Geoffrey O’Brien’s Fall of the House of Walworth limns this Gilded Age murder and the warped dynamics that provoked it. It’s partly the grim history of a distinguished yet dysfunctional family and partly a Gothic morality tale of the sort Poe might have conceived.
Mansfield Walworth was an aggressive and pompous narcissist. His novels sold moderately well but did not bring him the mass adulation he craved. Impulsive and constantly chasing get-rich-quick schemes, he repeatedly abandoned his family but exploded when his wife, the former Ellen Hardin, finally left him. Hardin, an intelligent and articulate woman deeply involved in civic affairs, received abusive and threatening letters until her devoted son put a stop to it.
O’Brien betrays his background as a poet. The book abounds with descriptions like the following: “A quantity of blood had splattered the washstand, filling the toothbrush dish and mingling with the soap in the soap dish to form a frothy red foam." Normally this type of cinematic writing is irritating in a nonfiction work, but in this instance it’s strangely in accord with the dark and surreal story.
Walworth history is covered more extensively than Frank’s act of parricide and the ensuing trial, something that might annoy readers who prefer less back story. But by clearly demonstrating how abuse, psychosis, and murder destroyed a once noble family, Fall of the House of Walworth imparts a chill that a dedicated treatment of the murder alone could not summon.