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The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

3.13  ·  Rating details ·  367 Ratings  ·  68 Reviews
In the tradition of The Devil in the White City comes a spell-binding tale of madness and murder in a nineteenth century American dynasty

On June 3, 1873, a portly, fashionably dressed, middle-aged man calls the Sturtevant House and asks to see the tenant on the second floor. The bellman goes up and presents the visitor's card to the guest in room 267, returns promptly, and
ebook, 352 pages
Published July 20th 2010 by Henry Holt and Co.
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Aug 09, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A young man from a prominent New York family kills his father in 1873. Frank Walworth and his siblings and mother have endured years of mental and physical abuse from his father Mansfield Walworth. In the last few years Mansfield has been writing death threat letters to his ex-wife Ellen. He also describes how he will kill their two sons so the name of Walworth will die out. Such statements would be chilling no matter when or how they were written but Walworth was a writer from the Sensationalis ...more
Scott Fuchs
Apr 17, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Solidly ! uninteresting non-ficton
Considering that the motives leading up to a murder and the event itself are wrapped up by page 16, this would be the logical place to end the book. Instead we are subjected to 275 pages more, with next to no information other than what we have read up to page 16.
These remaiing pages are filled with many writings of the victim, where one alone would suffice. Even more irritating are the pages and pages of s-t-r-e-t-c-h.
I stuck this through to the end, expecting
Ronnie Cramer
Interesting historical true crime saga, though far more history than crime. Told in period-appropriate language; I had to look up a lot of the antiquated words.
On June 3, 1873 the lives of the Walworth family were forever changed, making family secrets public and effecting the futures of everyone. When Frank (the eldest son) goes to New York and murders his father this is a crime that not only effects the well-known and respected family but also the legal world (this was the first case in American history to determine if it is first or second degree murder). This book analyzes the family history, the case itself, and what happened after the decision ca ...more
Jill Hutchinson
This is a dark and depressing book that tells the true tale of a scandal in high society, The Walworth family of Saratoga Springs, NY, was a family of famous and marginally famous members....judges, writers, religious leaders, poets. The son, Frank Walworth, murders his father in cold blood after the father has threatened and abused his wife (Frank's mother). The trial of Frank is covered in detail here and illustrates the difference between the justice system of the 1870s and today. The family ...more
Oct 01, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: true-crime
I had never heard of the Walworth family until this book. It was interesting but was more intellectually presented, making it seem like reading an account in an encyclopedia. Because of this, it was difficult to feel like the characters were real people and it was hard to sympathize with them.
Ellen Hardin Walworth, mother of Frank and husband of Mansfield, who Frank killed, was the most interesting character.
She founded and oversaw an educational academy and the Daughters of the American Rev
Jun 22, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a sad, detailed but dry look at a prominent NY family, complete with murder, abuse, manic behavior, extreme religiosity, even insanity. Tragedy really stalked this family and seemingly scarred all. It is, however, a good picture of the way whole families--for generations--can be torn apart by parental difficulties. Note: the mother in this family was the high achiever and one of the DAR founders. The book has too much analysis of Mansfield's trite novels but does show a much different le ...more
Naomi Blackburn
Aug 12, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was fantastic. It really gives new meaning to dysfuntional family. I had never heard of this family before and since reading this story, have seen them referred to in several television shows.
Feb 19, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was interesting as a report of events, but disappointing otherwise. O'Brien covers what happened, but offers nothing on the why or what it means. As a result, the book doesn't offer much that's insightful in terms of really understanding life at the time. For example, he reports on family members being diagnosed with epilepsy and how that's seen as a possible reason for bizarre and/or violent behavior in the past. But was that accurate? What does that mean today? Would these behaviors be di ...more
Katherine Addison
This is an intensely Gothic Victorian book, as are the lives of its subjects. (I was half persuaded, all the way through, that I was being gaslighted and The Fall of the House of Walworth was actually a novel. But the central person of the book, Ellen Hardin Walworth, was one of the founders of the DAR, so if it's a scam, the Daughters of the American Revolution are in on it.) It is in some ways intensely frustrating, not because of anything O'Brien is doing wrong, but because, first of all, the ...more
Jan 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Feb 03, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Krista by: Bookmarks Magazine
Geoffrey O'Brien wrote a wonderful, intriguing start to his book. It was also well-researched from the first page to the last. It chronicles first a tragedy and then a family amid tragedies. The book starts with a sensational crime, described in great detail. It parallels the sensational journalism that is portrayed as shocking later in the book.

Although the narration did often seem biased towards the Walworth family and indifferent at other times, what I appreciated about it was how thoughtfull
Fran Severn
An odd book. The Walworth family was upper crust of Saratoga, NY. The patriarch had a pedigree as a descendant of Revolutionary War heroes and had run for vice president. He had wed a distant relation living in Kentucky who was widowed during the Civil War and moved her and her children to his estate in New York. But madness lurked in the family genes. He was abusive to the point where she divorced him -- a sure recipe for social ostracism. However, his reputation was such that friends rallied a ...more
Jenny Brown
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 08, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a non-fictional retelling of the prominent Walworth family of the then fashionable Saratoga Springs, New York. Ella Hardin was married to Mansfield Tracy Walworth who turned out to be a bit of a nutter, as well as an abusive husband. Finally the abuse reaches such a level that it drives their son Frank to shoot his father in a hotel room, thus setting off a sensational trial and scandal that rocked the family and society to its foundations.

Sounds nice and juicy with all the makings of a
I enjoyed learning about the history of Saratoga through this book, and enjoyed how the author told the stories of the various generations of Walworths and Hardins involved in the tale. Though I understood why he did it, I would have preferred fewer descriptions and quotes from Mansfield Walworth's horrible pulp fiction -- I began to suspect that the author had written a thesis on these books -- as well as the terrible poetry of Frank Walworth.

Two quibbles: The author several times violated the
Jan 22, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 2012
Mansfield Walworth was the descendant of a powerful, wealthy family in New York state, a minor novelist with an exalted sense of his own importance and genius, and a violent, arrogant, controlling husband. The more I see of the world and of people, the more convinced I am that growing up in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege is very bad for most of us. It was certainly very bad for him, and it did no favours for his children, either. The story of the collapse of this family into disfunction a ...more
Jul 30, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an ambitious history book that sometimes reads like historical fiction. The author did a great job recounting the stories and tragedies within two families (one Northern, one Southern) and their experiences around the time of the Civil War. He includes a great deal of 'context' material to give the reader a nice scope of the era these people lived in. I appreciated this view of the then-new America and its progression during the late 1800s. In particular the story of a murder (referred t ...more
Elizabeth Desole
I was disappointed with this book. It actually had little to do with the potentially interesting story of the murder and much to do with the demise of this supposedly illustrious NY political family. So much time was spent on the boring details of the victims father. But the greatest missed opportunity was in the glossing over of the widow's life. She was actually a fascinating almost Zelig like character for the turn of the century women's movement. Ellen Hardin Walworth was one of the first wo ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Oct 11, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nov-dec-2010
Reviewers unanimously agreed that The Fall of the House of Walworth, billed as a true-crime story, is an enthralling book and that O'Brien is uniquely qualified to write it. Critics were universally impressed with the way O'Brien takes a 19th-century family that most people have probably never heard of and not only builds a gripping, multilayered, and thoroughly researched narrative about them but also uses them to illuminate much of their rapidly changing period in American history. O'Brien's b ...more
Aug 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Enjoying this one so far, it is kind of creepy though.

This book was scary and sad at the same time.

I'm not into books about modern day true crime.

This caught my eyes specifically because it was written about a family long ago.

I was swept along from the moment I started this book.

There were no dry parts or stuffy parts where I wished I could just skim through the rest of the book.

Sometimes by the end of a book I just want it to be over.
It was different this time.

Don't expect an uplifting read, bu
Nov 22, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This rating is somewhere between a 3 and 3 1/2 stars.

I have read a lot of historical non-fiction, so I am used to laboring through to get all the information. With "The Fall of the House Of Walworth", I labored long and even put it aside for days, however was drawn back in constantly to learn more about the fascinating Walworths.

I certainly appreciated the extensive research, notes and indexing that encompassed this work, and say "Thanks" to Geoffrey O'Brien for bringing about this "Tale of Mad
Lorraine Sedor
I didn't finish this. I wanted to like it and hoped it would be as intriguing and captivating as the flyleaf made it sound. The author dragged out the story of "Madness and Murder" by continually going back in history to what can only be described as sidebars to the main story. I understand that the murderer in question was in some way shaped by his and his family's past, but it didn't hold my attention. I wish it had.
Aug 28, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This true crime story recounts the murder of a two-bit novelist by his 19-year-old son in New York City just a few years after the Civil War, but the real fun is getting to know the eminent family, the Walworths. While the section about the grandfather, Chancellor Reuben Walworth, got a bit tedious, when the narrative moves on to his ne'er-go-well son Mansfield and the rest of the family things really pick up.
Jun 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very verbose and intellectual look at a true-life gothic tale. A son in a wealthy and famous family murders his father. Exploring why and how this happened was fascinating. It was also interesting the ways domestic violence and extortion were treated in the late 1800s. The whole history of the family is explored in-depth. The mother in this tale, btw, is one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Amazing how her life changed!
Jul 22, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not sure really why I had this on my "to read" list, but I read it. It is a well-written history about a family I'd never really even heard of before. I learned some things, but was amazed that in one of the final chapters it was just off-handedly mentioned that one of the main characters, Ellen Hardin Walworth, was the founder of the DAR. If you're really into somewhat obscure American history and crime this is definitely for you.
Mar 22, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
Soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo boring. I wanted to read a book about a Son to Father murder, not the entire fricken history of Saratoga Springs from the Mayflower. I don't care about the dry and boring career of the murderer's great grand pappy's Chancellor position. I don't want to read multiple chapters that have ZERO to do with the murder. My eyes just rolled around in my head swimming in this author's wordy prose. Ack!
Sep 16, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am a huge fan of historical fiction, so I really enjoyed this one. It was a tad on the historical side, sometimes you get a little bored with all the overly factual moments he squeezes in there, but the storyline still maintains throughout. Sagas are one of my favorites, so the tale of a family's rise and fall, socially and economically throughout the generations, is really intriguing. Wealth is a really weird thing, and to see how it helps and hinders this family is pretty interesting.
Apr 18, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book was tough to get interested in. The description sounded very intriguing, murder and scandal within a well-to-do family, and the repercussions for the descendants; but the case or the relating of the case just wasn't interesting. Maybe it's because the murderer confesses immediately, so there is no doubt as to who did it or if they will be caught/convicted.
Despite the oddly old fashioned writing style, this book was pretty interesting. Not so much for the murder but for the in-depth look into the Walworth family. Not a light read but if you've ever walked by an abandoned mansion and wondered, "Who lived there? What were their lives like?", this is a book you might want to read.
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