys!

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Overall, Justin’s was the best performance of the night.  He is a truly talented individual and seems to be a pretty genuine guy.  I especially love that no matter how famous he has become, he remembers that he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without the combined talents “…of those four men” (his fellow NSYNC bandmates).  He absolutely deserved the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, and anyone who thinks otherwise should prove to me who deserves it more.  You said it best, Jimmy Fallon: President of Pop indeed!!!

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – A

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Justin Timberlake was a tough act to follow, but Macklemore pulled it off.  Their set up might have been very simple, but their message in the song “Same Love” was a powerful one.  I love this song.  I loved the performances by Mary Lambert and Jennifer Hudson.  It was just beautiful.  The world should take a second and listen to the message.  What a great performance!

Drake – C+

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I have to be honest here.  I don’t really know any songs by Drake.  I know this one, but that’s a weird story in itself.  The performance was good.  Drake definitely kept the energy up and – like other performances of the evening – went with a simplistic approach.  I thought the random fire pops were…random.  And weird.  He probably could have done without those.  But, I liked it?  He sounded good?  I don’t.  It just really wasn’t my thing…

Best Male Video

“Mirrors” – Justin Timberlake
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars WINNER
“Lego House” – Ed Sheeran
“Swimming Pools (Drank)” – Kendrick Lamar
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke

My pick – “Mirrors” – Justin Timberlake

Bruno Mars – A

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Bruno Mars is one of the best performers out there.  Whether you like his music or not, the man can SING!!!  The light show was awesome, and I’m sure it was an even better sight to witness firsthand.  I simply cannot get enough of Bruno Mars.  He won’t be going anywhere any time soon, world.  Voices like that don’t come around too often.  * I wish there was more for me to say, but I honestly got so caught up in his performance that I forgot to take notes!*

Video of the Year

“Thriftshop” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
“Mirrors” – Justin Timberlake WINNER
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke
“I Knew You Were Trouble” – Taylor Swift

My pick – “Mirrors” – Justin Timberlake

Katy Perry – A

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I couldn’t hear her at first, but it didn’t take that much away from her performance (for me anyway).  Katy Perry is hit or miss with me.  I like “Teenage Dream” and “E.T.”, but “Firework” and “I Kissed A Girl” just annoy the shit out of me.  For me, “Roar” is a hit.  It was a very cute performance and once I could hear her, she sounded really great.  You go girl!  Way to rock the VMAs!

Final Thoughts

*Selena Gomez was stunning!  Best dress of the evening in my opinion.
*I’m really digging this sassy new Taylor Swift (yes, we saw you say “shut the f— up” when Harry Styles was on stage).  For her to be so honest as to call out the well-known ex who inspired “I Knew You Were Trouble” was mighty refreshing.  This Taylor Swift probably would have beaten Kanye West with her moon man in 2009 when he claimed she didn’t deserve the Best Female Video award.  Stay classy, keep it sassy, girl!
*I’m in love with long locks on Jared Leto.  Please don’t cut it…
*I felt like there were more categories in the past…
*Miley Cyrus should probably fire her costume designer.  Now, on top of being the biggest nugget of gossip, there are a ton of unflattering photos of her ass.  It just goes to show you – big or small – there are just some things that should stay on the hanger, ladies.

What were your thoughts?