The Fall of the House of Walworth : A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America
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 escorts the visitor upstairs. Before the bellman even reaches the lobby, four shots are fired in rapid succession.
Eighteen-year-old Frank Walworth descends the staircase and approaches the hotel clerk. He calmly inquires the location of the nearest police precinct and adds, "I have killed my father in my room, and I am going to surrender myself to the police."
So begins the fall of the Walworths, a Saratoga family that rose to prominence as part of the splendor of New York's aristocracy. In a single generation that appearance of stability and firm moral direction would be altered beyond recognition, replaced by the greed, corruption, and madness that had been festering in the family for decades.
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Henry Holt and Co.
July 19, 2010
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Excerpt from The Fall of the House of Walworth by Geoffrey O'Brien
A Haunted House
There was a woman who lived alone in a house with fifty- five rooms. It was dark in the house. She kept the curtains drawn by day, and most of the rooms she never entered after nightfall.
The house stood at the north end of Broadway, the celebrated main thoroughfare of the city of Saratoga Springs, New York. It was built in 1815 and acquired the name Pine Grove from the stand of pines that loomed over it. Back then its site was an outlying corner of a village just beginning to grow into a national showcase. The house grew larger along with the village. By the time Clara Grant Walworth was born in 1886, it had expanded extravagantly beyond its original dimensions and went by the name of the Walworth Mansion.
In 1952, as Clara contemplated the end of her days, the house was very much in the center, but of what? Saratoga Springs was a place she now found hard to recognize. The house was different too from what it had been in the time of her ancestor Chancellor Walworth. The protective pines were long gone, most of them cut down before her birth, the surrounding grounds sold off, and the original compact Walworth home obscured (as it changed from residence to court house to boarding school to hotel, reverting finally to residential seclusion) within the annexes and additional stories built around and on top of it.
The original one- and- a-half- story dwelling had been buried within the creaking hulk of a Victorian warren of tiny bedrooms and airless corridors. Within that warren Clara had spent her first months, her summers, and her holidays. Since turning fifty she had hardly left the place.
Outside, in the Saratoga Springs of the early 1950s, the old hotels-- those still standing-- were falling into decay. The decline had been steady for as long as Clara could remember. The symptoms were by now unmistakable. The splendors of Saratoga Springs were reduced to parking lots and orange- juice stands and neon- lit taverns, thronged with a new generation of tourists who knew nothing of the history that had taken shape here. At night cheap gamblers padded in bathrobes through the dark and narrow hallways of the once luxurious Grand Union Hotel.
The corruption of Saratoga was nowadays a national scandal. Local politicians and racket bosses submitted to federal investigation. The hearings were on television, so the whole world could see how thoroughly the town had been bought up, decades ago, by the likes of Arnold Rothstein and Joe Adonis and Meyer Lansky, gangsters in whose gaudy "lake houses" anything could happen. The townspeople had been happy to take the money and look the other way.
One way or another, this had been going on for years. You might say it had been going on ever since John Morrissey, a low- life Irish boxer from the back streets of Troy, had started up his gambling business during the Civil War. But the ruffians and vulgarians of Clara's parents' and grandparents' time began in retrospect to assume an air of respectability-- even dignity-- compared with the rot that had set in since. Morrissey, after all, had at least kept the locals out of his establishment, and shut down the gambling tables on Sundays.
She had lived to witness the final degradation of what had been not just beautiful but noble. The Saratoga Springs of racetracks and gambling dens was not the town Clara thought of as hers. Her Saratoga was an older, more rarefied place steeped in the memory of Revolutionary War heroes, inspired religious teachers, and women who had dedicated themselves for generations to preserving an America that seemed always on the verge of disappearing into some brutal caricature of itself. Her great- grandmother had been part of the effort to preserve George Washington's home at Mount Vernon; her grandmother had seen to it that the battlefield of Saratoga, where the tide of war had turned against the British, would endure as a historical monument; her mother had renovated this very house.
Why hadn't anyone stopped America from becoming a nation run by crooks? Not that there were not plenty of crooks in the old days, but forces also existed that were capable of holding them in check, forces as much spiritual as physical. There were things you didn't do, affronts that were unimaginable. Now it had all become a sort of affront. If she no longer enjoyed leaving the house, it was because some new shock always waited for her. One more thing had been destroyed or cheapened.
She preferred to stay indoors to savor what was preserved within the walls, even if most of it was invisible. Clara had been born in this house and, at sixty- five, could expect to die here. Her world was by now largely restricted to the innermost core, the Chancellor's original domain. It was a space thick with ghosts. She traced their movements by recollecting every story she had ever been told, every anecdote tied to the pictures and objects and pieces of old furniture for which the house had become a repository. By making sure that everything stayed in its place-- by remaining faithful to what her mother and grandmother had taught her-- she kept the ancestors near at hand. For years she had repeated the stories to any visitor who would listen. Now that visitors were rare, she told them to herself, taking care not to omit a single detail.
Her role, all her life, had been to preserve and remember. A votary in an abandoned temple, she had been born to go through every scrap of paper, rummage in every drawer, make lists of relics left behind. The house was her museum; her mausoleum, finally. She had been buried here, together with all she loved, for as long as she could remember.
She thought ceaselessly about everything that had happened in these rooms. Might it have been on this spot that Daniel Webster stood as he argued a case? Or in this corner that Andrew Jackson had exploded into wrath against the southern nullifiers, in the middle of a game of whist? James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving and the magnificent poet Mrs. Sigourney had sat at the dinner table. Presidents, senators, military commanders, the most distinguished authors, and the most celebrated preachers of the gospel, all had trooped through, in the time of heroes and founders when the world was fresh.
Here was the north parlor where the man those people came to see-- her great- grandfather, New York's state chancellor Reuben Hyde Walworth-- held court for decades. Now it had become her sickroom.
She had come to the end, not just of her own life, but of everything to which those earlier lives had been dedicated.
There had been a family and there had been a nation. To her they had almost been the same thing. She carried the blood of the May ower pilgrims in her. Davy Crockett was somewhere in the family tree. Her mother's father had been a friend of President Lincoln, her paternal great- grandmother a cousin of Mary Todd. Her great- uncle had left his right arm on a battlefield in Virginia. Her grandmother had danced at President Grant's inauguration. On both sides of the family her people had warded off invading armies and established the laws of the new land. They had been among those who counted for something in the making of the country. Now that the family had almost reached, in her, its point of extinction, might not the country as well be close to its terminus?
And where had the family gone? How could a family vanish?
In the memory parade of ancestors-- the settlers and warriors and justices and evangelists-- something was missing. There was an episode never to be part of any inscription or memorial address. It lived in unlit corners. At times it made her feel she had really not been born, as if this half- life were a shadow cast by a disaster before her birth.
Her life had been, perhaps, an act of commemoration for a gigantic absence, for a missing father and a missing grandfather: the grandfather whose memory had been so thoroughly crossed out, and the father who died just seven months after her birth, exhausted before his time. Both were swallowed up in the same obscure storm.
It had been a long time before she was allowed to know why there was such a gaping hole in the family history. People had been good about not bringing up what was best forgotten. Recollections trailed off into silence. A day came when she realized how well she had been protected from the moment she was born. Everyone, starting with her mother, had shielded her as long as possible from information too jarring for her young mind.
They had almost succeeded in sweeping from the house all traces of quarrels and ravings, of murder and of judicial punishment that killed the soul if not the body. Around that blotted- out zone the pageants and observances-- meticulous rounds of a social protocol never abandoned even in extremity-- clustered like a form of healing.
The healing was also a concealing. Pieces of what had been left out were eventually to be found hidden in diaries, scrapbooks, letters, the old documents that her grandmother Ellen (she had written it in the diary that Clara inherited) had one night sat up reading, "stirring up the old miseries which have been dead for years." Of Clara's grandfather Mansfield Tracy Walworth, all that remained was a small shelf of books in matching format, bearing such incommunicative titles as Warwick and Beverly and Lulu and Delaplaine. They were novels whose opening paragraphs spoke of moaning winds and impenetrable gloom, bells tolling at midnight, ominously deserted metropolitan streets, cells in which unnamed prisoners were brutally punished. But their many hundreds of pages of clotted prose led only into strange impasses, spasmodic mood swings, hermetic interviews between people whose identities or intentions were never quite clear.
Concealed most carefully of all was the letter that Frank Walworth, the father whom Clara never knew, wrote ten days before his death. She read it many times in later years. It was as close as she could get to him. Each time it was as if she peered into a closed room in which someone was suffering horribly, and could do nothing to comfort him. Frank announced:
When you read this letter, the last of the Walworths of Saratoga Springs will have been laid to rest. And as I now face the "Great Beyond" in the full knowledge that the crime I committed thirteen years ago brought me to this early end, at thirty- three years, I pen this message with the sincere hope that the youth of the generation that reads it will have learned the lesson I failed to grasp. The wages of sin is death-- death to the soul and the body and the mind!... I today know the full meaning of that verse in Exodus: "I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generations."...
As I make ready to meet the Great Judge of All, I would say that the verdict of the jury rendered in my case was a just one... I have come to realize, that for the crime I committed, my wife and daughter would also pay the price. In very truth, the wages of sin is death. Keep that in mind, when as youth of another generation, you attempt to take the law into your own hands. May God help you to keep the ten commandments of God, which are the basic law of all life and love and living.
FRANK HARDIN WALWORTH
October 19, 1886.
"Unto the third and fourth generations"-- the family had not even gotten that far. Her father could not have foreseen that his only daughter would live out her life childless. With Clara's approaching end all these documents would pass beyond her control. Perhaps after her death a part of what had been so long wrapped up would be revealed, even if there remained the question of what exactly that revelation would amount to. Who, after all, was Frank Hardin Walworth, and what might her life have been if she had known the answer to that question?
In stretches of uninterrupted solitude she found herself tracing a path in a city strange to her, a city she had never dared to explore. Amid railroad smoke and avenues full of foul stenches and jostling anonymous crowds she followed the movements of two men-- the large and menacing older figure with blazing eyes and a boxer's build-- and, in his wake, the deceptively unemotional boy scarcely arrived at his full height, making his way through the clutter and noise as if oblivious to what was around him.
A stalker laid a trap and left messages. His designated target moved through the rounds of his hours oblivious that they were racing toward their close.
But who had really designed the trap? The whole city was a trap; time was a trap; the inward coiling of a family was a trap; each of the men was himself the trap in which he was caught. In those depots and eating houses and lobbies and stairways-- those unlit halls and sparsely furnished bedrooms-- no breeze entered. The immense city ground to a halt. She could not imagine a word being spoken.
One man approached the other, drawn to him as if sleepwalking. The sun had barely come up. In a moment, in a narrow room at the top of the stairs, they would meet face- to- face and her destiny would be written, or unwritten: erased by blood.