Monday September 13th, 2010

Haunted House

The Fall of the House of Walworth by Geoffrey O’Brien
Henry Holt, 352 pp., $30.00

For those unlucky enough to be convicted of a crime in the gang-riddled streets of 1870s New York, their cell mates in the Tombs, the funereal holding pen on Centre Street, within spitting distance of the Five Points battleground, were men and women of highly questionable character. A murderer in old New York was a criminal with an encyclopedic knowledge of the means of dispatch: from brass knuckles and chloral hydrate for a simple knockout job to stilettos and pistols for something more sinister. Murder was a dark but daily occurrence for the pros, a means to an end that might earn anywhere from ten to a hundred dollars.

Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Fall of the House of Walworth opens with a murder—not among thieves, but between a father and son. Nineteen-year-old Frank Walworth was apprehended at a local hotel after shooting his father, Mansfield Walworth, four times, point blank. Calmly carted away to the Tombs by the police, the newspaper reported that Frank “appears just intellectual enough to make a very ordinary dry goods clerk.” He didn’t deny the murder. He had traveled from his home in Saratoga Springs to “clear up the family business.” The papers reveled in the scandalous parricide. It was the culmination of generations of family anger, threats, bouts of illness, disinheritance, and the specter of insanity that hung over the clan like a curse.

Who were these Walworths that their fall should be so ruinous? At the head of the melodrama is Frank’s grandfather, Chancellor Walworth. That title’s esteem is hard to measure today. The head of the Court of Chancery in New York suggests something Dickensian and musty, a convoluted legal system like a house with stairs leading nowhere. Chancery was abolished in 1848, and by the time Chancellor Walworth’s son was murdered, in 1873, hardly anyone remembered what this kind of colonial justice meant, let alone the importance of its last adjudicator. Murder was still a fluid category, and not a week before Mansfield’s death, the law had been altered once again to blur the lines of murder and premeditation, a change that would favor Frank in his attempt to avoid the death penalty.

But the legal details simply distract from what is essentially a Poe-hearted tale. The Walworths were a respectable family of Saratoga, owners of a 50-room mansion built in the 1840s that was transformed into a school in the late part of the century and eventually emptied out of anything living, frightening local teens until it was torn down and replaced with a gas station in the 1950s. Upstate New York was ghost country in the middle of the 19th century. In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, 20 miles outside of Rochester, directed the neighbors to dig up a body in the cellar of their house after communicating with a restless spirit through a series of questions and knocks. In 1857, Harvard University scientists grudgingly traveled to Buffalo to investigate the claims of the Davenport brothers, who would tie themselves down in a locked cabinet and produce tunes on mysterious instruments with phantom hands.

Saratoga was still a spa town at the time, populated with invalids, gamblers, and the terminally lazy. Its recreational atmosphere was removed from the political maneuverings in Albany and the Gilded Age social circles of New York, but its heyday was fading fast. Chancellor Walworth was a man of upright moral character, whose life and career, though endlessly detailed in the book, are best summed up by the sentence, “Thus twenty years passed in the preparation of countless thousands of legal judgments.”

Of more interest are his second wife, Sarah, and her daughter, Ellen, who eventually married her stepbrother Mansfield. (“Incest!” screamed the papers during the trial.) Mansfield was the wayward son of the Chancellor, but only when compared to his older brother Clarence, a Catholic minister with all the dramatic flair of a communion wafer. Mansfield eventually became a writer, and was a man of literary stature for a brief moment in history, the author of a novel called Warwick, a tale of a “noble and virtuous man . . . deprived of his rightful inheritance by his elder brother and condemned to make his way in the world as an author.” It was a dramatic, sprawling book that contained references to “ancient religions, lost languages, mythological keys to geologic secrets . . . Spanish literature, varieties of apple, and the veterinary care of horses.” The book sold 35,000 copies in a matter of weeks, and at the trial of his son, Mansfield would be identified primarily as a one-hit wonder.

He took much of his inspiration for the work from his own life: the once passionate and loving marriage to his wife had turned into something obsessive and ugly. His father’s disappointment in his path led to an embarrassing disinheritance, and the threat of divorce and possible separation from his children forever. Mansfield fancied himself a character in a novel, a slighted and misunderstood man of genius and feeling who lived in the manner of Roderick Usher, about whom he wrote: “he suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses. I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”

Mansfield was an ordinary man haunted by the grim phantasm of ordinariness. He attempted to turn his failures into fiction, and his passion for the form was, at first, refreshing to critics. (“One of the ablest and most comprehensive of satirists,” announced the New York Citizen upon publication of Warwick. “Neither Orpheus C. Kerr, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, nor C.H. Webb, can for a moment be compared with Mansfield Tracy Walworth.”) Churning out tale after tale of obsession and murder, never recapturing the success of Warwick, he became convinced the world existed to spite him, his wife to scorn him. He wrote his wife Ellen long, threatening letters with grand pronouncements of revenge: “I am a broken-hearted desperado . . . save this letter for lawyers and for courts if you please. God is my lawyer . . . that God who has planted love in my heart for my little girls, and that says to the tiger bereft of its young, ‘Kill!’ . . .” This letter was the last he sent to his family, intercepted by Frank, who would take action in the face of its threats to his mother.

Frank had begun showing signs of illness, mysterious mood swings, fainting spells, and convulsions, later diagnosed as epilepsy. The trial thus became a character study—of Mansfield the mad, Mansfield the depressed father, Mansfield the unhinged author—and the line of insanity was directly drawn by the defense from father to son. It’s after the trial, if you can possibly believe it, that things got really interesting.

Melodrama had been, for a long while, the force that gave the Walworths’ lives meaning, and like soldiers returning from war, they were lost without it. The part of their saga that produces the greatest Usher-like chill is the prolonged and dreadful denouement of normalcy. The remaining members of the family slipped into depression and obscurity. Frank’s mother kept up the facade of a respectable life, but increasingly shut herself in at home, writing agitated poems of grief. Grander crimes would be committed in the coming years: the trial of Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin, would use the same doctor that presided over the insanity charges in the Walworth case. In the papers, the pros were replaced by the sensational insanity of gentleman criminals, whose apotheosis came in the crime of the next century: the murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw.

The last years of the 19th century saw the history of the Walworths slowly turn to stone. Clarence, the upstanding minister, published The Walworths of America, literally writing the final chapters of his family, and in 1890, Ellen shut down the school she had begun in her home, leaving the mansion mostly empty. The panic of 1893 was the worst depression America would experience until 1929, and its effects triggered a new symbol of American gothic: the haunted house. Newly built homes with their gingerbread shingles, turrets, and wide-eyed windows were abandoned and shuttered by owners who could no longer pay for them. The story of the Walworths reminds us that the most ordinary things create haunted houses—defaulted lines of credit, deferred dreams of respectable, middle-class living. The Saratoga mansion was converted from a house to a school to an empty mausoleum. In the end, the ghosts of the Walworths were not tortured by murder and madness, but by the prospect of a quiet existence—upright, Victorian lives like those of their ancestors, in which 20 years might pass without anyone noticing at all.

Michelle Legro is an assistant editor at Lapham’s Quarterly.