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No meddling kids--and he got away with it, too

  • Nov 8, 2013
Manhattan in 1800 was a small town, and there was one event then that everyone was talking about:  the Elma Sands murder and trial.  When the young single Quaker girl's body was found in the  Manhattan Well dug for.a new city water supply, the young single carpenter boarding at her cousin's boarding house was suspected, arrested and tried for the murder.  But Levi Weeks was defended by an all-stars team of lawyers:  Republican party leader Aaron Burr and Federalist party leader Alexander Hamilton.

I'll pause a beat here for the doubletake.

Yes, you saw right.  Burr was partnered with Hamilton, his bitter political foe and in less than a decade his victim in the most famous duel in American history.  But as author Paul Collins documents the story, the time, and the place, we learn that Manhattan was indeed a small town and these civic, legal, financial, military, and political leaders crossed paths many times over the years, often on opposite sides of the issues, but here on the same side of the defendant's table in a New York City courtroom.  Just one example of the many intertwined threads of the story: the well where the young woman's body was found was dug by Burr's Manhattan Company.

Part murder mystery, part legal procedural, part cold case file, the story is told with perfect pacing and spare noir style, relying heavily on multiple contemporary accounts of the murder and trial, including one published just hours after the verdict and another complete verbatim transcript of the trial proceedings recorded by the then-new technique of shorthand court reporting.  Collins uses quotes around dialogue just as it was recorded in these sources, so his writing has a current "you are there" feel, and he fleshes out the details with wisely used research in other sources to describe the places, time, and people involved in the case.

The only thing keeping this book from a 5-star classic rating is how slim it is.  Clocking in at barely 200 pages, easily finished in a couple of hours, it reads like a padded-out magazine feature story.  But the story is still a well-crafted gem that rewards the reader whether they are interested in the history, the politics, or the murder mystery.

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November 14, 2013
Interesting story!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #1
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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