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'The Fall of the House of Walworth' worthy of Poe

O'Brien's gripping nonfiction account of the New York Walworth family and a scandalous murder is an engrossing mix of highbrow literary taste and lowbrow sensationalism.

August 22, 2010|By Emily Barton, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Illustration from The Walworth Parricide.
Illustration from The Walworth Parricide. (Henry Holt )

The Fall of the House of Walworth

A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

Geoffrey O'Brien

John Macrae/Henry Holt: 384 pp., $30

On our honeymoon, my husband and I wandered up the rickety stairs of the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs to the Walworth Memorial Museum. There, amid homemade biographical posters and breakfronts cluttered with gimcracks, we were surprised to learn the family's lurid history: their name made by an industrious progenitor, only to be sullied by a mad (and dreadful) novelist son, whose own son shot him dead. Someone, we decided, should write a book. A nonfiction book, because no reasonable person would find such a sordid novel credible.

Critic and poet Geoffrey O'Brien had a similar experience in the museum and heeded our — and perhaps many other visitors' — silent plea: In "The Fall of the House of Walworth," he has researched and written the family's history for a general audience. 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.

O'Brien employs a novelist's tricks of pacing and structure to describe the Walworths. His brief introductory chapter details the lonely decline of Clara, last of the line and great-granddaughter of Chancellor Reuben Hyde Walworth, appointed overseer of New York State law in 1828. From there, O'Brien dives straight into the heart of the affair: the murder of the chancellor's son Mansfield by his own son Frank. Just as Mansfield might do in one of his cheap, sentimental novels (from many of whose overwritten meditations on murder O'Brien quotes by way of a hilarious epigraph), O'Brien drops us right into the New York hotel room in which Frank commits parricide on June 3, 1873. He focuses on the gory details: "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." It's typical of O'Brien's offbeat humor that he takes a moment to dilate upon "the refrigerated coffin representing the most advanced mortuary technology" when discussing Mansfield's transfer to the funeral parlor.

From this dramatic beginning, O'Brien journeys back through the Walworth family line, from Reuben's perhaps unexpected rise to judicial prominence through Mansfield's early career as a "little rascal" and later as a writer of novels that "offer a series of variations on the same essential self-portrait: the protagonist was always an isolated hero of rare genius and moral worth whose qualities had gone somehow unappreciated by those around him…."

Mansfield plays the waxed-mustachioed villain in O'Brien's book. His erratic, sometimes violent behavior led his wife, Ellen Hardin Walworth, to decamp with the couple's children from Saratoga to her uncle's home in Kentucky early in the marriage, and she remained separated from Mansfield for long stretches. In the mid-1860s, his behavior worsened: At one point, he "shook her [Ellen] 'with great violence' and dragged her through the room … smashing her repeatedly against the furniture," and during another disagreement, "he grabbed her hand and caught one of the fingers between his teeth, grinding down until he had bitten through to the bone." (If this seems insufficient provocation for Frank to have murdered the man, add to it some of Mansfield's letters to Ellen: "I will kill your boys and defeat the damned scoundrel [the Chancellor] in his grave and cut off his damned name forever.")

As if he aimed to make himself an even more engrossingly despicable antihero, Mansfield was a writer of monolithic awfulness, a prince of bathos and bombast. O'Brien summarizes three of his novels thus: "more masked riders, more hidden passageways, more secret wills, more prophetic old women, more imperiously beautiful young heiresses" and remarks of a particularly high-flown passage, with acid humor, "Once Mansfield became embroiled in cataloging women's clothing, it was difficult for him to get back to the story."

In fact, O'Brien does a remarkable job of making Mansfield, and not Frank, the villain. Frank mostly comes off as a foppish twit who entered the courtroom for his murder trial "as cool and haughty as ever." By the time he stands trial for killing his father, this reader, at least, was rooting for his acquittal, despite the horror of his crime. Yet O'Brien is an impartial enough observer, and a good enough storyteller, to spin out the story of the trial over multiple chapters.

Much of what follows Frank's sentencing reads as a coda: We learn of his time in prison, his eventual release, his marriage and early death, and Ellen's later life. (Among her many achievements, she helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution.) But despite the final chapters' lack of sensation, "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.

Barton is the author of the novels "Brookland" and "The Testament of Yves Gundron."

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