Authors: Eve Karlin
City of Liars and Thieves
is a work of historical fiction, using well-known historical and public figures. With the exception of some dialogue taken from transcripts of the 1800 trial of Levi Weeks, all incidents and dialogue are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Where real-life historical or public figures appear, the situations, incidents, and dialogue concerning those persons are entirely fictional and are not intended to change the entirely fictional nature of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Eve Karlin
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Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
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Cover design: Caroline Teagle
Cover photograph: Â© Caryn Drexel/Arc
Law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.
âAaron Burr (1756â1836)
The news reached Cornwall today: Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in an early-morning duel.
The New-York Gazette
the Evening Post
are brimming with speculation and gossip. It is said that a mob of eleven hundred has threatened to set fire to Burr's Richmond Hill estateâthat or hang him.
Either way, I know he will burn in hell.
As for Hamilton, the papers reported that the bullet pierced his right hip, tore through his abdomen, and shattered his spine. In and out of consciousness, he writhed in agony for nearly twenty hours before succumbing to a most unnatural death.
Is this justice?
Sixty miles north of the Weehawken dueling ground, I stand on the banks of the Hudson and listen to the waves against the rocky shore. A hawk circles high overhead. Closing my eyes, I can almost smell the spent gunpowder. I inhale deeply and imagine the fatal encounter.
It is dawn. Hamilton and Burr stand ten paces apart below the towering cliffs of the Palisades. Hamilton assumes the dueling stance: right foot in front of left, chin positioned over right shoulder, stomach drawn in. Burr, his broad shoulders set in a military manner, steps to the mark and takes aim.
Shots ring out as lead balls pierce the morning air. Crows scatter from a cedar tree; a branch splinters and falls, narrowly missing Burr. Hamilton is lifted onto his toes, lurches to the left, then collapses. His britches are torn and singed; the taut skin above his right hip is burned; his flesh is flayed.
With the same eloquence that defined his career, Hamilton declares, “This is a mortal wound.”
Sunlight glimmers on brass as Burr lowers his pistol. His dark eyes match the weapon's walnut finish. His full lips compress into a thin, indecipherable line. Is it regret or satisfaction?
It is the same beguiling expression I witnessed four years earlier when he stood ten paces before me in a court of law. The room was overflowing with spectators. I can still feel their prying eyes. I can see Levi Weeks, his handsome features quivering with remorse. And I can hear Burr's voice as if he were in front of me now.
“Have the witnesses spoken with candor or have they spoken from temper, hatred, and revenge?”
It is a cruel question. One I would prefer to ignore.
All I see is Burr's penetrating gaze as he turns toward me. The crowd grows still. I hear my own shallow breath. “Madame,” he says, cajoling yet firm. “Pray tell usâ¦”
Explain your beloved cousin's senseless death.
I do not believe in ghosts, but spirits exist. Elma's spirit haunts me.
She appears before me, youthful and frail. Her eyes are dark and moist like the depths of a well. There is a triangle of color in her cheeks, as if she has been running into the wind. It is a vivacious hue, one I rarely saw while she lived. Elma is dressed in the same green muslin gown she wore when we last parted. The fabric is too flimsy for such bitter weather, but it is her wedding night and she wants to look her best.
She is not the girl I thought I knew. She is secretive, her passion no longer masked by decorum. Her lips are plump, bruised red with kisses. The bodice of her dress is torn, and the soft contours of her bosom are exposed. Hat and shawl are missing. Wet hair hangs in tangles around her face. A single ivory comb remains.
I cannot say what thoughts or regrets flooded Elma's mind during her final struggle. I am unable to fathom the extent of her pain or the length of her suffering. The only thing I know with certainty is that there was a sound. When I close my eyes, I hear a dull splash. It is the lonely sound of injustice, and it reverberates to this day.
My Elma has been dead nearly five years. It is high time to tell the truth. Time for justice. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton have sealed their own fate. I have no more need for revenge; I can answer Burr's interrogation free of hatred. Here, with utmost candor, I will share the story of an innocent girl caught in the crossfire of our nation's most powerful men. This is how she was murdered and why she haunts me. It is not only Elma's story; it's mine.
Catherine Ring, July 12, 1804
Courtesy Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress