While reading Eve Karlin’s historical fiction novel CITY OF LIARS AND THIEVES, which is published by Alibi, I was struck by Eve’s powerful use of imagery that made me feel like I was living in 18th century Lower Manhattan. The street names were familiar: Spring Street, Bowery Lane, Greenwich Street, Chambers Street, Wall Street. But the detailed description of the boats bobbing along the New York harbor, the gritty and packed city blocks, and the sounds of a growing working-class invoked the spirit of a different era. Eve shares the real-life murder mystery that inspired her to write CITY OF LIARS AND THIEVES and the questions she encountered during her research that led to her novel.
I did not set out to write a historical novel. Six years ago, while reading a biography on Alexander Hamilton, I came across a reference to a story that reached out and shook me.
In December 1799, a young woman named Elma Sands vanished on the snowy streets of Manhattan. Twelve days later, her corpse was found floating in an abandoned well, and her lover, Levi Weeks, was arrested for murder. The brutal slaying of a beautiful girl rocked the city—as similar crimes do today—but it was the trial that made the case truly sensational: Levi was defended by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr four years before their infamous duel.
An illicit love affair, political intrigue, an unsolved murder: it was brimming with scandal. It’s tempting to romanticize the past, but the truth was far seedier than anything I could have imagined.
I studied contemporaneous newspapers, captivated by the vivid picture they painted of a squalid city that had many stories to tell (and hide). Gutters overflowed with refuse, pigs roamed the streets, cart-men peddled their wares, and people from every walk of life chased their dreams and desires. What was it like to live in a city where water was in such short supply that a wayward fire could destroy entire neighborhoods overnight? How did people cope with the mysterious scourge called yellow fever that killed indiscriminately?
I learned that an almost complete transcript had been recorded of Levi’s trial. Sixty-five witnesses testified over a dramatic two days, but Caty Ring’s voice resonated with me—and she became my narrator.
Caty, a young Quaker mother who had moved to the city from a rural upstate village a few years earlier, was Elma’s cousin and the proprietress of the Greenwich Street boardinghouse where Elma and Levi lived. I tried to imagine Caty’s concern as she witnessed her beloved cousin falling in love with—or being seduced by—the more worldly Levi. What fears had Caty faced while watching Elma leave the boarding house on the dark, snowy December evening she vanished? What terror did she experience later that same night when Elma did not return? How had she coped during the twelve days when Elma’s fate was unknown? What was it like to watch Elma’s body being carried back into her home?
Cities and fashions change, but human nature does not. While Caty’s life was vastly different from my own, focusing on similarities allowed me to relate to her. The boardinghouse has been torn down, but I was able to walk from Greenwich Street to Federal Hall, where Levi had stood trial for his life. Had Caty walked the same route? Had she smelled the crisp river breeze mingled with the rancid city stench? Standing at the foot of the grand stairwell, it was easy to imagine her awe at the imposing Greek façade as she summoned her strength to face the nation’s most powerful men.
The city would be unrecognizable to Caty today, but, remarkably, the Manhattan Well in which Elma died still exists in the basement of a clothing store on Spring Street. In an eerie coincidence, twenty years ago, I had lived steps away. I did not know Elma’s name nor about the well, but I had been 22 years old, the same age as Elma when she was murdered.
Visiting the well for the first time in 2010, it was impossible to deny the aura that surrounded the rough-hewn structure. I set my hand on the bricks, certain that Elma had fought for her life on the very same ground and Caty had mourned here. No doubt she was devastated by the brutal crime and its horrific aftermath, but the strength of her courtroom testimony proved her determination to unearth the mystery behind Elma’s murder. Two centuries later, I felt compelled to continue her quest.
About Eve Karlin
Eve Karlin was born and raised in New York City. She is a graduate of Colgate University, where she studied literature and creative writing with Frederick Busch. Karlin worked in publishing for more than a decade in marketing, at Random House, Newsweek, and, later, as a foreign book scout with clients in the United Kingdom, Italy, Holland, Brazil, and Japan. She has had several short stories published in The East Hampton Star and has been a contributing writer for Patch.com. She lives in East Hampton, New York, with her husband and their sixteen-year-old triplets. CITY OF LIARS AND THIEVES is her first book. Connect with Eve on Twitter.