CBR12 BINGO: Shelfie
“Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me
Are you aware that we’re making hist’y?
This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation.”
If you’re a Hamilfan, you might recognize those words from the song “Non-Stop,” in which Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr act as co-counsel for the defense on a murder trial. In Duel with the Devil, Paul Collins tells the story of that historical court case and the gruesome event that led to it.
As I mentioned last year in my review of Blood & Ivy, Paul Collins is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and he specializes in historical true crime, which is totally my bag, baby! His Murder of the Century (which I did not review, but jeverett15 did in 2016; check it out as it’s spot on) starts strong but fizzles a bit as it gets deeper into the trial. Duel with the Devil is just the opposite. It started out slow for me, but when it came to the trial I was totally hooked. I have to say jury duty would be a hell of a lot more entertaining, though impractical, if we followed turn-of-the-19th century courtroom rules.
The crime in question surrounds the disappearance of a young Quaker woman named Elma Sands, who left her Manhattan boarding house one evening and never returned. When her body was found in a local well, suspicion immediately fell to fellow boarder Levi Weeks, who had been courting the young lady. Public opinion would have Weeks hanged on the spot. Fortunately for him, his brother Ezra, who was well off, secured the three most prominent lawyers in Manhattan for the defense: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and H. Brockholst Livingston (who, while less famous than his co-counsels, certainly had a name grand enough to match this drama; he was eventually appointed to the United States Supreme Court).
Collins always sets the stage for his tales by painting a picture of the times, which subtly invites us to make comparisons with our own decade. For example, from 1795 to 1803, New York was dealing with a yellow fever epidemic, which suggests an easy comparison to our current day. While the source of the sickness was hard to pinpoint, many believed it was caused by foreigners: “. . . suspicions attached itself to ‘vessels from one of the sickly ports of the West Indies.’ ” (While this book was published in 2013, don’t forget SARS and swine flu both generated prejudice and stigma in the early 21st century). In a more humorous parallel to a relatively recent controversy, “Some think [January 1, 1800] is the first year in the Nineteenth century. . . and others, the last year in the Eighteenth.” Collins also nods towards rights of women in a number of ways: most obviously in the all-male, all-white jury at the trial, but also when Sands’s fellow boards come to suspect, following her disappearance, that perhaps she left to have a “procedure,” and her failure to return meant something went wrong.
Local color notwithstanding, I felt like the book was dragging until it came to the trial, and then it took off. Part of the reason for this is because Hamilton and Burr are such compelling characters, and not just because you want to imagine them bursting into song when they addressed the jury. These two have to be the greatest frenemies in American history. Of Burr, Hamilton wrote, “These things are to be admitted, and indeed cannot be denied, that he is a man of extreme and irregular ambition; that he is selfish to a degree which excludes all social affections; and he is decidedly profligate. He is far more cunning than wise–far more dextrous than able.” Those underlines are Hamilton’s own emphasis, not mine or Collins’s. In spite of these opinions, Burr and Hamilton dined together regularly; their wives and daughters dined together; and they frequently met in court, either on the same side or on opposing sides of a case.
Hearing Collins describe these lawyers in court is thrilling (if you’re easily thrilled by words, and knowing people on this site, I’m guessing many of you are). Popular culture has been honest with us on at least one count: Burr was eloquent and measured his words, making him the perfect lawyer to present opening arguments; Hamilton was quick and passionate, and fired questions at witnesses during cross examinations.
As I mentioned previously, court drama from pre-20th century fascinates me because it is so different from what we know today. While conflicts of interest certainly existed, nobody seemed to pay it any mind. Collins writes, “This room, filled with the most distinguished legal eminences in the state, might have seemed a Gordian knot of tangled conflicts of interest: Burr’s company owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk, and had political alliances and rivalries with his fellow counselors, the mayor, and the judge. In any other time or place, all this might have at least raised an eyebrow. But in Manhattan in 1800, it was just how business was done.”
That the trial lasted two whole days was unheard of! The case went well past midnight on both nights, forcing the sleep-deprived prosecutor to give his summation around 2:30 in the morning of the third day. I remember being on jury duty several years ago, and the judge stopped the prosecutor in the middle of his closing argument because it was past 4 p.m. and the court staff was not allowed to work overtime. While I wouldn’t want to sleep on the floor like the men on this case had to do, there is something much more romantic and earnest about serving on case where spectators jeer at the prosecutor because he suggests he might want to get some sleep. And speaking of jeering, jury members were allowed to just shout out questions! I’m never going to be able to take the L.A. County legal system seriously ever again after reading this book.
This trial was notable in several other ways. For one thing, the prosecutor gave a new form of evidence by actually hiring someone to ride a horse from a witness’s location to the site of the murder to show proof that the accused would have time to commit the crime. While this seems obvious today, it was a new innovation at the time. In another notable moment, Burr, in his closing speech, quoted the now famous line fom Matthew Hale’s Pleas of the Crown, “. . . for it is better that five guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent man should die.” Finally, post-verdict, this case became the first trial in the United States to be recorded and published in its entirety for public consumption.
This case was a landmark for many reasons, yet I suspect the main reason it attracts our interest today is the mythology around Hamilton and Burr. Even before Lin-Manuel Miranda made American history hip, we’ve had a fascination with the idea that the people who helped found our country would actually kill each other in a duel. Reading about them in action, seeing what they could accomplish together, makes their ends even more tragic.
Highly recommend for fans of history and historical crime.