The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age Americaby Geoffrey O'Brien
The Walworth family was the very symbol of virtue and distinction for decades, rising to prominence as part of the splendor of New York's aristocracy. When Frank Walworth travels to New York to "settle a family difficulty" by shooting his father at point blank range, his family must reveal their inner demons in a spectacular trial to save him from execution. The
The Walworth family was the very symbol of virtue and distinction for decades, rising to prominence as part of the splendor of New York's aristocracy. When Frank Walworth travels to New York to "settle a family difficulty" by shooting his father at point blank range, his family must reveal their inner demons in a spectacular trial to save him from execution. The resulting testimony exposes a legacy of mania and abuse, and the stately reputation of the family crumbles in a Gothic drama which the New York Tribune called "sensational to the last degree."
The Fall of the House of Walworth gives us both the intimate history of a family torn apart by violent obsessions, and a rich portrait of the American social worlds in which they moved. In the tradition of Edith Wharton, this is a riveting true story which "rival[s] the most extravagant Gothic novels of the day" (The Chicago Tribune).
The New York Times
The Washington Post
“A hybrid of pulp and Poe . . . . [O'Brien's] saga of this prominent 1800s family of Saratogians has enough moments of melodramatic excess--religious fanaticism! inherited insanity! parricide!--to rival the most extravagant Gothic novels of the day. . . He combines an enthusiast's zeal for the potboiler and the penny press and a memoirist's almost melancholy fascination for the varnished-away traces of the past. O'Brien elaborates the denouement of the Walworth world with the same humor and insight that he applies to the particular mid-1800s knack for a sort of 'inflated, poeticized, oratorically cadenced language' that was a mirror of how the Warworths regarded themselves. . . . Red Smith wrote that to get to Saratoga Springs from New York City, 'you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.' In his felicitous cultural history, O'Brien neatly pulls off the time-travel trick with no need to gas up the tank.” Eric Banks, The Chicago Tribune
“Geoffrey O'Brien's eloquent The Fall of the House of Walworth vividly resurrects the idiosyncratic and ultimately tragic malcontents who for four generations lived at Pine Grove. . . . Mr. O'Brien writes that Clara's mother and grandmother 'almost succeeded in sweeping from the house all traces of quarrels and ravings, of murder and of judicial punishment that killed the soul if not the body . . . [but] pieces of what had been left out were eventually to be found hidden in diaries, scrapbooks, letters.' These fragments, cast up like the shards from a wreck, Mr. O'Brien puts to brilliant use in reconstructing the tangled tale of the grand but dysfunctional Walworth dynasty.” Edward J. Renehan, Jr., The Wall Street Journal
“O'Brien salts his story of Walworth's arrest and murder trial with an anatomy of the Walworth family's bizarre cast of characters and the history of Saratoga Springs and its notoriety as a spa destination. But it is the sordid details of the marriage of Mansfield and his wife Ellen that had tongues wagging in 19th century New York that gives this history the spark of a modern-day suspense novel.... Readers will quickly turn pages in anticipation of the verdict in Frank's trial. O'Brien's cinematic prose is laced with society gossip, history and scandal. It's a perfect end-of-summer read.” Carol Memmott, USA Today
“Delicious and deceptively intricate. . . . Just as Madame Bovary is both a romance novel and a lucid critique of one, Geoffrey O'Brien's vivid and multilayered book, with its many Gothic touches and its remarkable reconstruction of family history, is an immeasurably more sophisticated example of precisely the kind of sensational crime fiction and fantasy he has set out to understand.” Christopher Benfey, The New York Review of Books
“O'Brien actually gets the proportions of his story, and just about everything else, dead right. . . . A century from now, if editors still exist, they'll be getting pitches for books that promise to reassemble the lives of O.J. Simpson or Bernard Madoff--long-forgotten characters whose discovery has excited some hopeful writer. That aspirant author would be well advised to turn to The Fall of the House of Walworth--a first-rate book about a second-degree murder--for lessons in how to do it.” Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
“Exquisitely written, by turns sad, surprising, and suspenseful, the book illuminates the rapidly changing world of 19th-century America, with its visions of virtue, codes of honor, class conflicts, and culture of aspiration.” Glenn C. Altschuler, The Boston Globe
“O'Brien is the ideal author for this project: knowledgeable about 19th-century history, a subtle critic of the family's legal and literary texts, and so entranced by the seamy details, he occasionally and joyfully eats the ormolu scenery.... The Fall of the House of Walworth is a gripping, Poe-inspired story that is a pleasing mix of highbrow literary taste and lowbrow sensationalism. O'Brien is at his best narrating the trial and wallowing in the muck of Mansfield's writing; but he has integrated these highlights into a coherent, entertaining narrative with admirable skill.” Emily Barton, The Los Angeles Times
“Exhaustively researched and well-written .... O'Brien uses the murder as a springboard to dive into larger questions of America's social legacy, in particular the rise of Saratoga Springs as one of the country's preeminent resorts of the rich and famous. In doing so, he unveils with almost Poe-like intensity the decline of the Walworth dynasty, which had become a prominent presence in that moneyed, horsey playground.” Brooks Peters, The Huffington Post
“A lively multigenerational family history of ambition, hereditary insanity, and loyalty through the antebellum, Civil War, and Gilded Age eras.... O'Brien effortlessly stitches together the story of two families who intermarry with great potential, only to realize complete disintegration--including the great Walworth Mansion, which has been replaced by a gas station.” PW, Starred Review
“Geoffrey O'Brien is the sort of author who arouses a wholesome envy in the hearts of other writers.... As a stylist, O'Brien can be boldly idiosyncratic, often using what used to be called experimental forms to give body to his arguments.... 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 blemishes of its Victorian subjects. It is thoroughly researched, artfully paced, and elegant.” Debby Applegate, Bookforum
“O'Brien's first true crime book, and a dandy one it is.... Because O'Brien is a writer of considerably more wit and cultural capaciousness than is often the case in the genre, the tale of a Saratoga 'first family's' turbulent journey through murder involves madness, marital war (involving as a referee a Walworth brother in Buffalo), literature, religious conflict and the apparently limitless but short-lived social ingenuity of American society and a mansion's decay considerably more protracted than the end of the House of Usher. A very satisfying specimen of its genre.” Jeff Simon, Buffalo News, Editor's Choice
“It's those evocative empty spaces, where O'Brien invites us to speculate on such mysteries as the possible vein of insanity running through the Walworth line, that give this book its remarkable eeriness. Like Frank's daughter, Clara, the last of the Walworths, sequestered in the clan's half-derelict Saratoga mansion in the book's opening sentences, we, too, are permitted to roam these forsaken rooms on our own recognizance.” Laura Miller, Salon.com
“The subject of this book is not so simple as good fighting evil; it's more like respectability duking it out with discord. The Fall of the House of Walworth is about the conflict between the parts of us that wants to compose hymns and the part that wants to commit murder. That's typical American ground, and what makes this volume as instructive as it is entertaining.” Carolyn See, BookWorld
“The Fall of the House of Walworth is a riveting tale of loyalty, love, ambition and murder--all the constituents of American life--seen through the lens of a single proud family and told with panache by a master storyteller.” Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“Geoffrey O'Brien may be one of the last great public intellectuals in American life, certainly the most stylish, meditative and refined, but also the boldest, willing to go anywhere his curious and often raffish interests lead him. In The Fall of the House of Walworth, O'Brien spreads his wings as never before and sweeps his readers into the amazing story of the Walworth family's decline, in Saratoga Springs and New York City, from accomplishment and respectability into violence, murder, prisons and asylums, not to mention the fragrantly self-regarding fiction of its murder victim, Mansfield Walworth. This is a great, swooping Gothic tale, and O'Brien opens every shadowy chamber to admit cleansing rays of intelligence, irony and compassion.” Peter Straub, author of A Dark Matter
“In his first foray into the realm of true crime, Geoffrey O'Brien--one of our finest culture critics and a master of elegant prose--has fashioned a stunning work of real-life American Gothic, a story whose sheer haunting power more than justifies its allusive title. The book spins a darkly gripping tale of ambition, pride and madness that ultimately attains to the level of tragedy. Anyone who still believes that the true crime genre is incapable of producing works of high literary merit will be obliged to think otherwise after reading this thrilling book.” Harold Schechter, author of Deranged and Killer Colt
The Fall of the House of Walworth is a riveting tale of loyalty, love, ambition and murder--all the constituents of American life--seen through the lens of a single proud family and told with panache by a master storyteller.
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Read an Excerpt
A Haunted House
There was a woman who lived alone in a house with fifty- five rooms. It was dark in the house. She kept the curtains drawn by day, and most of the rooms she never entered after nightfall.
The house stood at the north end of Broadway, the celebrated main thoroughfare of the city of Saratoga Springs, New York. It was built in 1815 and acquired the name Pine Grove from the stand of pines that loomed over it. Back then its site was an outlying corner of a village just beginning to grow into a national showcase. The house grew larger along with the village. By the time Clara Grant Walworth was born in 1886, it had expanded extravagantly beyond its original dimensions and went by the name of the Walworth Mansion.
In 1952, as Clara contemplated the end of her days, the house was very much in the center, but of what? Saratoga Springs was a place she now found hard to recognize. The house was different too from what it had been in the time of her ancestor Chancellor Walworth. The protective pines were long gone, most of them cut down before her birth, the surrounding grounds sold off, and the original compact Walworth home obscured (as it changed from residence to court house to boarding school to hotel, reverting finally to residential seclusion) within the annexes and additional stories built around and on top of it.
The original one- and- a-half- story dwelling had been buried within the creaking hulk of a Victorian warren of tiny bedrooms and airless corridors. Within that warren Clara had spent her first months, her summers, and her holidays. Since turning fifty she had hardly left the place.
Outside, in the Saratoga Springs of the early 1950s, the old hotels— those still standing— were falling into decay. The decline had been steady for as long as Clara could remember. The symptoms were by now unmistakable. The splendors of Saratoga Springs were reduced to parking lots and orange- juice stands and neon- lit taverns, thronged with a new generation of tourists who knew nothing of the history that had taken shape here. At night cheap gamblers padded in bathrobes through the dark and narrow hallways of the once luxurious Grand Union Hotel.
The corruption of Saratoga was nowadays a national scandal. Local politicians and racket bosses submitted to federal investigation. The hearings were on television, so the whole world could see how thoroughly the town had been bought up, decades ago, by the likes of Arnold Rothstein and Joe Adonis and Meyer Lansky, gangsters in whose gaudy "lake houses" anything could happen. The townspeople had been happy to take the money and look the other way.
One way or another, this had been going on for years. You might say it had been going on ever since John Morrissey, a low- life Irish boxer from the back streets of Troy, had started up his gambling business during the Civil War. But the ruffians and vulgarians of Clara's parents' and grandparents' time began in retrospect to assume an air of respectability— even dignity— compared with the rot that had set in since. Morrissey, after all, had at least kept the locals out of his establishment, and shut down the gambling tables on Sundays.
She had lived to witness the final degradation of what had been not just beautiful but noble. The Saratoga Springs of racetracks and gambling dens was not the town Clara thought of as hers. Her Saratoga was an older, more rarefied place steeped in the memory of Revolutionary War heroes, inspired religious teachers, and women who had dedicated themselves for generations to preserving an America that seemed always on the verge of disappearing into some brutal caricature of itself. Her great- grandmother had been part of the effort to preserve George Washington's home at Mount Vernon; her grandmother had seen to it that the battlefield of Saratoga, where the tide of war had turned against the British, would endure as a historical monument; her mother had renovated this very house.
Why hadn't anyone stopped America from becoming a nation run by crooks? Not that there were not plenty of crooks in the old days, but forces also existed that were capable of holding them in check, forces as much spiritual as physical. There were things you didn't do, affronts that were unimaginable. Now it had all become a sort of affront. If she no longer enjoyed leaving the house, it was because some new shock always waited for her. One more thing had been destroyed or cheapened.
She preferred to stay indoors to savor what was preserved within the walls, even if most of it was invisible. Clara had been born in this house and, at sixty- five, could expect to die here. Her world was by now largely restricted to the innermost core, the Chancellor's original domain. It was a space thick with ghosts. She traced their movements by recollecting every story she had ever been told, every anecdote tied to the pictures and objects and pieces of old furniture for which the house had become a repository. By making sure that everything stayed in its place— by remaining faithful to what her mother and grandmother had taught her— she kept the ancestors near at hand. For years she had repeated the stories to any visitor who would listen. Now that visitors were rare, she told them to herself, taking care not to omit a single detail.
Her role, all her life, had been to preserve and remember. A votary in an abandoned temple, she had been born to go through every scrap of paper, rummage in every drawer, make lists of relics left behind. The house was her museum; her mausoleum, finally. She had been buried here, together with all she loved, for as long as she could remember.
She thought ceaselessly about everything that had happened in these rooms. Might it have been on this spot that Daniel Webster stood as he argued a case? Or in this corner that Andrew Jackson had exploded into wrath against the southern nullifiers, in the middle of a game of whist? James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving and the magnificent poet Mrs. Sigourney had sat at the dinner table. Presidents, senators, military commanders, the most distinguished authors, and the most celebrated preachers of the gospel, all had trooped through, in the time of heroes and founders when the world was fresh.
Here was the north parlor where the man those people came to see— her great- grandfather, New York's state chancellor Reuben Hyde Walworth— held court for decades. Now it had become her sickroom.
She had come to the end, not just of her own life, but of everything to which those earlier lives had been dedicated.
There had been a family and there had been a nation. To her they had almost been the same thing. She carried the blood of the MayÔ¨Çower pilgrims in her. Davy Crockett was somewhere in the family tree. Her mother's father had been a friend of President Lincoln, her paternal great- grandmother a cousin of Mary Todd. Her great- uncle had left his right arm on a battlefield in Virginia. Her grandmother had danced at President Grant's inauguration. On both sides of the family her people had warded off invading armies and established the laws of the new land. They had been among those who counted for something in the making of the country. Now that the family had almost reached, in her, its point of extinction, might not the country as well be close to its terminus?
And where had the family gone? How could a family vanish?
In the memory parade of ancestors— the settlers and warriors and justices and evangelists— something was missing. There was an episode never to be part of any inscription or memorial address. It lived in unlit corners. At times it made her feel she had really not been born, as if this half- life were a shadow cast by a disaster before her birth.
Her life had been, perhaps, an act of commemoration for a gigantic absence, for a missing father and a missing grandfather: the grandfather whose memory had been so thoroughly crossed out, and the father who died just seven months after her birth, exhausted before his time. Both were swallowed up in the same obscure storm.
It had been a long time before she was allowed to know why there was such a gaping hole in the family history. People had been good about not bringing up what was best forgotten. Recollections trailed off into silence. A day came when she realized how well she had been protected from the moment she was born. Everyone, starting with her mother, had shielded her as long as possible from information too jarring for her young mind.
They had almost succeeded in sweeping from the house all traces of quarrels and ravings, of murder and of judicial punishment that killed the soul if not the body. Around that blotted- out zone the pageants and observances— meticulous rounds of a social protocol never abandoned even in extremity— clustered like a form of healing.
The healing was also a concealing. Pieces of what had been left out were eventually to be found hidden in diaries, scrapbooks, letters, the old documents that her grandmother Ellen (she had written it in the diary that Clara inherited) had one night sat up reading, "stirring up the old miseries which have been dead for years." Of Clara's grandfather Mansfield Tracy Walworth, all that remained was a small shelf of books in matching format, bearing such incommunicative titles as Warwick and Beverly and Lulu and Delaplaine. They were novels whose opening paragraphs spoke of moaning winds and impenetrable gloom, bells tolling at midnight, ominously deserted metropolitan streets, cells in which unnamed prisoners were brutally punished. But their many hundreds of pages of clotted prose led only into strange impasses, spasmodic mood swings, hermetic interviews between people whose identities or intentions were never quite clear.
Concealed most carefully of all was the letter that Frank Walworth, the father whom Clara never knew, wrote ten days before his death. She read it many times in later years. It was as close as she could get to him. Each time it was as if she peered into a closed room in which someone was suffering horribly, and could do nothing to comfort him. Frank announced:
When you read this letter, the last of the Walworths of Saratoga Springs will have been laid to rest. And as I now face the "Great Beyond" in the full knowledge that the crime I committed thirteen years ago brought me to this early end, at thirty- three years, I pen this message with the sincere hope that the youth of the generation that reads it will have learned the lesson I failed to grasp. The wages of sin is death— death to the soul and the body and the mind!... I today know the full meaning of that verse in Exodus: "I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generations."...
As I make ready to meet the Great Judge of All, I would say that the verdict of the jury rendered in my case was a just one... I have come to realize, that for the crime I committed, my wife and daughter would also pay the price. In very truth, the wages of sin is death. Keep that in mind, when as youth of another generation, you attempt to take the law into your own hands. May God help you to keep the ten commandments of God, which are the basic law of all life and love and living.
FRANK HARDIN WALWORTH
October 19, 1886.
"Unto the third and fourth generations"— the family had not even gotten that far. Her father could not have foreseen that his only daughter would live out her life childless. With Clara's approaching end all these documents would pass beyond her control. Perhaps after her death a part of what had been so long wrapped up would be revealed, even if there remained the question of what exactly that revelation would amount to. Who, after all, was Frank Hardin Walworth, and what might her life have been if she had known the answer to that question?
In stretches of uninterrupted solitude she found herself tracing a path in a city strange to her, a city she had never dared to explore. Amid railroad smoke and avenues full of foul stenches and jostling anonymous crowds she followed the movements of two men— the large and menacing older figure with blazing eyes and a boxer's build— and, in his wake, the deceptively unemotional boy scarcely arrived at his full height, making his way through the clutter and noise as if oblivious to what was around him.
A stalker laid a trap and left messages. His designated target moved through the rounds of his hours oblivious that they were racing toward their close.
But who had really designed the trap? The whole city was a trap; time was a trap; the inward coiling of a family was a trap; each of the men was himself the trap in which he was caught. In those depots and eating houses and lobbies and stairways— those unlit halls and sparsely furnished bedrooms— no breeze entered. The immense city ground to a halt. She could not imagine a word being spoken.
One man approached the other, drawn to him as if sleepwalking. The sun had barely come up. In a moment, in a narrow room at the top of the stairs, they would meet face- to- face and her destiny would be written, or unwritten: erased by blood.
Meet the Author
GEOFFREY O'BRIEN is a poet, editor, and cultural historian. He is editor in chief for the Library of America. His other nonfiction books include Hardboiled America, Dreamtime, The Times Square Story, Red Sky Café, and Sonata for Jukebox. He lives in New York City.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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"The Fall of the House of Walworth" is as brilliantly written as highbrow literature, but it offers all the fun and ease of reading a popular crime novel. This is a book that's hard to put down and I was swept away by the history of this most dysfunctional family. I wish I'd saved it for a long sea cruise. I recommend it without hesitation.
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. 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 revivalis