This is a non-fictional retelling of the prominent Walworth family of the then fashionable Saratoga Springs, New York. Ella Hardin was married to Mansfield Tracy Walworth who turned out to be a bit of a nutter, as well as an abusive husband. Finally the abuse reaches such a level that it drives their son Frank to shoot his father in a hotel room, thus setting off a sensational trial and scandal that rocked the family and society to its foundations.
Sounds nice and juicy with all the makings of a sensational read, doesn't it? Well guess what, this one is very much on the dry side and it took me several weeks to get through this very short book. If you're expecting this to read like a true crime book, well just keep looking, you'll not find it here. Yes, it was interesting reading about the murder as well as a family who we don't usually read about in the history books.
Ellen Hardin Walworth accomplished quite a lot in her life after her husband's death and thumbs up for that. Perhaps this might have worked better in a novel format instead of non-fiction, but I didn't find the subject matter interesting enough for an entire book, this entry on Wik is more than enough for the casual reader. 3/5 stars.
on August 9, 2010
A young man from a prominent New York family kills his father in 1873. Frank Walworth and his siblings and mother have endured years of mental and physical abuse from his father Mansfield Walworth. In the last few years Mansfield has been writing death threat letters to his ex-wife Ellen. He also describes how he will kill their two sons so the name of Walworth will die out. Such statements would be chilling no matter when or how they were written but Walworth was a writer from the Sensationalist school, think "East Lynne" by Mrs. Henry Woods , "Lady Audley's Secret" and "Aurora Floyd" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collin's " Woman in White". This type of writing is highly over dramatic though often entertaining. The books Walworth wrote were painfully bad and these letters, written in the same florid style, were just as bad but with foul words and name calling as well. They were vicious letters and must have caused Ellen and Frank some sleepless nights.
O'Brien makes the story interesting although the first third of the book is a bit slow though needed to explain what led the murder. The best parts in my opinion were about Ellen. After enduring all she can from her husband she takes their large family, seven in all, five who live to adulthood, and goes home to her family's home state of Kentucky. There she raises them mostly on her own. She had some help from her extended family but largely she was their financially and emotionally support. After Frank goes to jail she not only opens her own school but becomes involved in local and national politics including founding the Daughters of the American Revolution. She lived an unhappy but productive life.
Geoffrey O'Brien has written books of poetry and history, and is the editor in chief of the Library of America, which enshrines authoritatively the greatest of our nation's authors. It's a safe bet that the novelist Mansfield Walworth is never going to make it into those volumes. He is the chief villain in O'Brien's bizarre and fascinating _The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America_ (Henry Holt). His book's title echoes Poe, and Mansfield Walworth might have hoped that his pulp novels would achieve something like Poe's notoriety. The novels didn't; his family's real life did. Here is a tale of madness and patricide, the sort of thing Mansfield Walworth would have written about, but actually experienced. He could not have written the story in the way O'Brien has, with what must have been years of research to resurrect the life and times of this blasted family, and he could not have written it with the polish and verve on display on every page of this book.
The "fall" of the book's title is from the heights of the family's forebears, particularly the paterfamilias, Reuben Hyde Walworth. He was born in 1788, and had all the qualities of piety (Presbyterian) and respectability to recommend him. He was a judge, hard-working, pompous, sure of his rectitude, and devoted in his spare time to writing a massive family genealogy printed in 1864. The Chancellor's eldest son, Clarence, was to have followed his father's lead into the law, but instead became inspired to become a Catholic priest. That displeased the Chancellor mightily, and he must have been even more displeased when Father Clarence attempted to convert every member of the family he could, and he succeeded. One of the converts was his younger brother Mansfield, and another was Mansfield's wife; Clarence might have been proud of the wife's conversion, but he surely didn't regard Mansfield as any prize, and neither did the Chancellor. Mansfield was handsome, healthy, articulate, fashion-conscious, and imaginative. His potboilers were some people's idea of good reading. He also was fearfully abusive to his wife Ellen. They divorced in 1872, but Mansfield felt himself abused by the divorce agreement and began to send mad, rambling letters to her: "You are pushing your doom... All the intensity of hate in my life is centered on you. Listen for the crack of the pistol!" Their son Frank, born in 1853, became his mother's protector, intercepting such letters. He traveled with a pistol to New York City, and on 3 June 1873 he lured his father to a hotel room and shot him. When Frank came to trial, it looked as if he risked being hung for murder. His lawyer, however, succeeded in getting many of Mansfield's mad letters entered into evidence. The letters were on display, convincing at least some people that Frank's action was justified. Only five days before Frank fired the fatal shots, New York State had made second-degree murder an option, and it was of this he was convicted. He was sent to Sing Sing for life at hard labor. Incarcerated, he wrote poems with titles like "The Maniac's Dream;" the whole family were scribblers. His mother campaigned for his move to an asylum for insane convicts, and only four years after the murder, with medical authorities certifying that keeping him in prison would result in his "complete idiocy," the governor granted him a pardon.
Frank returned to Saratoga, for a short three years of billiards and archery, and a marriage, before the illnesses instilled into his lungs during prison killed him. His mother outlived Frank and other children, running a school, writing a book about the Battle of Saratoga, and helping to found the Daughters of the American Revolution. Frank's brother Tracy lived as a hermit in the Virginia woods before he killed himself in 1928. Frank's baby daughter was to be the last resident of the Chancellor's grand home, living in seclusion until she died in 1952. O'Brien can't resist bringing in other related episodes of madness to this bizarre story. The superintendent of an asylum who testified to Frank's insanity was years later shot by a man who thought himself an ambassador from heaven and who felt "insane joy" at having succeeded in his mission. The owner of the hotel where Frank shot his father was eventually admitted to an asylum, and a headline proclaimed, "Another Hotel Proprietor Insane." It isn't all madness; O'Brien gives observations, for instance, about Saratoga's place as a society watering-hole, and the region's participation in the Civil War. The family saga, however, makes this a page-turner. It is as lurid in some ways as Mansfield's plots, but far better written.
on June 3, 2012
Like some other reviewers, I was attracted to this nonfiction book partly by its title, which sounded as though I would learn about a fascinating family and a "gilded age". Wrong on both counts.
The author tells us surprisingly little about the "gilded age" and about the splendours of Saratoga Springs at its height. Instead, O'Brien seems to feel compelled to tell us everything he has learned in his research. So we get endless biographical detail about minor characters and never know what details are going to be important to the story. We are told that our murderer, when taken to Sing Sing, is chained to a prisoner who committed a murder at a particular intersection in NYC - who cares? How is that relevant to the Walworth story? And our murder victim wrote tedious novels - is it necessary to summarize at great length their plots?
A blurb on the back of my 2010 edition praises the book as a work of "high literary merit" within the "true crime" genre. But the often awkward writing, the choice of the wrong word, the writing or editing mistakes (O'Brien probably meant "baseline" when he writes "bass line") makes this anything but a work of literary merit. Two halves of the book seem to have been written with different purposes, only to have been pasted together in the final process. The first half of the book gives us tedious details of as many family members as O'Brien could trace. Only in the second half, with the belated focus on the strain of madness in the Walworth clan, does the focus sharpen. And this is never really in the "true crime" genre. It's more a compilation of biographical facts about an extended family. The most interesting character, the wife of the evil and/or insane man murdered by their son, could have a fascinating book written about her, but this book is too diffuse in its focus to accomplish that.
One Amazon reviewer who gave this book 5 stars thinks it's about the founder of the DAR. Not sure what book she was reviewing, but not this one.
In June 1873, nineteen-year-old Frank Walworth shot his father, novelist Mansfield Tracy Walworth, to death in a Manhattan hotel room. The Walworths were a socially prominent Saratoga family long regarded as models of virtue and civic accomplishment. When Frank justified his actions by claiming that his father had threatened to kill his mother, the New York press dug into the family's past and unearthed rumors of domestic violence, hereditary insanity, and religious fanaticism. The result was a media frenzy that shattered the sanctity of the Walworth name.
Geoffrey O'Brien's "Fall of the House of Walworth" limns this Gilded Age murder and the warped dynamics that provoked it. It's partly the grim history of a distinguished yet dysfunctional family and partly a Gothic morality tale of the sort Poe might have conceived.
Mansfield Walworth was an aggressive and pompous narcissist. His novels sold moderately well but did not bring him the mass adulation he craved. Impulsive and constantly chasing get-rich-quick schemes, he repeatedly abandoned his family but exploded when his wife, the former Ellen Hardin, finally left him. Hardin, an intelligent and articulate woman deeply involved in civic affairs, received abusive and threatening letters until her devoted son put a stop to it.
O'Brien betrays his background as a poet. The book abounds with descriptions like the following: "A quantity of blood had splattered the washstand, filling the toothbrush dish and mingling with the soap in the soap dish to form a frothy red foam." Normally this type of cinematic writing is irritating in a nonfiction work, but in this instance it's strangely in accord with the dark and surreal story.
Walworth history is covered more extensively than Frank's act of parricide and the ensuing trial, something that might annoy readers who prefer less back story. But by clearly demonstrating how abuse, psychosis, and murder destroyed a once noble family, "Fall of the House of Walworth" imparts a chill that a dedicated treatment of the murder alone could not summon.
on September 14, 2010
A really interesting narrative about a dysfunctional prominent family with roots in upstate New York and Kentucky. Every era has these stories and apparently human nature stays about the same. Well written.
on October 15, 2012
Not generally a fan of either society tales nor crime stories, there was something that appealed to me about this nonfiction story of a distinguished Saratoga, New York family brought down by the crime of parricide and an inherited strain of epilepsy that struck their family in an age when such an illness was labeled as "lunacy" instead of seen for the illness it truly is.
The Walworth family produced generations of vaunted war heros, politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, and other venerated members of society, and when problems arose within their ranks they were kept closely guarded and dealt with amongst themselves. Centering around the generation during and immediately after the Civil War, this work of nonfiction tells of the various ways they either distinguished themselves or gained notoriety. In particular, the book tells the story of Frank Walworth, son of the novelist Mansfield Tracy Walworth, who kills his father, due to years of letters sent to himself and his mother, threatening to kill the Walworth children and mother. Over the years a young Frank had also watched his mother suffer much abuse at the hands of his deranged father. The book gives a good deal of backstory of the family for a couple of generations, setting a stage of privilege and influence, and follows through the deaths of the main generation with whom the book deals.
Overall, I found the book to be well written. In the beginning I felt that it jumped around in time a little too much and this made it a bit confusing; I am sure the author used it as a device to create interest in the story, but I would have preferred a more linear approach. Once he settled into a more chronological telling things settled into a much smoother tale. He quotes extensively from contemporary sources but does not footnote, using instead page-noted endnotes at the end of the book which need not be read unless the reader desires to read the entire source. A quote from the book pertaining to the family's treatment by the press well illustrates O'Brien's fine narrative writing:
"...they had done all they could to distance themselves. The newspaper stories stripped their lives of all traces of sensitivity and cultivation and made them grotesque woodcuts fit for theatrical poster advertising..."
O'Brien says of Ellen, the wife of the victim, and mother of the shooter, that "she might have seen the emblem of what her life was to be: a confrontation between catastrophe and endurance. Any cry of pain was to be inward, private, swallowed back."
This book contains a lot of historical elements, as the family was involved in a good many events in American history, from the War of 1812, to the Spanish American War, to the Civil War, to friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, to founding the Daughters of the American Revolution. A lot of court cases, such as the taking down of Boss Tweed's ring happened simultaneously to the Walworth trial, and so are discussed in this book. However, there is no mystery involved, as the reader knows right from the beginning who the guilty party is. What you do not know is what Frank's punishment is going to be, especially given that New York, just the day before he shot his father, had passed a new law giving the jury the option of second degree murder. Previously the only choices had been hanging or exoneration.
Another element of American history at this time was the great cataclysm occurring among the religious faithful. There were many revivalist preachers traveling through the country preaching, and Catholic priests were also beginning to gain converts as well. This religious upheaval affected the Walworth family dynamics in a profound way, in particular the Catholic influence, and so is written about quite extensively in the book.
Overall, this is not as compelling a read as say, Erik Larson's [b]Devil in the White City[/b], with its intriguing setting of the Chicago World's Fair and a serial killer, but the writing is sound, the characters sympathetic and interesting, and the era quite engrossing. Where the Larson book is a five star read, this one merits a solid high four.
on February 24, 2011
Going by the title and the info inside the book jacket flap, I thought it would be an interesting book. Wrong. It has a lot of biographical information beginning with the great-grandfather of the killer, but for the most part, it is just stating facts. The Walworths apparently used to be a prominent family, but not that prominent - not like the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts or anything. Frank Walworth kills his father in a hotel room to which he has invited his father. The father is a conceited nut, there is no talking to this person, however, his friends, like his barber state otherwise. He's a perfectly nice guy. But Frank (and his mother) have the letters to back it up. Mansfield Walworth demands that his ex-wife (Frank's mother), change the divorce agreement and give him the lion's share, although she has a lot of kids to support (he's never supported them). She signs it over. Then he persists in writing letters as if afraid she will change her mind and what he will do to the two oldest boys. He will kill them. And that will serve his father, who left him out of his will (except for a couple of books and some shells), just exactly right. There will be no one to carry on the name of Walworth. (There wasn't anyway, as it turned out, no sons were born to them.) The letters are horrible and scary, but nothing was done. Ellen, the mother, didn't even leave this guy until he almost bit her finger off, and probably the only reason she did then was because he did it in front of a bunch of people. He cheated on her, he beat her up and she just kept having kids with him, even though she knew he'd never support them. His money was his own! He wrote novels. The author apparently did not like his novels, but I'll reserve judgment.
There's no background as to why Mansfield Walworth ended up this way. His mother wrote down that he was a "Rascal," but that's it. He was spoiled and used to getting his way, but was that all? Then Frank, his son, has epilepsy, which seems to be the petit mal type (he sits and stares), but he's assumed to be mentally ill. It's hard to tell after all these years. His brother Tracy, also has breakdowns. It's implied that all this is hereditary, but there isn't anything to back it up. The whole family (Ellen and the kids), are extremely sickly, Ellen takes to her bed for a month at a time. However, she manages to run a school and make enough money to support everybody (how this was done isn't clear), although when she isn't ill, she's usually off to Europe.
This book did not tell me what I wanted to know. There was too much detail about things that really didn't help me understand the "murder." Frank ended up feeling guilty, years later, because he had taken a life. I wish someone had said, "Yay Frank! Thanks a lot for killing this jerk! You did the right thing - he was never going to stop threatening your mother and trying to drive everyone else as crazy as he was."
I give this book 3 stars, mainly for the massive amount of information. If you were related to this family, it would be good to have for geneology purposes.
One of the re-occurring statements by O'Brien is that the murdered author Mansfield Tracy Walworth was a boring writer. The same could be said for O'Brien who spends inordinate amounts of ink to show us Mansfield's poor writing and then spends even more time going over and over Frank Walworth's poem written in prison. This cold have been a much more interesting book had O'Brien spent less time trying to sensationalize what happened and done more to give us Why? it happened. The truth behind the family and the murder seems always to be waiting in the wings ready to be presented but never gets to come out on the stage.
Having read many "True Crime" stories over the years, I've developed a 'feeling' for what makes a good 'story'. That one exists here is not in doubt, it just needs a better writer to bring it to the fore. Too much time is spent reviewing and re-reviewing the grandfather (Chancellor Walworth) and his weaknesses as a jurist and less on his failures as a parent. The same can be said for the 'victim', Mansfield Walworth, who is presented as a drunk and bully. There seems to be large portions of Mansfield's life that are skipped over which would give us a better view into his 'odd' behavior. The son Frank's life is seemingly ignored, except for little vignettes which leave him as a two dimensional character.
Not everyone is a great writer, and in the new style of non-fiction novel, O'Brien proves to be an example of what he claims to be the subjects weakness. I felt that if you took out all the redundancy in the book it would have made a nice 100 page monogram. Wasn't my cup of tea.
on January 20, 2013
Geoffrey O'Brien's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH is the story of a prestigious family whose main hero is Clara Walworth, the mother of a son, Frank, who, due to his father's continued threats to murder both him and his mother Clara (whom he worshipped), shot the man, a murder which led to the boy's own death at age 33, precipitated by the boy's remorse. (As the story takes place in the late 1800's, Frank, guilty only of protecting his mother, was nonetheless stigmatized as a parricide, which meant a grueling trial and a jail sentence.) With incredible strength, his mother Clara went on to found a school in order to care for her children, two of whom died shortly after birth, another who became a nun at the same moment her mother, Clara, found `'freedom from intellectual slavery'' by renouncing the silliness of all religions. Clara went on to bury another daughter killed during an epidemic that both she and Clara fought, side by side as nurses, to contain. Clara then founded the Daughters of the American Revolution! Following Frank's death, his younger brother wandered off into a forest where he lived as a hermit until cutting his own throat, first unsuccessfully, then pour de bon (I'm French). O'Brien deserves tremendous credit for writing this book, a difficult, complicated subject. My own books can be found on Amazon under Michael Hone.