‘Duel with the Devil’ is about so much more — and less

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery is a headline that is nearly longer than the story it has to tell. For all its length, the title is a bit misleading as to the overall subject of this historical nonfiction, as the actual murder trial is but a small fraction of Paul Collins’ otherwise well-researched and interesting work.

Collins does a very good job of giving the reader a sense of time and place — in this case, New York City at the close of the 18th century. He explains the ways in which the legal system of the day was so heavily weighted toward the prosecution that to be accused of a crime was virtually to be convicted. The concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” had yet to become part of the foundation of criminal justice. All of which means that once Levi Weeks, a carpenter who living in the same boardinghouse as the murder victim, becomes the target of public accusation, he is all but fitted for the gallows. Enter Hamilton and Burr to save the day.

The problem is that the trial itself takes just two days and the jury deliberates for less than 30 minutes before returning its verdict, leaving little for Collins to gin up into a legal thriller. And that’s just one of the anticlimactic episodes I found, which included the rather prosaic reason that such sworn political enemies as Hamilton (staunch Federalist) and Burr (equally rabid Republican) found themselves on the same side of a case (the common ground being their complete inability to pay their debts, leaving them obliged to Mr. Weeks’ uncle). Further, following Weeks’ acquittal no one else was ever charged, though Collins attempts to “solve” the crime by unearthing some apparently little-known facts about another of the boardinghouse’s roomers.

Of course, with a title like Duel with the Devil, you had to figure that the famous duel between Hamilton and Burr would get some attention and it does — and again, while this section is well-researched, well-written and interesting, it has zippo to do with the putative subject of the book.

In short, then, I recommend Duel with the Devil for anyone interested in the early years of the United States, or the history of the legal system. Just be aware that the crime and trial of the title are the least of this book’s most interesting aspects.