Hamilton and Burr. Sounds like a law firm you might see advertised on television. And they were lawyers. But that's not what really ties these two menHamilton and Burr. Sounds like a law firm you might see advertised on television. And they were lawyers. But that's not what really ties these two men together. They are Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. For history buffs, the names may bring to mind the ongoing political battles in the 1790s between Hamilton, the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, and Burr, a U.S. Senator who defeated Hamilton's father-in-law to gain the seat. Most Americans, though, remember the two from an event more commonly mentioned in American history classes -- in 1804 Burr, then vice president of the U.S., killed Hamilton in a duel over derogatory comments Hamilton supposedly made.
Their enmity is one of the hooks for Duel with the Devil, an account of what was 18th Century New York City's "Trial of the Century." Paul Collins draws on numerous resources, including the trial transcript, in describing how two such foes both end up defending Levi Weeks, a young carpenter, in his trial for murdering Elma Sands, a young woman who lived in the same boarding house.
Although it is the pivot, the trial doesn't actually begin until more than halfway through the book. In fact, the oddity of Burr and Hamilton being allied is, like the trial, a vehicle to explore the social and political landscape of New York City as the 18th Century drew to a close. Largest in the country with a population of 60,000, it's a city where the streets are muddy, two miles of meadows and pastures separate it from Greenwich Village and getting potable water is a central concern. In fact, a project to install underground wooden pipes to bring in water is equally crucial. That project was the Manhattan Company's, whose founding directors included Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston, who would be on the U.S. Supreme Court less than seven years later. And the prelude to and trial itself give insight to the public attitudes and criminal justice system of the day.
When 22-year-old Gulielma "Elma" Sands' body is found in a well outside the city on January 2, 1800, (in what is now SoHo in Lower Manhattan), suspicion immediately turns to Levi Weeks. Weeks, 24, lived in the boarding house owned and run by Elma's cousin and reportedly was the last to be seen with her when she disappeared on December 22. Rumors were they were sneaking off to be secretly married. Between his arrest and trial at the end of March, virtually the entire city is convinced of his guilt. In fact, the day trial begins at City Hall, the building is swarmed by what one observer reported to be the largest crowd in the city's history. And when it starts, Weeks is represented by Burr, Hamilton and Livingston. How does a common carpenter end up with such a high powered defense team? His brother, Ezra, is one of the city's biggest contractors and not only does his wealth help, but both Burr and Hamilton are reportedly deeply in debt to him for various construction work.
Duel With The Devil unfolds slowly and even has a whodunit feel through the end of trial. The modern reader sees not only an early New York City but how legal procedures have changed over the years. While a judge was the chief presiding officer, he was joined by the city's mayor and recorder. Jurors had to be men and possess $250 worth of property, about what a common laborer would earn in a year. Even murder trials usually took less than a day so, as a rule, they proceeded until complete. Here, though, the first day's testimony went until 1:30 the next morning, with the jurors sleeping on the floor of a second story room in which they were sequestered. The second day went until 2:30 a.m. Seventy-five witnesses testified. The prosecution's case was circumstantial; the defense decimated what we would today call the prosecution's forensic evidence and suggested she committed suicide. Once the jury retired to deliberate at about 3 a.m., the not guilty verdict took minutes, perhaps aided by the fact the judge instructed the jury that he, the mayor and the recorder all believed the evidence was insufficient to convict Levi.
Levi didn't testify during trial. That was a matter of custom in capital cases, where defendants were viewed as having a hopeless bias against conviction, creating a "disqualification of interest." As Collins observes, though, that seems to have been about the only conflict of interest that was recognized. Not only did the city recorder sit on the board of the Manhattan Company at the time of trial, the company "owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, and had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk [of courts.]"
New York City was so fascinated with the trial that within hours of the verdict a 16-page pamphlet about it was being snapped up. Another, more complete pamphlet appeared two days after that and within two weeks the clerk of courts published the full transcript, the first such in the new nation. Collins incorporates that testimony in portraying the evidence and machinations at trial. His detail tends to be better focused than in earlier chapters, where there are occaionsal diversions into matters that don't seem quite germane to the story or the portrayal of New York City in 1800. That said, the straightforward, almost journalistic approach, makes this a satisfying look into a unique coalescence of events and personalities.
Collins doesn't abandon the participants once the trial is over. While it didn't establish who killed Elma, Duel With The Devil does. Livingston, Hamilton and Burr would go on to joust in the courtroom and, for the latter two, in politics. Hamilton would meet his fate along the Hudson River in New Jersey. The duel would bring Burr's political career to an end and he would stand trial for (and be acquitted of) treason in 1807, less than nine months after Livingston reached the Supreme Court. As for Levi Weeks? He would leave New York City several years later and go on to become a successful architect in Natchez, Miss., perhaps thankful he never achieved the fame (or infamy) of his legal "dream team."
Whether cast in terms of manifest destiny or, more crudely, "the Indian problem," at its core the conflict between white and Native Americans was a clWhether cast in terms of manifest destiny or, more crudely, "the Indian problem," at its core the conflict between white and Native Americans was a clash of cultures. While not necessarily the centerpiece, Dakota Territory was frequently a stage upon which it played out. Despite the fact it focuses on a narrow slice of the life of Lakota war chief Sitting Bull, Dennis C. Pope's Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War is infused with one of the fundamental differences between the Plains Indians and white society.
Pope's book looks at the period when Sitting Bull was essentially a prisoner of war. Sitting Bull was one of the Lakota Sioux's leading warriors and war chiefs after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to continued violations of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which had guaranteed the Black Hills and much of western South Dakota and eastern Montana and Wyoming to the Sioux in perpetuity. His resistance to abandoning traditional plains life led other groups to band with him and his vision of soldiers falling from the sky helped inspire the defeat of Custer's Seventh Calvary in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Within a year, Sitting Bull led his band to Canada to escape the U.S. military. By 1881, though, things had become so dire for the band that Sitting Bull surrendered.
Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War focuses on the roughly two years that followed that surrender. Although initially transferred to Fort Yates near the Standing Rock Agency in what is now south central North Dakota where many of his band's friends and relatives were located, the government feared he might lead another uprising. As a result, he and his band were taken by steamer down the Missouri River to Fort Thompson in what is now southeastern South Dakota. Isolated from family and friends, Sitting Bull and his people were, for all intents and purposes, prisoners.
Pope uses a quite readable narrative history approach to this period, something not always easy when dealing with a topic that is not only more than 100 years old but one in which the central figure's ideas and thoughts are communicated through others. In limiting the book to the period from Sitting Bull's surrender on July 19, 1881, until he and his band were allowed to rejoin the rest of his tribe at Standing Rock in May 1883, Pope brings a unique period in the warrior's life into sharp focus. Moreover, this focus reveals that although survival required the Lakota to adapt, Sitting Bull's core beliefs never changed.
Throughout his life, Sitting Bull believed no one could sell Indian land. As far as he was concerned, "treaty Indians" had exceeded their authority and their acts did not bind him. He surrendered only in order to save his band. When he did so, he offered to be placed on a reservation on the Little Missouri but wanted the right to cross back and forth into Canada whenever he wished. "This is my country, and I don't wish to be compelled to give it up," he said in surrendering. Instead, he was sent to Fort Randall, where he was more under the supervision of the War Department than the Interior Department, which was normally in charge of Indian affairs.
Despite his status, Sitting Bull possessed a type of celebrity status. From surrender to Fort Randall, social events were held at which prominent citizens and military personnel and their families could meet Sitting Bull. Even though he did not agree with the white man's ways, he understood the tools of attempting to survive in it. As a result, he would often charge for autographs or photographs. While attempting to "endure the peace" he also sought out a balance for others of his tribe to make sure they survived while he sought to maintain traditional values. For example, even though he let one of his children be among a handful taken to a boarding school away from Fort Randall, he told anyone who asked or listened that the land belonged to the Sioux and that he and his people were suffering an injustice.
Pope relies on newspaper and other contemporary accounts and government documents to show how Sitting Bull personally refused to concede tradition even if he and his people had lost control of their fate. Sitting Bull's views were such that he personally questioned what good, if any, white society offered. He told one newspaper correspondent:
The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in open country, and live in our own fashion.
Reality, though, meant his people had to give up that freedom. But even when Sitting Bull agreed to "[b]e a white man and go to farming" at Standing Rock, he told newspaper reporters that the Sioux owned the land and he could go where he pleased. By then in his early fifties, Sitting Bull was simply stating the principle that guided his entire life. The fact his people may have lost the clash of cultures did not mean that he had to abandon his basic beliefs, something Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War shows he did not do even when within the control and custody of the U.S. government.