Review: Eve Karlin’s City of Liars and Thieves

On December 22, 1799, a young woman named Elma Sands disappeared from her New York City boarding house and was found 11 days later at the bottom of a well owned by Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company.  Sands’ suspected lover and killer, Levi Weeks, was defended in court by co-defense counsel Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston.  The case, which was America’s first recorded murder trial, has been the subject of several non-fiction and fictional accounts.  In preparation for my talk at Federal Hall on July 13, 2015, I read several of these accounts as well as the newspaper accounts and transcripts of the trial.

One account I particularly enjoyed was Eve Karlin’s historical fiction novel City of Liars and Thieves.  Karlin’s book presents the story of Elma’s disappearance and the subsequent high profile murder trial through the lens of Catherine Ring, Elma’s cousin and close friend.  By putting the story through the eyes of a character who would normally be relegated to the historical background, Karlin offers a fresh new perspective on a historical mystery.  The novel provides insight into the turmoil and unrest in New York in 1799, after the city was recovering from a yellow fever epidemic, reeling from the news of George Washington’s death in December 1799, and struggling to provide clean water for its citizens.  Amidst all of these events, Elma Sands’ murder prompted a massive outpouring of public sympathy and fascination.

Image from Amazon

The death of Elma Sands brought the entire City of New York to a standstill and prompted an unprecedented degree of national curiosity.  Karlin weaves historical facts in with a richly imagine backstory of conspiracy, mystery, and tragedy for a gripping read.  The trial of Levi Weeks, her supposed lover and son of a prominent builder who had connections with three of the most prominent lawyers of the day, led to throngs of people flocking to New York’s City Hall.

Urban legend tells us that at the conclusion of the trial, after Levi Weeks was affected, Catherine Ring pointed in the direction of counsel’s table and cursed Hamilton that if he should die a natural death there would be no justice in heaven.  The formal trial transcripts don’t capture this aside, but Karlin’s novel imagines the need for answers and sense of helplessness that the victim’s friends and family may have suffered.

The ebook is available from Amazon for $2.99.  If you’ve read it, share your thoughts in the comments section!

The infamous Manhattan well where Elma Sands was found (now located at a COS store in SoHo) and the site of the trial (Federal Hall National Memorial) are both accessible to the public, so if you’re in New York and interested in the historical mystery, I encourage you to visit both!

Hamilton at 26 Broadway

Many of you have visited Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the only home Hamilton ever owned. However, before he built his country home, Hamilton resided in several other New York City addresses.

Allan McLane Hamilton described Hamilton’s New York addresses in The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton:

“Hamilton, during the early years of his practice, lived at 57 Wall Street before his removal to Philadelphia with the rest of the Cabinet.  On his return in 1795, he occupied a small house at 56 Pine Street, and later moved to 58 Partition Street (now Fulton Street), then to Liberty Street, near Broadway.  From there he went to 26 Broadway, where he lived until 1802, when he built and occupied his country seat, nine miles above the city, which he called “The Grange,” after the Scotch home of his ancestors.”

He further describes Hamilton’s neighborhood in 26 Broadway:

“When he lived at 26 Broadway, the west side of that thoroughfare below Trinity Church was, with one exception built up and occupied by well-to-do and prominent persons.  The exception was a small gun-shop on the south-west corner of Morris Street.”

Ferdinand S. Bartram similarly described the 26 Broadway location as “the most fashionable residence portion of the city.”

In his book The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height, Joseph J. Korom writes:

“The soil beneath the Standard Oil Building, its  site officially recorded and known as 26 Broadway, once belonged to Native Americans, to the Dutch, then the British, and for a time it even supported the home of Alexander Hamilton.  But probably this site is most celebrated because of the series of “Standard Oil Buildings” that occupied it.

The world’s most celebrated, and to some the most notorious, oil concern was headquartered on these premises starting in 1885.  The Standard Oil Trust Company headquarters would remain at this location for the next forty-nine years.”

“26 Broadway 00” by Wurts Brothers – Collection of photographs of New York City. Catalog Call Number: AZ 06-6805. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

In his biography of John D. Rockefeller, Ron Chernow described the 1885 construction of the Standard Oil building:

“In late 1883, Standard Oil began to assemble real estate at the southern tip of Manhattan for new headquarters, destined to soar above Broadway at Bowling Green on the onetime site of Alexander Hamilton’s home.  Having long outgrown William’s old offices at two different locations on Pearl Street, the firm had operated for three years from modest, unprepossessing quarters at 44 Broadway.  Now, on May 1, 1885, after spending nearly one million dollars on it, Standard Oil moved into its impregnable new fortress, a massive, granite, nine-story building.  The combine’s name didn’t appear outside, just the building number.  Twenty-six Broadway soon became the world’s most famous business address, shorthand for the oil trust itself, evoking its mystery, power, and efficiency.”

The building was designated as a New York City landmark in 1995.  The report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission states:

The powerful sculptural massing and arresting silhouette of the Standard Oil Building represent the new set-back skyscraper forms that emerged during the early 1920s. Limestone curtain walls facing Broadway, Beaver Street, and New Street are enriched with large-scale neo-Renaissance ornamentation that enhance the building’s picturesque quality. The building, erected as Standard Oil approached its fiftieth year of operation, reinforced the presence of the oil industry giant in the heart of New York City’s financial and shipping center. From the headquarters building at No. 26 Broadway, John D. Rockefeller’s associates directed the Standard Oil Company that monopolized the American oil industry, endured a sensational anti-trust decision, and retained a dominant role in the international oil business. Although Standard Oil’s successor firm sold the structure in 1956, the building at No. 26 Broadway has remained a prominent address in lower Manhattan.


Hamilton Graveside Remembrance at Trinity Church (July 14, 2014)

On July 14, 2014, the AHA Society and Trinity Church, hosted a graveside remembrance in honor of the 210th anniversary of Hamilton’s death.  The event flyer states:

July 14th, 210 years ago, was the day of Alexander Hamilton’s funeral, in which a funeral procession led from his brother-in-law John B. Church’s home to Trinity Church, where he was buried. His funeral was one of the most attended funerals in New York City history.

Come join together in remembering Alexander Hamilton on the anniversary of his funeral in the Trinity Churchyard. This special program will include participation by the US Coast Guard, Sector New York, which was founded by Alexander Hamilton, and remarks by Peter Dodge, the President of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati. Mr. Dodge will speak on the history of the Society of the Cincinnati (of which Alexander Hamilton was a member and second President-General), plus the role the Society played in coordinating and leading the 1804 funeral procession for Alexander Hamilton.

The below video, created by Arthur Piccolo, a long-time Hamilton supporter and Chairman of the Bowling Green Association, is a great documentation of the events.

The Trinity Church webcast, containing the full talk by Dr. Joanne Freeman on Alexander Hamilton: Man of Honor is available here.  Dr. Freeman’s talk focused on the importance that Hamilton placed on honor throughout his life, from his childhood in the West Indies, to his conduct during the Revolution, and to the decisions that led to the duel with Aaron Burr.  Freeman has a very interesting perspective on Hamilton and is an engaging speaker, so I encourage you to listen to the whole lecture if you have an hour to spare.

Trinity Church A Must-See Cemetery

Huffington Post Canada has included Trinity Church, the site of Alexander Hamilton’s gravesite, on its list of five must-see cemeteries around the world.

The article states: “Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, New York  A modest little green space in Lower Manhattan, this cemetery is best known for one tremendously significant resident: Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States, the nation’s first secretary of state and a Revolutionary War hero. Hamilton isn’t buried in Arlington National Cemetery or on a palatial estate, however. He was shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 and now rests across the street from a discount shoe store. Hamilton’s rise and fall is a significant part of early American history and you will learn more about it with a visit to this historic church. Trinity Church’s St. Paul’s Chapel, located five blocks north of Hamilton’s gravesite, played a significant role in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and is home to a memorial honouring the victims and emergency response crews. The chapel survived that catastrophic event and the 1776 fire that swept through the city.”

Other cemeteries included on the list include Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Père Lachaise in Paris, and St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans.