Geoffrey O’Brien’s delicious and deceptively intricate The Fall of the House of Walworth, a true-crime “tale of madness and murder,” offers a new twist on the Gothic strain in American life and literature. Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote “The Fall of the House of Usher,” might have admired it. On June 3, 1873, Mansfield Tracy Walworth of Saratoga Springs, author of the sensationalist novels Warwick and Delaplaine—books so atrocious, so full of “lost wills, men in black masks, treasure hunts in the Amazon jungle, mystical Hebrew inscriptions,” that even their publisher refused to read them—was gunned down in a Manhattan hotel room. The polite young murderer made no attempt to flee, insisting instead on punctiliously informing the police and the hotel staff of his deed. It was his “coolness,” reminiscent of one of Poe’s calculating criminals, that the reporters who flocked to the scene insisted upon. “This was,” in O’Brien’s summary of the newspaper accounts, “a disturbingly modern crime, in a modern hotel, committed by a modern kind of youth—refined, stylish, in some accounts irresistibly attractive.”
The crime was rendered more piquant by the identity of the killer, for nineteen-year-old Frank Walworth happened to be the slain novelist’s eldest son. His parents, moreover, were stepbrother and sister, lending a hint of incest to the unsavory proceedings. If there was a motive to the parricide, it seemed to center on certain threatening letters, remarkable for their deranged cruelty, written by Mansfield Walworth to his estranged wife, Ellen Hardin Walworth. “A sustained howl fusing obscene insult and self-pitying melodramatic soliloquy,” these letters, as O’Brien notes, seemed lifted from one his own novels. “I am a hungry demon,” he wrote in one of them, “and I am longing to lap my tongue in salt blood.” The letters were sometimes accompanied by bullets and packets of gunpowder.
Stumbling across this correspondence, much of which was read aloud in the aghast courtroom, a loyal son might reasonably feel called upon to protect his endangered mother, a touch calculated to appeal to an audience (and perhaps a jury) of readers of the sentimental fiction of the time. “Mother love,” O’Brien observes, “was the central shrine of American sentimentality” during the nineteenth century. The accused murderer’s own peculiar behavior preceding the murder, reportedly including epileptic fits and catatonic trances, provided the basis for an alternative defense of insanity.
As the trial ebbed and flowed between these conflicting narratives, some of the most skillful lawyers of the time laid out their own high-flown versions of what might have led to the murder in the hotel room. On the question of whether Mansfield Walworth’s many misdeeds should be taken into account in the verdict, a key component of the defense, the prosecutor asked, rhetorically, whether the crier of the court …