Day 518: The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

Cover for The Fall of the House of WalworthJust a quick note before I get started about the Classics Club Spin #6. The spin selected #1, so I’ll be reading Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gillman!

The Fall of the House of Walworth begins in the 1950’s with Clara Walworth living in a crumbling mansion in Saratoga Springs. She obsessively goes through the possessions of her once-eminent family, not realizing that its members have hidden from her a shocking truth. Her father was once imprisoned for the murder of his own father.

The book then returns to trace the history of the Walworths, a family of prominent figures who became New York state aristocracy. In particular, it looks at the career of Reuben Hyde Walworth, the last Chancellor of New York. It was his younger son Mansfield Walworth who was murdered in a New York City hotel room by Mansfield’s own son Frank, then only 19 years old.

The book relates the story of the marriage of Mansfield and Ellen Hardin. Ellen was Mansfield’s step-sister after the marriage of his father to her mother, Sarah. As a young girl, Ellen was apparently carried away by Mansfield’s streak of romanticism. But she did not realize he had already gained a reputation as a wastrel and a bully. O’Brien theorizes that the family may have hoped the love of a good woman would help him to reform.

The book examines the history of Mansfield and Ellen’s marriage and the reasons the situation reached such heights of drama, including a strain of mental instability in the family. Mansfield was an author of overblown romantic novels, who saw himself as a misunderstood genius. O’Brien’s comments about his dreadful writing and excerpts from his novels show us how deluded Mansfield was about his own talents, even in a sentimental age. They also provide a hint of amusement to the book.

Cultural historian O’Brien has written an interesting true story of an unusual crime that shocked the country. Frank Walworth’s trial provided the test case for the new concept in law of second degree murder. The book also provides insight into the views and treatment of epilepsy, at the time considered a mental illness.