2014 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
Duel with the Devil
is acclaimed historian Paul Collins’ remarkable true account of a stunning turn-of-the-19th century murder and the trial that ensued — a showdown in which iconic political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr joined forces to make sure justice was done. Still our nation’s longest running “cold case,” the mystery of Elma Sands finally comes to a close with this book, which delivers the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years.
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 crescendo. Central to their dispute was the Manhattan water supply, which Burr saw not just as an opportunity to help a city devastated by epidemics but as a chance to heal his battered finances.
But everything changed when Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, was found dead in Burr's newly constructed Manhattan Well. The horrific crime quickly gripped the nation, and before long accusations settled on one of Elma’s suitors, handsome young carpenter Levi Weeks. As the enraged city demanded a noose be draped around the accused murderer’s neck, the only question seemed to be whether Levi would make it to trial or be lynched first.
The young 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.
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 masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.
“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.” Booklist
“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 that date in Manhattan…the author’s conjecture as to the true villain is spot-on.” Kirkus Reviews
"Duel with the Devil begins as a wonderfully creepy historical murder mystery and becomes a riveting story of two acclaimed lawyers battling for justice in an unsympathetic courtroom. But, in the talented hands of author Paul Collins, it also becomes something more – a startlingly insightful look at early American history and the men who helped shape a young country. The book delivers on so many levels that you'll find yourself, as I did, reading it more than once." Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
“A nimble and vividly evocative reconstruction of a long-forgotten New York murder mystery with an unforgettable cast of characters. Duel with the Devil is a fascinating book that unfolds like an early-American episode of Law & Order, with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as the celebrity guest stars.” Gary Krist, author of City of Scoundrels
About the Author
Paul Collins is the author of eight books. An assistant 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 is regularly featured on NPR's Weekend Edition as their "literary detective."