Duel with the Devil
Crown, 2013 (2013)
Reviewed by Carrol Wolverton
f you enjoy early American history, you will enjoy this book. Written about the turn of the 19th century, it details at great length the new nation's first well-documented murder trial. Levi Weeks is accused of killing Elma Sands and dumping her body in the Manhattan Well, an unused covered-over well. That he didn't do it doesn't impress anyone. Rumors abound, along with calls for hanging and swift justice. For a new nation with few precedents, the trial made history. It is the first trial ever accurately recorded because court stenography didn't exist. One William Coleman took it upon himself to take careful notes that he later published.
f great interest is the author's discussion of customs of the era. People speculated endlessly about yellow fever killing masses in the summer and smallpox doing likewise in the winter. No one thought of linking mosquitoes to any illness. Residents left town instead, leaving behind those too poor or too responsible to depart. As a carpenter, Levi Weeks was among the latter.
hey also believed if a woman claimed rape and was pregnant, she had to be a willing participant because women could only get pregnant when relaxed. That the pregnancy rate is the same for women willing or unwilling would never have washed. Women were not believed to have souls anyway. Rumor fueled everything, and houses and businesses thought to be related to crimes were sometimes destroyed. Favorable sentiments toward Britain ran deep, and newspapers loved to publish rumors to gain readership.
t was Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr primarily who defended Levi Weeks and did an admirable job of using each other's strengths. Both were powerful, if opposing attorneys of the era. Both fought poverty and lived mired in debt despite pretended wealth. Their later duel killed Hamilton and ruined Burr.
ell written and documented, this historical discussion endlessly cites references and publications from the era. This was no small task because so much of what was published was made up hearsay. All is recorded, including the sources. Speech is quoted, not fictionalized, making for a credible and enjoyable read.
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