A fascinating account of the sensational murder mystery that’s still America’s oldest “cold case”
The case that inspired bitter rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr to join forces in the pursuit of justice
“NPR’s ‘literary detective’ once again applies his skills as a historian to a now obscure crime that was a cause celebre in its day…Using the court transcript as a primary source, Collins makes the most of the inherent drama of the case, and goes one step further to unearth convincing proof of the identity of the real killer.”
—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (STARRED REVIEW)
“This tautly constructed narrative, infused with period atmosphere, holds the reader’s attention…Collins delivers fine true-crime verisimilitude.”
“The author’s New York is a fascinating place [and] once the trial begins, the narrative truly takes off, as Collins reveals the immense talents of the three attorneys…A rousing tale of the longest murder trial to date in Manhattan…the author’s conjecture as to the true villain is spot-on.”
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 fever pitch. Central to their dispute was the Manhattan water supply, which Burr saw not only as an opportunity to help a city devastated by epidemics but as a chance to heal his own battered finances.
But everything changed when Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, was found dead in Burr’s newly constructed Manhattan Well. The details of the horrific crime gripped the nation and accusations quickly settled on one of Elma’s suitors, handsome young carpenter Levi Weeks. As the enraged city demanded a noose be draped around the supposed murderer’s neck, the only question seemed to be whether Levi would make it to trial or be lynched first. The 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.
DUEL WITH THE DEVIL: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery (Crown; Hardcover; June 4, 2013) by acclaimed historian Paul Collins is the expertly researched and masterfully told true story of this stunning turn-of-the-19th century crime and the trial that ensued—a showdown in which deadly political rivals joined forces to make sure justice was done. What is more, the enduring mystery of Elma Sands’ murder—still our nation’s longest running “cold case”—may finally be coming to a close with this book. Based on new archival material, Collins delivers the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years. At once an absorbing legal thriller and an expertly crafted portrait of the United States in the time of the Founding Fathers, DUEL WITH THE DEVIL is a tremendously entertaining work of narrative nonfiction.
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About the Author:
PAUL COLLINS is the author of eight books. An associate professor of English in the MFA program at Portland State University, Collins is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the founding editor of the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney’s Books. His work has appeared in Slate, New Scientist, and the New York Times, and he appears on NPR’s Weekend Edition as their “literary detective.” Visit him online at www.literarydetective.com.