The Fall of the House of Walworth

True Crime books are one of the world’s great guilty pleasures. Why tales of gruesome murders should make for such delicious reading is a mystery in its own right, and one that will probably never be fully explained. When such murders involve people in high places an extra frisson is added, along with the perhaps unworthy satisfaction of seeing the mighty humbled.

But Geoffrey O’Brien’s Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, isn’t this type of book: instead of providing readers with a dose of Schadenfreude and agreeable shudders, it will probably bathe them in an overwhelming sense of sadness and waste. Yes, it’s True Crime, but this story of a nineteenth-century parricide is tragic and pathetic rather than pleasantly gory. In truth it is more pathetic than tragic, for the Walworth family’s downfall stemmed not from their own sins (as in real tragedies) but rather from a terrible mental illness that might have been controllable with medications had the Walworth family lived a century later.

The Walworths owed their position at the top of nineteenth-century Saratoga society to the energies of their patriarch Reuben Hyde Walworth, the last of the New York State Chancellors to serve before the position was abolished in 1848. Chancellor Walworth (who continued to enjoy the title until his death in 1867) was a considerable grandee in his day, and his two sons grew up in an atmosphere of privilege and prestige. The elder, Clarence, converted to Catholicism under the influence of the Oxford Movement and became a powerful force within the church. Mansfield, ten years younger, was a third-rate littérateur with delusions of greatness; his famous name helped to sell his highflown romances, which were preposterous even by the over-the-top standards of the day.

At what point Mansfield’s eccentricities crossed the line into true mania is unclear, though some astonishingly twisted passages O’Brien has included from Mansfield’s novels would seem to indicate that it was earlier than his wife Ellen might have realized. He had married Ellen Hardin, an energetic and highly intelligent woman, in 1852, and the couple would produce five children over the next few years. They had not been married long when Mansfield began exhibiting definite signs of mania and, worse, became extremely abusive, often beating Ellen and (it is implied) possibly raping her as well. After years of enduring such treatment Ellen was driven to the desperate expedient, very much taboo in her time and social class, of divorce; she stayed with the children in Pine Grove, the Walworths’ Saratoga estate, while Mansfield moved into bachelor digs in New York City.

But absence from Ellen seemed only to inflame Mansfield’s rage and he began harassing her with threatening, demanding, and frequently obscene letters of which the following is typical:

That same pleading, ever-present determination is working me up to the final tragedy. I go down in five minutes to see if my lawyer has received and filed the agreement signed. But my superhuman second sight tells me that you have again prevaricated, and that Chancellor Walworth’s younger son must be a murderer and a suicide. So be it!…You are pushing your doom….All the intensity of hate in my life is centered on you. Listen for the crack of the pistol!

Protectively, Ellen tried to keep the extent of his threats a secret from their children, but in the end their nineteen-year-old son Frank learned what was going on. Until that time a normal and well-liked boy, he soon became brooding and distracted. Eventually, after a particularly frightening flurry of letters, he went down to the city and booked a room at the Sturtevant Hotel, invited his father to visit him there, and shot him.

Was the crime premeditated or, as Frank’s defense team claimed, self-defense? Was Mansfield actually threatening his son at that moment or did Frank shoot him in cold blood? The answers to these questions were never finally determined, but Frank was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to life in prison. The question of whether the sentence was a just one fascinated New York society. There were those, as there always are, who enjoyed seeing the mighty fallen: “There was a certain satisfaction in seeing this foppish mother’s boy from Saratoga, the spoiled product of boarding schools and starched cotillions, tossed among the worldly-wise pimps, whores, and confidence men….” Others sympathized with a young man they saw as having chivalrously protected his mother from the depredations of a husband who had truly turned into a fiend; they thought the dread crime of parricide to have been mitigated by the circumstances.

Frank behaved with dignity throughout the trial and its attendant media circus, which could be just as toxic then, it seems, as now. He was transported from the Tombs in Manhattan up to Sing Sing, where his health began to deteriorate. Appeals were ignored, for he was being turned into an example: there had been too many recent cases of VIPs getting special treatment in the courts, and it was important for the New York judicial system to establish that a Chancellor’s grandson was no better, before the law, than anyone else. But in 1877 a new governor took office, one more sympathetic to Frank’s plight, and granted the young man an official pardon. Frank came home to Saratoga and began belatedly studying for a career in law. He took up archery and won the national championship. He married and fathered a daughter.

But he never recovered the health he had lost in prison and he died in 1886, just a few months after the birth of his little girl. Ellen’s other children fared not much better. One became a nun—a fate, as far as her intellectual mother was concerned, even worse than death. Another son, Tracy, inherited his father’s madness and died a suicide. Reubena, the most emotionally stable of the family and her mother’s strong right arm, died from typhoid that she contracted while nursing wounded soldiers from the Spanish-American war. The heartbroken Ellen continued her work as an educator and civic activist, co-founding, among other projects, the Daughters of the American Revolution.

It’s all terribly sad, and one wonders why the author has chosen to revive this grim and unedifying tale. None of its characters seizes the imagination, and while their connection with the Chancellor would have rendered them interesting to their contemporaries it means nothing to today’s readers. It seems clear that the unfortunate Mansfield was suffering from some horrific mental illness—probably an extreme form of bipolar disorder—that had nothing particular to do with his actual marriage or circumstances.  The other major players, Frank and Ellen, remain ciphers: in the manner of upper-class WASPs of their era they kept their emotions to themselves and carefully ignored unpleasantness, even in their diaries, where they couched their feelings in vague generalizations or flowery Byronic verse. O’Brien digs around in these diaries but strikes no gold. Instead, he has had to pad out his narrative with irrelevant details about the trial or about Saratoga society. The Walworths, in the end, were a pitiable family, and their story would probably have best been left forgotten.