Saturday, August 1, 2015

Duel With The Devil by Paul Collins

Just finished reading Duel With The Devil by Paul Collins.  It falls under the category American History/True Crime about a sensational murder that took place in New York City 1799 and came to be known as the Manhattan Well Murder.  The victim, Elma Sands, was a young single woman living in a boarding house in New York City run by her cousin.  On the the night of December 22, 1799 Elma went missing.  Her body was later found at the bottom of a well in the Soho section of Manhattan.  Once her body was discovered the city was in an uproar and fingers pointed to Levi Weeks a young man also living at the boarding house.  The theory was that Elma went out with Levi on the night of her death thinking they were going to elope. Levi was immediately arrested and thrown into prison awaiting his trial.  What makes this case historically interesting is that Levi Weeks' defense team consisted of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.  A rare moment when these two bitter adversaries agreed on anything.

I wouldn't say Duel With The Devil is the best true crime book I've read but once the trial gets going it did pick up for me and the author, Paul Collins, does a good job laying out what New York City was like in 1799 - 1800.  Manhattan was just getting over a Yellow Fever outbreak and the conditions around the city were very unsanitary, the water in particular being undrinkable.  It was not a safe place for a young woman living by herself in a boarding house either.  Paul Collins agrees with the jury verdict, which took them only minutes to arrive at, that Levi Weeks could not have been the killer. As to who killed Elma Sands, Collins points to another boarder who had a history of insanity and violent behavior towards women and young girls and who seemed too eager after the murder to spread rumors that Levi was responsible, taking the focus off himself.

After the trial Levi Weeks had to leave the city.  Despite the not guilty verdict many continued to see him as guilty but his carpentry skills after he set up a new life for himself down South provided a good living and he went on to rebuild his life, get married and have children.  As for Hamilton and Burr their next major encounter would not end happily.  They were brilliant but flawed men which led to their famous and tragic duel in which Burr killed Hamilton.

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