The rumors that the young couple left together that fateful night and that they recently were betrothed were enough for the man and woman in the street. In those rough and ready times, Weeks’ life would have been in serious jeopardy had he not been arrested, jailed, and charged, on sheer speculation, with the murder. There was no evidence to speak of, nor, for that matter, even any absolute certainty that a homicide had been committed. But back then, it was arrest first, ask questions later.
Enter the legal glitterati: Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston, three of the best lawyers not just in lower Manhattan but perhaps in all the land. The first two were heavily indebted to Week’s brother Ezra, a wealthy and well connected contractor, and they would work the case gratis.
The trio didn’t disappoint, especially Burr, who would spring a classic ambuscade on one of the key prosecution witnesses, the purported gentleman who ran the boardinghouse where Weeks and Sands lived. Yes, he confessed warily, the walls between his establishment and its neighbor were astonishingly thin. He would regret this candid testimony soon enough.
In his eighth book, the author, who is a professor of creative nonfiction and a regular guest on NPR where he is known as a "literary detective", does not merely purvey murder most archaic; he places the reader in his personal “Way Back Machine” so one can see, feel, and smell how things were when America was still wet behind the ears, Greenwich Village was the sticks, and yellow fever stalked lower Manhattan like the Devil himself.
The War for Independence was nearly 20 years distant, but New York City was just getting back to normal in 1800. Collins writes: “Great swaths of the city had been destroyed by fire in the Revolutionary War, and what wasn’t burned out of spite was burned for survival. When he reconnoitered the British occupied island in 1781, George Washington found it ‘totally stripped of trees,’ with the old woods and orchards chopped down…. It was only now, a generation later that the city had truly recovered.”