The Fall of the House of Walworth
Geoffrey O'Brien
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Buy *The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America* by Geoffrey O'Brien online

The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America
Geoffrey O'Brien
St. Martin's Griffin
368 pages
August 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Geoffrey O’Brien starts The Fall of the House of Walworth with a shocking crime. Nineteen-year-old Frank Walworth shoots and kills his father, Mansfield Walworth. The crime is shocking; parricide was not common in the 1870s. As awful as the crime was, the story behind what led Frank to commit such a heinous act tore the lid off the privacy of one of New York’s most famous families and exposed the hate and madness that had been carefully hidden.

The Walworth family were stalwarts of the Saratoga social scene. Frank’s grandfather was a famous lawyer and judge, one of the last to hold the office of Chancellor of New York. He was known for his rectitude and moral standing. The Chancellor had married twice. Mansfield was the son of his first marriage. When the Chancellor married again to a widow from Kentucky named Susan Hardin, she brought her children with her, including her teenage daughter, Ellen. This made Ellen and Mansfield stepbrother and sister, yet no one seemed to find anything askance when they in turn married.

The marriage was never a happy one. Mansfield had not lived up to the promise of his father. He did not work, except to write novels. These were sensationalist works and considered far below such an illustrious family. Mansfield deserted his family, leaving Ellen to support herself and the children she had had with Mansfield, sometimes for years at a time. Whenever an attempt was made a reconciliation, it soon fell apart, broken by Mansfield’s temper and his vile treatment of Ellen. Frank watched this treatment--the physical beatings, the wild maniacal antics of his father, and his browbeating of Ellen--and swore to defend his mother from his father. The murder was the outcome of that.

It was a society trial. In addition to its sensational nature, Frank Walworth’s crime was one of the first in New York to test the idea of second-degree murder that would result not in a death sentence but in life without parole, life at hard labor. There was much support on either side, but the trial ground to its verdict, exposing the Walworth family and all of its secrets.

Geoffrey O’Brien is a poet, cultural historian, and editor-in-chief of The Library Of America. The Fall of the House of Walworth is meticulously researched, with extensive notes. The reader learns not only of the crime but of Saratoga society, how families lived during the Civil War, the rise of American Catholicism and penal law as well as conditions in Sing Sing. This book is recommended for readers who enjoy history as well as true crime readers.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Sandie Kirkland, 2012

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