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Review of 'The Fall of the House of Walworth,' by Geoffrey O'Brien

By Carolyn See
Friday, July 30, 2010; C02

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH

A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

By Geoffrey O'Brien

Henry Holt. 337 pp. $30

"The Fall of the House of Walworth" is predicated on a pretty iffy premise: that the Walworth family had some place to fall from and that the general public must be both well acquainted with the Walworths and suitably awed and distressed by their ignominious end.

But out here on the West Coast, from which I write, we haven't the faintest clue about who these people were -- and I say that to dispel any sense that you have to know about them in order to be beguiled by this story. This is the tale of a flock of self-important, anxiety-ridden, religion-obsessed, garden-variety Americans, social-climbing with all the energy they could muster, while the ladders they climbed on shifted underneath them. They could have been any striving family in America. And they were as cracked as a set of cheap china after an earthquake.

The patriarch of the family, Reuben Hyde Walworth, chancellor of New York (something like state attorney general, except that it's limited to civil matters) operated his own courtroom from his lovely home, Pine Grove, in Saratoga Springs in the 1830s and '40s. He was, in the words of author Geoffrey O'Brien, "a man of accomplishment but not an innovator or a leader; a workhorse, a detail man; a joiner, at home in committees and conventions, perfect for after-dinner toasts even after he gave up intoxicating drinks." After he left his job, the state government abolished the office, which certainly says something about his competence.

He married a deeply religious woman and had half-a-dozen children who were also susceptible to the religious impulse. His elder son, Clarence, grew up to be Catholic, scandalizing his Protestant parents; his younger son, Mansfield, wrote lurid, bad novels. When the chancellor's first wife died, he married a charming Southern widow, whose daughter, Ellen, soon married Mansfield -- and that's when the Walworth troubles began.

O'Brien, a cultural historian and the editor in chief of the Library of America, portrays the Walworths as a family that manifests -- in microcosm -- all kinds of American troubles. The religious impulse posed terrible domestic problems. The chancellor was Protestant; it didn't help his disposition any to see Clarence become a Catholic priest and then set about converting every possible relative he could get his hands on.

But Mansfield, a dedicated wastrel, was the real source of sorrow. He was so evil and brutish to his wife (who turns out to be very important in this story) that she moved with her children back to Kentucky. When the Civil War started, Mansfield managed to get himself arrested for treason, but he wasn't so much an aristocrat with Southern sympathies as a good-for-nothing, a crazy person who managed to go crazier every day.

Mansfield began to write three or four letters a day to his wife, demanding money, promising to do away with himself. Amid the torrent came this missive to his sister: "I have conceived the great secret of my existence. I was not born as men are, but let down from heaven in a basket. All who have preceded me are impostors. . . . Keep this secret until I am announced by the sound of 10,000 trumpets, then fall down and worship me, for I am M.T. Walworth, the true and eternal son of God."

Given these letters and the fact that Mansfield was beating his estranged wife every chance he could get, it's little wonder that his son, Frank Hardin Walworth, packed up a gun, took a train from Saratoga Springs to New York City, invited his father up to his hotel room and shot him.

The book is billed as a true-crime story, but what drives the narrative is the events -- mundane and otherwise -- of Walworth family life. Ellen had many children, some of whom were stillborn, some of whom died in childhood. The men in the family who were supposed to earn money didn't always spring forth to do so. Appearances had to be kept up, and two enormous Victorian-era households had to be supported. While Mansfield was going crazy, he didn't contribute to his children's support, and young Frank wasn't in a position to help the family either. It fell to Ellen to convert one of their houses into an academy for young boys and girls. She seems to have run the whole show herself: teaching classes, grading papers, managing finances, all the while joining club after club, committee after committee, in an attempt to make something of herself, creating a public persona of repute and even modest splendor, someone to compare in eminence with the chancellor himself. Indeed, she did accomplish something quite amazing, which O'Brien keeps as a surprise -- something that really did assure that her family name would be remembered for a contribution far more important and interesting than just another squalid New York society murder.

The subject of this book is not so simple as good fighting evil; it's more like respectability duking it out with discord. "The Fall of the House of Walworth" is about the conflict between the part of us that wants to compose hymns and the part that wants to commit murder. That's typical American ground, and what makes this volume as instructive as it is entertaining.

See reviews regularly for The Post.

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