July 5, 2010

Walworth: Settling some family matters

Ellen Hardin Walworth was well-respected as a historian in Saratoga, but her personal life suffered major difficulty. Her husband, Mansfield Tracy Walworth, was her step-brother after her mother's second marriage. The couple had seven children together (two died in childbirth) but Mr. Walworth (an occasional novelist) was increasingly violent and unstable. She left him in 1861 and moved to Kentucky. They later reconciled but separated again, and reconciled again, before the decade was up.

When Ellen was the victim of her husband's physical abuse during her eighth pregnancy, she sought permanent separation or what she called "limited divorce." He continued to harass her, however, even going so far as to use her as a model for an unsympathetic character in his serialized Married in Mask. He also sent her threatening letters, including one which implied he would destroy the school she was running, and another which threatened to kill her.

Fed up, the couple's son Frank got involved (after intercepting most of these letters). He went to his father's home and left a note: "I want to try and settle some family matters." When father came to visit his son at his hotel, he was immediately led to a room. When the door closed, four shots were fired.

Frank exited the room, seen with a smile on his face, and went out to sent a telegraph to his family: "I have shot and killed father." He then turned himself in to the police.

The New York Times tried to portray Mansfield Walworth sympathetically, praising his writing ability, but still admitted the children were treated "not as a father should treat his children" and his wife "not as a man should respect and love his wife."

Frank was sentenced to life in prison on July 5, 1873. His mother Ellen Walworth testified on his behalf and appealed, claiming her son was insane. The state eventually agreed and his conviction was overturned in 1877.

* More on this family can be found in Geoffrey O'Brien's soon-to-be-released The Fall of the House of Walworth.

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