One of the things I enjoy about crime fiction is how much detail is required to tell a story. The details are where you often find the clues and the misdirection that lead to or away from the solution. True crime stories, particularly historical ones, hold a lot of the same appeal. To understand a crime in a particular era, you need to learn about seemingly trivial matters that don’t often make it into typical history books.
When I saw on the LibraryThing Early Review program that Paul Collins, who wrote the fascinating Book of William a few years ago, had written a true crime novel about an 1800 murder trial, I decided that it would be worth trying to get a copy. The early 19th century is not my favorite era of American history, but I chalk that up to lack of study of the period. Often it’s learning about a time that makes me interested, and digging into something other than the presidential politics of the era, which is all I learned about in school, seemed like a good way to learn a little something new. A bonus is that the book promised to feature Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who I knew little about beyond their infamous duel. (And all I knew about that duel was that it happened.)
Political rivals Hamilton and Burr teamed up in 1800 to serve as defense attorneys in a high-profile murder trial in Manhattan. The murder victim was a young Quaker woman named Elma Sands whose body had been found in a well. The suspect, presumed by virtually all Manhattan to be guilty, was Levi Weeks, a boarder in her home rumored to be romantically involved with her.
Collins details the events leading up to the murder, peppering the narrative with details about Manhattan life at the time and about construction projects relevant to the case, the main one being the quest to improve the city water supply. He gives background on Hamilton and Burr and their reasons for taking up the case, and he introduces readers to the Greenwich Village neighborhood where Elma and Levi lived. He relies on original sources and firsthand accounts of the trial to build his story, and he holds back enough facts to keep readers in suspense about the outcome of the trial and Levi’s likely guilt or innocence. Collins is a good nonfiction writer for general audiences. He doesn’t assume extensive knowledge, but he also doesn’t talk down to readers.
The book is short—only about 200 pages of text followed by extensive notes. Collins generally sticks to his basic story—background, murder, trial, and brief aftermath—and doesn’t spend much time trying to cover every issue and topic adjacent to the murder. For example, we learn enough about Quakers to understand Elma’s Quaker relatives’ reactions to her activities, but we don’t get extensive background on Quakerism. We get the broad outlines of Burr and Hamilton’s political disputes, but no lengthy explanations of Federalism. For me, it was about the right amount of detail, enough to get a sense of the period, but not so much to be overloaded.
Although the book wasn’t overloaded with historical background, the murder case itself involved so many different people and so many different timelines that I struggled at times to follow it. Certain events—such as a sighting of a sleigh without bells—were treated with great importance, but I couldn’t always work out how those events fit into the case for the prosecution or the defense. There were also some points where in the effort to build suspense, Collins left important information—such as the findings of medical examiners—out of his chronological narrative, saving them for the account of the trial. As much as I appreciated the drama created with the late revelations, I would have liked the chance to follow the whole investigation, not just bits and pieces. It would have made more sense to confine all the findings in the account of the trial or to share them all as they happened.
I also do want to note that the advance copy I received says that this book delivers the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years. To which I’m just going to say that’s overstating the case. Some of the facts he shares weren’t necessarily common knowledge at the time, but there’s no new information here either. There didn’t need to be for it to be a story worth telling.