Duel with the Devil: A review

On January 2, 1800, the body of a 20-year old Quaker woman named Elma Sands was fished out of a well in Lispenard’s Meadow, half-way between downtown New York and Greenwich Village.  A respectable young carpenter, Levi Weeks, who lived in the same boarding house as Miss Sands (and was thought to be courting her) was charged with her murder.  The resulting trial was one of the most publicized and sensational of our early nation’s history, not least because of the subsequent history of two of Weeks’ attorneys, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  That murder, trial and history are the subjects of Paul Collins’ riveting new book, Duel with the Devil.

Collins begins in New York, in the summer months of 1799. And he begins with water.  New York water was famous for its terrible quality; shining brass pumps provided city-dwellers with ample quantities for washing up or dowsing fires, but you certainly didn’t want to drink the stuff, not if you didn’t want to get sick.  For a breakfast beverage, New Yorkers might enjoy a new-fangled invention, powdered instant coffee; some old Dutch residents enjoyed hot chocolate.  But for most city dwellers, you were better off with beer.

The summer of 1799 was infamous as well for yellow fever. This summer was particularly hot, and its marshy meadows were home to New York’s infamous mosquitoes.  Philadelphia was wracked with epidemic, and New Yorkers feared the illness would spread.  Writes Collins, “New Yorkers . . . rolled up their newspapers to swat away the July mosquitoes, and wondered what on earth it could be that was killing Philadelphians.”  All hoped for an early frost–there seemed to be a confounding link between nippy weather and urban health.

At least one of Manhattan’s shakers and movers, Aaron Burr, thought he could at least deal with the water problem.  He felt that the springs feeding the marshy Lispenard’s Meadow could supply water of a purer quality than was found in the city’s wells, and had founded The Manhattan Company to build the pipelines that might provide it.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Catharine Ring and her husband Elias ran a respectable Quaker boarding house in Manhattan. Her tenants included a young carpenter, Levi Weeks, and his apprentice, William Anderson.  Also boarding there were two young Quaker women, Mrs. Ring’s sister, Hope, and cousin, Elma Sands.  And the most recent tenant was a disagreeable older gentleman, a cloth merchant named Richard Croucher.  Weeks was friendly enough with the two single girls, but didn’t seem interested in formally courting either of them, and Elma was anyway rather sickly, and spent much of her time alone in her room.

Levi Weeks, though, would have been something of a catch.  His brother, Ezra Weeks, was an architect and contractor, and Levi his chief carpenter. Together, they had landed the Manhattan Company contract, building wooden pipelines to provide water for the city.  They had also built some of the finest homes in the city, including the new mansion occupied by the town’s most illustrious citizen, the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Collins skillfully recreates the atmosphere in the town, as Elma Sands’ body was found, and suspicion landed on Levi Weeks.  He describes in some detail the painstaking investigation by the Prosecutor, Cadwallander Colden.  In 1800, the idea of a professional police force, with detectives and standards of evidence and secured crime scenes had yet to take hold.  Any investigation had to be done by the Prosecutor, and that meant Colden.  And he did a good job.  There were no witnesses to Sands’ death, but a great deal of circumstantial evidence seemed to point to Levi Weeks, and the newspapers were sure they had their man.

But Weeks had friends in high places.  Hamilton was grateful to his brother Ezra for designing and building his house.  In fact, he still owed money on the house, which Ezra Weeks was willing to forgive in exchange for his legal services.  And Aaron Burr knew the Weeks’ brothers from their work for the Manhattan company.  Weeks had a third attorney as well, Brockholst Livingston, a younger attorney, well known in the city and more experienced in criminal law than his famous co-counsels.  (And don’t you regret the days when parents were willing to give their kids awesome names like Cadwallander and Brockholst.  Even Elma’s full name was Gulielma).

Collins’ account of the trial is riveting and detailed.  The court recorder, William Coleman, was an expert at shorthand, and after the trial, was permitted to publish the court transcript, as a supplement to his income.  His book would become the first published transcript, the fullest record of a trial in US legal history.  So Collins has a lot to work with, and his eye for detail is astounding.

Above all, I was struck by what a factor sheer human exhaustion was in the trial.  The judge had other cases on his docket, and wasn’t about to allow for recesses or breaks of any kind.  And Colden’s case was entirely circumstantial, which meant a lengthy parade of witnesses, each presenting another link in a narrative chain that would lead, inevitably, to only one possible conclusion; that Elma Sands had been murdered, and at the hand of Levi Weeks.  At three in the morning of the first day of trial, Colden was still not finished, and so the court recessed, but only ’til ten the next morning.  The next day grew lengthier and lengthier, as Burr and Hamilton and Livinston tore apart the Prosecution case.  When finally, at four in the morning of the second day of the trial, Colden was completely wiped out by fatigue, and the Defense not much better off–the jurors must have been near catatonic.  Both sides were so tired they told the judge they would forego closing arguments.  And the jury was out for just a few minutes; ten minutes in one account, two in others.  Their verdict was clear, and inevitable.  Levi Weeks was not guilty.

Having dealt with the trial, Collins then solves the murder. It turns out that most of the evidence of Weeks’ guilt came from a single source; the other boarding-house tenant, Richard Croucher.  It was Croucher who had spun devastating fables about Weeks for the local papers (including his supposed ‘engagement’ to marry Miss Sands), and Croucher whose trial testimony was eviscerated by Alexander Hamilton in cross-examination.  And it was Croucher who would be convicted within a few months of raping a thirteen-year old servant girl in a different boarding house.  Collins’ case isn’t air-tight, but it’s strong enough: Croucher had motive and opportunity, and a dangerously demented past.  Croucher was almost certainly the killer of Elma Sands.

There’s another possibility, though, which Collins mentions but does not explore much.  And that is Elias Ring, the boardinghouse proprietor.  Court testimony implicated him as having a clandestine affair with Sands. We’re two hundred plus years after the fact, but I found myself disappointed that Collins rather ignored Ring as a plausible alternative suspect.  Certainly, he was more plausible than poor Levi Weeks, whose relationship with the girl never seems to have moved beyond platonic.

Poor girl. That was one of my thoughts reading the book–sympathy for the unfortunate victim. And yet, of all the characters in the book, she’s the one who comes least vividly to life in Collins’ otherwise capable hands. Not his fault–we just don’t know much about her. A nice girl, a less-than-fully-committed Quaker, somewhat sickly, kept to herself.  Raped, almost certainly, by her landlord, (or at least seduced by him), then murdered by a fellow tenant.  What a sad short life.

The rest of the book is as fascinating as the trial scenes themselves.  The Burr-Hamilton duel gets a chapter all its own, with the main emphasis on Hamilton’s conduct, deliberately missing with his one shot, as Aaron Burr shot him dead.  We also get the subsequent histories of the main actors in the tale.  The Sands case was thought at the time to be crucial to the career of Cadwallander Colden.  But losing it doesn’t seem to harmed him at all. He became Mayor of New York, and founded the city’s first scientific foundation.  Brockholst Livingston eventually became a US Supreme Court Justice.  Ezra Weeks built the first and finest hotels in New York, and died wealthy and respected; even became good friends with Colden.  Burr killed Hamilton, then was tried for treason, and when finally, years later, he was able to return to New York from foreign exile, he eked out a meager living as an early practitioner of family law.

As for Levi Weeks, he became restless post-trial, moving further and further west and south.  He ended up in Natchez Mississippi, where he became the architect who designed Auburn, the first Southern Greek Revival plantation home and the model used for many others.  Go on the Auburn website, and it mentions Levi Weeks as architect, without mentioning that he had previously been the defendant in New York City’s first big public and notorious murder trial.

He even gets a day.  April 21st is Levi Weeks day in Natchez. Celebrating the town’s greatest architect.

Anyway, Paul Collins has written a compulsively readable, fascinating, extensively and impressively researched book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  If you like real-life murder mysteries, or early American history, or just a really good book, give this one a try.

One thought on “Duel with the Devil: A review

  1. Chris

    I completely agree w/ this positive review. Almost every line in the book is annotated w/ afternotes. A plausible solution to an unsolved murder is given. Perhaps the author could solve the Lizzie Borden case next.

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