Monday, October 15, 2012

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH by Geoffrey O'Brien ✰✰✰✰


Not generally a fan of either society tales nor crime stories, there was something that appealed to me about this nonfiction story of a distinguished Saratoga, New York family brought down by the crime of parricide and an inherited strain of epilepsy that struck their family in an age when such an illness was labeled as “lunacy” instead of seen for the illness it truly is.
The Walworth family produced generations of vaunted war heros, politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, and other venerated members of society, and when problems arose within their ranks they were kept closely guarded and dealt with amongst themselves.  Centering around the generation during and immediately after the Civil War, this work of nonfiction tells of the various ways they either distinguished themselves or gained notoriety.  In particular, the book tells the story of Frank Walworth, son of the novelist Mansfield Tracy Walworth, who kills his father, due to years of letters sent to himself and his mother, threatening to kill the Walworth children and mother.  Over the years a young Frank had also watched his mother suffer much abuse at the hands of his deranged father.  The book gives a good deal of backstory of the family for a couple of generations, setting a stage of privilege and influence, and follows through the deaths of the main generation with whom the book deals.

Overall, I found the book to be well written.  In the beginning I felt that it jumped around in time a little too much and this made it a bit confusing; I am sure the author used it as a device to create interest in the story, but I would have preferred a more linear approach.  Once he settled into a more chronological telling things settled into a much smoother tale.  He quotes extensively from contemporary sources but does not footnote, using instead page-noted endnotes at the end of the book which need not be read unless the reader desires to read the entire source.  A quote from the book pertaining to the family’s treatment by the press well illustrates O’Brien’s fine narrative writing:

“...they had done all they could to distance themselves.  The newspaper stories stripped their lives of all traces of sensitivity and cultivation and made them grotesque woodcuts fit for theatrical poster advertising...”

O’Brien says of Ellen, the wife of the victim, and mother of the shooter, that, “she might have seen the emblem of what her life was to be: a confrontation between catastrophe and endurance.  Any cry of pain was to be inward, private, swallowed back.”

This book contains a lot of historical elements, as the family was involved in a good many events in American history, from the War of 1812, to the Spanish American War, to the Civil War, to friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, to founding the Daughters of the American Revolution.  A lot of court cases, such as the taking down of Boss Tweed’s ring happened simultaneously to the Walworth trial, and so are discussed in this book.  However, there is no mystery involved, as the reader knows right from the beginning who the guilty party is.  What you do not know is what Frank’s punishment is going to be, especially given that New York, just the day before he shot his father, had passed a new law giving the jury the option of second degree murder.  Previously the only choices had been hanging or exoneration.

Another element of American history at this time was the great cataclysm occurring among the religious faithful.  There were many revivalist preachers traveling through the country preaching, and Catholic priests were also beginning to gain converts as well.  This religious upheaval affected the Walworth family dynamics in a profound way, in particular the Catholic influence, and so is written about quite extensively in the book.

Overall, this is not as compelling a read as say, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, with its intriguing setting of the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer, but the writing is sound, the characters sympathetic and interesting, and the era quite engrossing.  Where the Larson book is a five star read, this one merits a solid high four.

2 comments:

  1. This sounds well worth putting on my TBR list. Devil in the White City is already there. :-)

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    1. They are definitely different types of books, in that the victims are those of a serial killer in Devil in the White City and the setting is a World's Fair, and this one is more of a wealthy family plagued by mental illness and set among a world of privilege and gentility. But they both give a great look at the era in which they are set, and I really enjoyed that about them both.

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