Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fortune, Fame, and a Ruined Name

In June 1873, nineteen-year-old Frank Walworth shot his father, novelist Mansfield Tracy Walworth, to death in a Manhattan hotel room. The Walworths were a socially prominent Saratoga family long regarded as models of virtue and civic accomplishment. When Frank justified his actions by claiming that his father had threatened to kill his mother, the New York press dug into the family’s past and unearthed rumors of domestic violence, hereditary insanity, and religious fanaticism. The result was a media frenzy that shattered the sanctity of the Walworth name.

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.

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