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Murder and Scandal in the Gilded Age

51R1KKsoqCL._SL160_Library of America editor in chief Geoffrey O’Brien mines a trove of historical records and documents to illustrate the real-life events surrounding the 1873 murder of Mansfield Walworth in The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America (Henry Holt, 337 pgs). During the summer of 1873, Mansfield was shot by his 18-year old son, Frank, in a hotel room in New York city. Frank immediately surrendered to police and a murder trial followed amid a flurry of media attention. The burning interest of the press was stoked by the prominence of the Walworth family in the city of Saratoga Springs, NY. Mansfield’s father, Judge Walworth, had built his fortune and cemented the family’s elite status in the courtroom, but Mansfield’s erratic and violent behavior towards his wife and children, and the homicidal actions of his son tarnished the family name. Mansfield had long abused his wife, Ellen, and even after they divorced, wrote her letters threatening physical harm and even death. O’Brien argues that Frank killed his father in order to protect his mother from further harm.

A family history of greed, dysfunction and mental illness emerges as the author moves towards the final verdict. As the trial played out, some were sympathetic to Frank’s situation, while others viewed him as a cold-blooded killer. Like any other sensational drama, the voyeuristic nature of society remained constant. Fame, money and scandal held no less sway over the public in the Gilded Age than it does now in the modern age. “…The classic schadenfreude that makes contemporary observers of celebrity scandals shiver with delight held true as well in the 19th century,” writes Carol Memmott in a review for USA TODAY. “O’Brien’s cinematic prose is laced with society gossip, history and scandal. It’s a perfect end-of-summer read.”

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