January 2015 | Nate Pedersen

Duel with the Devil: An Interview with Paul Collins

We recently caught up with NPR's Literary Detective (and previous Fine Books & Collections contributor) Paul Collins about his book "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"


How did this project begin for you?

It began when I was reading through an old 1914 compilation, American State Trials.  The idea of Hamilton and Burr joining up on a murder case just sounded too good to be true, but there it was.  And not only that, they had a pretty good idea of whodunnit.  Once I discovered a new piece of evidence for the case - I won't give the spoiler! - that pretty much sealed it for me.  I really had to write about then.

Was the finished book what you imagined when you began? Or did your research take you down new and unexpected alleys?

This one wandered far less from conception to completion than some other books, both figuratively and literally, in part because it's not a travelogue.  But the role of politics - the election of 1800, and the maneuvering around water-supply politics in NYC - came to the fore more than I initially planned, because it soon became obvious that they were inextricably interwoven into the case.

 How did you acquire your primary documents? Did you build a personal book collection?  Visit special collections libraries?  Go to town with interlibrary loan?

The competing trial transcripts were crucial -- there were three, and very nearly a fourth, which is about as close to a media frenzy as you can get in 1800.  Without those, and that level of case detail where you have people testifying what someone wore or said on a particular day, it'd have been very hard to create a book around this crime.

The NY Historical Society was also a huge help, because they had a number of diaries that helped on day to day ordinary-life stuff.  The availability on the Early American Newspapers database of thousands of Manhattan newspapers from that period also helped - and I read them all!  (This is slightly less impressive than it sounds; each issue was normally only 4 pages.)

But that's the challenge if you're trying to a write a narrative history that has anything like a novelistic level of detail - it's not just the big stuff, like the details of the case in itself, it's the little stuff like what color was someone's bedstead painted, what did they eat for dinner that night, whose house down the street got robbed the week before, which juror ran a grocery with another juror a decade earlier, that sort of thing.  You can't get that from standard accounts; it's only diaries and searchable scanned newspapers that can dredge up that stuff.

The big question: Hamilton or Burr... and why...

I'll admit that I'm fond of Burr and his progressive views, particularly on women.  That said, he really was a bit of scoundrel.

What's next on the docket for you?

I'm writing Blood and Ivy for W.W. Norton; it's an account of the Parkman-Webster "Harvard murder" case of 1849.  It's been delayed slightly, because I recently began as chair of the English department at Portland State. On the other hand, if you're writing a book about a campus scandal, being a chair gives you a rather practical understanding of that!

Can we expect to see any more Collins Library reissues down the road?

I'm afraid I've let it sit fallow for a few years, because of my teaching duties and my own books.  But the transition of McSweeney's to a nonprofit is really a new era for them -- we're already talking about some new possibilities there.