Ostensibly the tale of a dramatic murder trial with three famous defense attorneys, “the first fully recorded murder trial in U.S. history,” but actually more of an intriguing exploration of Manhattan in 1799.
Collins (The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, 2012, etc.) ably brings New York to life; this would be a great reference book for authors looking for site descriptions. The author’s New York is a fascinating place, one that only covered the southern tip of Manhattan and still had no potable water. The Manhattan Company was commissioned to build a pipeline, and those involved in it were major players on both sides of the crime: the murder of a Quaker woman, Elma Sands. There are many characters in the book, and it takes some time before we can identify the victim and suspect. The defense attorneys, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston, don’t appear until halfway through the book. The question of how the plaintiff, a mere carpenter, could afford such a dream team may have something to do with the suspect’s builder brother, who happened to hold past-due notes from Burr and Hamilton. Once the trial begins, the narrative truly takes off, as Collins reveals the immense talents of the three attorneys. The story is an interesting view of the new nation struggling to establish its own judicial system, but there’s too much extraneous information, such as the life stories of peripheral characters and criminal backgrounds of those who shared the jail with the accused.
A rousing tale of the longest murder trial to that date in Manhattan, and the author’s conjecture as to the true villain is spot-on—but he should have focused more on the trial.