A blog by Ms. Denise Tymon, Retired and Beloved Alverno Social Studies Teacher and Curriculum Director Extraordinaire
Preface: During her final week at Alverno Heights Academy, Ms. Denise Tymon wrote the following blog as a favor to Ms. Sara McCarthy ’05, Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management. Despite the fact that she was busily preparing for her well-deserved retirement, she gave a former student one final lesson. After all, who better to share more about the illustrious Mr. Hamilton than the woman who inspired decades of Alverno students to love American history? Thank you, Ms. Tymon, for this final piece of history.
It is difficult to write something about Alexander Hamilton in these days following the premier of Lin- Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. Hamilton’s marriage, political career, and his relationship to Aaron Burr have been in depth in a variety of publications, including the comprehensive work by Ron Chernow. Not much is left unknown to the reader about Hamilton as a result.
I was therefore delighted to discover 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 by Paul Collins. This wonderful work of narrative non-fiction vividly re-creates New York City in the winter of 1799-1800. Residents of the city were recovering from an outbreak of yellow fever that had sent the well-to-do rushing to safer locations, such as Greenwich, now Greenwich Village. Noah Webster, prominent newspaper publisher in the city,was inspired to write a scientific study on the origins of disease. Aaron Burr, ever the financial opportunist, was looking for ways to bring running, drinkable water into the city. In the midst of all of this, on a bitter winter morning in January, a body is found floating in the Manhattan Well, one of the few sources of acceptable water to city residents. The discovery of the body of Gulielma Sands, and the subsequent trial for her murder are the subject of this book.
Levi Weeks, a resident of the same boarding house as Elma Sands was arrested for her murder shortly after the body was found. Levi’s brother, Ezra, a prominent builder in the city, quickly assembled an impressive defense team. As it was rumored that two famous city attorneys owed him money, Ezra called on Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr to take the case. Working together, with Brockholst Livingston, another noted city attorney, the three came together to form the first defense team to actually sit in court with the defendant throughout the trial. Prior to this, in early American courts, the defendant could only consult with, but not be accompanied by, his attorney. The trial was also revolutionary in that it is the first case for which written transcripts were kept.
The book reads much like an exciting murder mystery, with the defense attorneys quickly dismissing the circumstantial evidence against the victim. One of the most impressive scenes in the book, though a disputed event by the supporters of both Burr and Hamilton, is the confrontation in the courtroom late at night by the attorneys holding a chandelier to the face of the witness they believe to be the true murderer. Hamilton’s son claimed that it was his father who had flushed out the true criminal, while Burr supporters give him the credit. Levi Weeks was found not guilty by a jury which deliberated five minutes. He later settled in Natchez, Mississippi, where he became a noted architect.
The actual killer, while not convicted of the death of Elma, was later arrested, tried, and imprisoned for another crime. The murder of Elma Sands remains one of the oldest cold cases.
What is interesting about the dynamic of the relationship between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in this book is the fact that while the two were acknowledged rivals and competitors, they were willing to set aside the rivalry to see that justice was done.
Duel with the Devil is a fascinating history of the city of New York in the early 1800s. The author brings New York City vividly to life, as he does the personalities of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. I highly recommend it for a relaxing summer escape.
Ms. Denise Tymon, former Curriculum Director and Social Studies Department Chair, retired in June after completing her 28th year at Alverno Heights Academy. Ms. Tymon holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Fordham University, a Master of Arts degree in Teaching from Loyola Marymount University, and a Master of Science degree in Educational Administration from Mount St. Mary’s University as well as a California Lifetime Teaching Credential in Social Studies. Over the course of her tenure, Ms. Tymon taught Theology, US History, AP United States History, World History, Enrichment Folk Craft, Geography, and others. She is currently enjoying her return to the East Coast and her hometown of Stamford, CT where she is relishing in her free time with her two cats, her sister, and her mother.