For a time before the Civil War, Reuben Hyde Walworth was one of the most powerful men in the United States. He held the odd, now-defunct legal position of Chancellor of New York, which, according to Geoffrey O’Brien, essentially gave him sole authority over the disposition of wills, settling of disputed contracts and adjudication of property rights. Such was Walworth’s power that litigants frequently made the journey from New York City to Saratoga Springs, where the Chancellor had constructed a courtroom in his mansion.
When his first wife died, the 62-year-old Chancellor courted and then married 39-year-old Sarah Hardin of Kentucky, a well-connected cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln. Several years later, Sarah’s daughter Ellen married the Chancellor’s son Mansfield. It was a marriage made in hell. Mansfield, snotty and self-absorbed, concocted grandiose schemes and wrote lurid potboiler novels that enjoyed small success. Ellen maintained appearances and endured. But after years of abuse and separations, she filed for divorce. Mansfield moved to New York City and penned increasingly violent threats to his ex-wife, many of which were intercepted by their oldest son, Frank. In June 1873, 19-year-old Frank took the train to NYC to confront his father and ended up shooting Mansfield to death. This patricide and Frank’s subsequent trial riveted the public.
In O’Brien’s well-researched account, the focus is less on the details of the murder and the trial than on the Walworth family saga and the family’s place in a tumultuous era of American history. Probably because the historical records are spotty in places—and because O’Brien is too scrupulous to speculate—a number of questions are left unanswered: Was the family possessed of a streak of insanity? What was the impact of family members’ conversion to Catholicism in a country that still possessed virulent strains of anti-Catholicism? Like so many questions about the past, these may simply be unanswerable.
But two things are certain. First, it is in the end a very sad family saga. And second, Ellen somehow managed to keep the family functioning. In later life she blossomed into an extraordinary individual. In fact, so compelling a figure does she become that she probably deserves a book all her own.