Scandal and shadows, madness and romance…
The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America
by Geoffrey O’Brien
During his 30 years as a writer Geoffrey O’Brien, the editor-in-chief of the Library of America, has published seven volumes of poetry and eight of essays, memoir, fiction, and cultural history. His nonfiction books include Hardboiled America, Dreamtime, and Red Sky Café. Taking at times a varied stylistic approach from book to book, O’Brien’s distinctive, experimental tendencies mark some of his work. In The Times Square Story (1998), he merges the tirades of a narrator with verse, tabloid photos, and movie stills to give expression to the jumble of mid-twentieth-century Times Square. In Sonata for Jukebox (2004), he uses the variable associations of memory to trace the personal and social effects of popular music during the same era.
As an old-fashioned, straightforward narrative chronicling an upper-crust family brought down by divorce, insanity, and murder, O’Brien’s new book is a departure. Detailing the history of three generations of the Walworth clan of Saratoga Springs, New York as they rise from obscurity in the early 1800s to national prominence by the eve of the Civil War — only to be brought down by a series of unfortunate circumstances — The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America came about as O’Brien was working on a book at the Yaddo writers’ retreat when he visited the Walworth Memorial Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York. There he learned about the Walworths, a prominent family, important members of the Empire State aristocracy who, due to greed, corruption, and madness that had been festering in the family for decades, lost ownership of the estate. Although the saga of high society on the skids takes in the entire 19th century and part of the 20th, the story focuses primarily on the events of June 3, 1873, and its courtroom aftermath.
On this date, Frank Walworth — age 18, spoiled, and mentally unstable – met his estranged father, Mansfield Walworth, in a Manhattan hotel room, where Frank shot him point-blank in the head. Frank then descends the hotel stairs and inquires of the desk clerk the location of the nearest police precinct, adding, “I have killed my father in my room, and I am going to surrender myself to the police.” Mansfield, it must be said, might have been the son of a prominent and powerful judge, but he wasn’t much of a family man, having divorced his wife Ellen, and abandoned Frank. In addition, Frank believed — based on letters mailed to her — that Mansfield intended to harm Ellen. A jury convicted Frank, but the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime
O’Brien delves into the Walworth family whys and hows that may have constituted a catalyst for Frank’s homicidal mindset. But moreover — though detours into the vocations and avocations of the various family members are welcome diversions — The Fall of the House of Walworth extends its thematic and topical reach beyond a reading as just a familial tale of true crime among the upper crust; the societal and cultural history of the times takes shape with settings and scenes from the Gilded Age in New York City and Saratoga Springs sharing the narrative. So many strands and considerations add up to a rich history promising a cohesive and compelling retelling and presentation of an America in transition — still rough, if gilded, around the edges.
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