The Fall of the House of Walworth

The Fall of the House of Walworth: A tale of madness and murder in Gilded Age America
Geoffrey O’Brien
Henry Holt, 352pp

Review by Christopher Silvester

The Walworths were not a dynasty founded during the Gilded Age, which is the term used to describe the period of fast-paced industrial and economic growth following the American Civil War. Instead, they pre-dated it as a family of worthies from upstate New York, stretching back to the Mayflower pilgrims, whose most august member, Reuben Hyde Walworth, held the title of Chancellor of New York State, a senior legal post that was subsequently abolished. But their fall, in the space of two generations, happened during the Gilded Age. Indeed, it was a Gilded Age sensation and is deftly handled by Geoffrey O’Brien in this hybrid of true crime and social history.

The Walworths were from Saratoga, a spa town that was favoured as a retreat by wealthy Manhattanites and would later become a town famous for its gambling dens and horse racing. The Walworth mansion, Pine Grove, was hardly a match for the vast mansions that would become a feature of Gilded Age America, in emulation of European stately homes. But it was briefly considered a grand residence, rather like the house in the Orson Welles film The Magnificent Ambersons, about a prominent Midwest family similar to the Walworths. This tale, however, makes the noxious conflict between two generations of the Ambersons seem bland by comparison.

The Chancellor, as he was known, was a widower who married Sarah Hardin, a widow from Kentucky. Sarah’s grown daughter, Ellen, then married the Chancellor’s son, Mansfield. Although they had several children spread over several years, the union between Ellen and Mansfield was not a happy one, with prolonged periods of estrangement and occasional bouts of physical violence suffered by the wife.

From early on, Mansfield was a troubled soul. Living in the shadow of his father, he rebelled in various ways, principally by rejecting the legal profession and becoming an author of lurid, melodramatic novels, but also by mistreating his wife and abandoning their children, to the point where the Chancellor effectively disinherited him. Mansfield was not to know it while his father was alive, but he would inherit merely a few baubles.

In 1873, Mansfield’s eldest child, Frank, who had been intercepting his father’s vile and threatening letters to Ellen (some containing bullets or packets of gunpowder), boarded a train to New York City, left a message inviting his father to his hotel, where he shot him dead, with four bullets. Frank’s trial was a test case for the new, lesser charge of murder in the second degree, which carried a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment (in the modern sense of life without parole) as an alternative to the hitherto universally applied capital sentence, which had resulted in sympathetic outright acquittals.

The prosecutor characterised Frank’s crime as premeditated, whereas his defence counsel argued that he had been rendered temporarily insane by his father’s vicious threats to his mother, had reacted in assumed self-defence and should therefore be acquitted. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and he was sent to Sing Sing prison, seemingly destined for a life of hard labour. Yet after a couple of years he was granted a gubernatorial pardon, partly in deference to his family’s social status — Frank was a hero in Saratoga, where his father’s brutality towards Ellen and callous neglect of his children were bitterly felt.

If anything, this is not a salutary tale about the perils of excessive wealth so much as a warning against misplaced literary expression. Mansfield was an execrable novelist whose madness was bound up with his bad writing; Frank indulged in sentimental versifying in prison; and even Ellen wrought her prolonged suffering into a novel. O’Brien’s book, by contrast to their endeavours, is a gem of quirky exploration and witty and nuanced interpretation.

The family never recovered, its remnants dying quietly or retreating from the world.