June/July/Aug 2010

The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

Debby Applegate


Geoffrey O'Brien is the sort of author who arouses a wholesome envy in the hearts of other writers. During more than three decades at the keyboard, he has published seven volumes of poetry and eight of essays, memoir, fiction, and cultural history, and he is the editor in chief of the Library of America. Although he has written for a host of highbrow publications, his work often focuses on the decidedly lowbrow, including pop music, show business, and pulp fiction. As a stylist, O'Brien can be boldly idiosyncratic, often using what used to be called experimental forms to give body to his arguments. In The Times Square Story (1998), he weaves verse, tabloid photos, and movie stills with the ranting voice of a fictional narrator to convey the jangle of mid-twentieth-century Times Square. In Sonata for Jukebox (2004), he uses the shifting associations of memory to explore the personal and historical effects of popular music during the same era.

O'Brien's latest book, The Fall of the House of Walworth, is a sharp departure. This is an old-fashioned history of three generations of the Walworth clan of Saratoga Springs, New York, as they rise from obscurity in the early 1800s to national prominence by the eve of the Civil War, only to be brought down in the Gilded Age by a tragic legacy of insanity and violence. The lynchpin of the story is the handsome, hotheaded Mansfield Walworth, the spoiled second son of the family patriarch. Mansfield's meager claim to fame was a series of overwrought novels in the style of Sir Walter Scott and Edgar Allan Poe. Abusive and mentally unstable, he terrorized his wife and children until his father disinherited him and his wife divorced him, which further fueled his rage. A little more than a year later, in June 1873, his nineteen-year-old son, Frank, made an appointment to meet his estranged father in a Manhattan hotel room, where Frank shot him point-blank in the head.

Mansfield's formidable widow, Ellen Hardin Walworth, takes center stage in the book's second half. After Frank was convicted of parricide in a sensational trial, Ellen evolved from a battered wife into a feminine powerhouse. She spent years amassing evidence of her son's own insanity, an effort that won his pardon from New York's governor in 1877. As William Cullen Bryant summed it up, "The meeting between the father and the son would be regarded as an encounter between two insane persons, in which one of them was slain." Perhaps hoping to redeem her family through good works, she devoted the rest of her life to philanthropy, education, and literature, but madness and ill fortune clung to the dwindling clan. When Ellen's granddaughter died in 1952, leaving no descendants, the derelict Walworth estate was torn down and replaced with a gas station three years later.

Despite its traditional format, what The Fall of the House of Walworth shares with O'Brien's earlier works is an agile, almost ventriloquistic voice, in which the language itself—apart from the content—conjures both the historical and the emotional atmosphere. O'Brien doesn't simply invoke the conventions of the Victorian gothic horror story, he re-creates them wholesale, much as the unfortunate Mansfield tried to reproduce the "exquisitely modulated frenzies" of Poe, albeit with greater success.

This book shares both the charms and the blemishes of its Victorian subjects. It is thoroughly researched, artfully paced, and elegant yet also occasionally long-winded. For readers who aren't already fans of historical true-crime stories, this may not convert you. But if you enjoy the genre, The Fall of the House of Walworth will be a welcome addition to your summer reading list.

Advertisement