- - Thursday, July 11, 2013

By Paul Collins
Crown, $20.60, 304 pages

It was a time when Manhattan had muddy cobblestone streets, boiled coffee was the latest fad from France, rioters tore down Mrs. Murphy’s brothel, yellow fever raged and it wasn’t safe to drink the water.

It was also a time when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, distinguished political lawyers who were “the best of enemies,” took the same side in a case that became known as the first sensational murder trial in America. In “Duel With the Devil,” Paul Collins has used the 18th-century court transcript, a primary source of new archival material, to track the trial and even identify the killer who escaped justice.

This was the trial of Levi Weeks, a handsome young carpenter accused of strangling Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, and dumping her body in a well. The crime was also politically charged. Hamilton and Burr were fierce political rivals. Hamilton was the leader of the wealthy Federalists, while Burr headed the populist Republicans, and they were both involved in a looming fight over Manhattan’s water supply.

Mr. Collins is a vividly evocative writer who conjures up the atmosphere and emotions of a bygone day, from the fury of the crowd to the controversy over a missing muff worn by the murdered woman. What he also does is offer a solution to one of the nation’s oldest cold cases, leveling an accusation that unveils the man who murdered Elma Sands and got away with it — at least in America. He points the long finger of blame at Richard David Croucher, an Englishman known as “Mad Croucher” who married an American woman and set up house with her and her 13-year-old daughter. It was the daughter who became Croucher’s next victim, and she testified how he had raped her, hinting that she worried she might share poor Elma Sands’ fate.

It was not until Croucher fled back to England that he was executed for a “heinous crime.” But not for the killing of Elma Sands. Levi Weeks was acquitted, but not before he had spent weeks of misery in the bleakest of prisons and lived with the threat of lynching by an uncontrollable crowd.

His high-profile team of lawyers — that included Hamilton and Burr — recalled the grisly case of Harry Bedlow, who had been charged with raping a 17-year-old seamstress who later admitted she had made the whole thing up. That did not mollify a crowd so enraged that the proof of Bedlow’s innocence did not prevent an attempt to destroy the house of his legal counsel. Even after his acquittal, Bedlow was bankrupt and disgraced. It was a fearsome world in those days of early America. And nobody knew it better than those who played the political game.

In the continuing drama of Burr and Hamilton, the climax, of course, was the famous duel in 1804 on a New Jersey shore, where it was reported that Hamilton shot into the trees and Burr did not. “A mortal wound,” cried Hamilton. Burr’s victory on the dueling field turned the young nation against him, and he became “a stateless and bankrupt shadow of a man.”

Mr. Collins does a masterful job of presenting Burr and Hamilton, noting that Hamilton was “prone to furnishing a space with a plain pine desk and chair and kept his files stored on planks laid over blocks.” The author adds that among Hamilton’s papers were the details about a case for which, after receiving a generous fee from his client, he sent the check back with a simple notation, “Returned as being more than is proper.”

Hamilton was “a loud advocate for the propertied classes” and, as author of most of the Federalist Papers, he had argued for ratifying a stronger central government and against the Bill of Rights. By contrast, Burr “exercised a near surreptitious magnetic influence over idealistic young liberals.” Mr. Collins points out that their profession meant that Hamilton and Burr could not avoid each other even if they wanted to. “As the best lawyers in Manhattan, they were on one side or the other of the leading cases of the city.”

Ironically, in the case of Levi Weeks, it turned out that Hamilton’s building contractor was Ezra Weeks, the owner of the boarding house that housed victim Elma Sands and carpenter Levi Weeks. To add to the confusion, Hamilton was a man “known for his less sporting pursuits,” and Burr on one occasion served as the divorce lawyer for Hamilton’s mistress. It was fodder for scandal, and Mr. Collins has made the most of his material.

It is an interesting postscript that the unfortunate Levi Weeks not only survived his nightmare, but prospered. He moved to Mississippi and became such a successful architect that some of his structures survive to this day.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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