The Walworth family of Saratoga, New York seems designed to prove Tolstoy’s idea that every unhappy family suffers its own unique form of misery. The trial that revealed the depths of their problems was tailor-made for a scandal-hungry press and their self-righteous Victorian-era readers. But from a 21st century viewpoint, it’s just another sad domestic violence story. The DV fact pattern is all too familiar.
Mansfield Walworth was the youngest son of a towering legal figure: “Chancellor” Reuben Walworth. The Chancellor’s work ethic, capacity for detail and domineering personality were legendary, but at home there was chaos beneath the surface, and tensions that were tearing at the nation’s fabric were also consuming the occupants of Pine Grove, the stately, now-vanished family home in Saratoga.
Reuben Walworth had married twice — the first wife shared his abstemious old-school Presbyterian ethic, but the second wife, Sarah Hardin, widow of the war hero John J. Hardin, some 20 years his junior, was a socialite with Kentucky slave-owning roots. At a time when anti-Catholic prejudice still ran deep, the Chancellor’s oldest son, Clarence, much to the horror of his father, converted to Catholicism and became a well-known member of the Catholic clergy. But the deepest rift of all was a gender war, which descended into violence.
Clarence’s younger brother Mansfield married his 19-year old step-sister, Ellen (“Nelly”) Hardin. She gave birth 8 times, but the marriage was doomed. His fits of rage gradually turned into physical and emotional abuse. After she showed her bruises to their oldest son, Frank, he became privy to intimate details no child would ever wish to learn about his parents.
Mansfield had dabbled in law practice, but tried to make a career out of writing lurid gothic novels, which invariably featured a misunderstood, heroic version of himself. Over time, he failed at everything. He lost custody over the children in the divorce from Nelly, and after the Chancellor’s death, the inheritance that Mansfield anticipated (and borrowed against) was placed in trust for the benefit of Nelly and the children.
As Mansfield became increasingly desperate and delusional, his ex-wife was proving to be more than competent — in fact, an extraordinary woman who eventually left behind a remarkable record of accomplishments. Mansfield blamed all his failures on Nelly. Holed up in a boarding house in New York City, he sent a steady stream of letters, full of mad ravings, sexually-explicit fantasies, and threats to kill Nelly as well as Frank, who had become his mother’s protector.
Finally, on June 3rd, 1873, Frank shot and killed his father, at the fashionable Sturdevant Hotel at 29th and Broadway. A first-rate legal team — all with longstanding connections to the family — began assembling at his holding cell on the day of the shooting. They were prepared to work without charge. Frank and his lawyers may have felt that he would escape serious legal consequences because his actions were so clearly justified. If so, they miscalculated. The family’s travails were now public property.
The defense team was headlined by two leading courtroom advocates. Among the elite tier of New York City’s trial bar, Charles O’Conor was the unofficial ‘dean’. William Beach, while less famous, had been associated with a number of high profile murder cases, such as that of Edward Stokes, the killer of James Fisk. Newburgh’s Judge Fullerton was not on the pro bono team, but had close ties to both O’Conor and Beach. A published illustration of the trial scene shows the widow and mother Nelly Walworth, dressed in black mourning attire, appearing as a witness and being examined by O’Conor. A prominent figure seated between O’Conor and the witness looks a great deal like our Judge F.
The presiding judge, Noah Davis, made a point of admiring the array of talent representing the defendant. But his remarks only underscored his intention of demonstrating that a man who killed his own father would receive due punishment, regardless of wealth or status. Judge Davis was a former politician — a one-term Congressman — and more recently a Federal District Attorney. 1873 was his year to make an indelible mark – most famously by presiding over the trial and conviction of “Boss” William Tweed, likely the most powerful (and most corrupt) political figure in New York City history. But first, he was going to make an example of Frank.
At the time, New Yorkers were painfully aware of the city’s high murder rate and low percentage of convictions. The ability of well-heeled defendants with high-priced lawyers to escape scot-free was an especially sore subject, which had recently been driven home by the ongoing Stokes trials. It ultimately required three efforts to convict financier Jim Fisk’s wealthy killer (with Judge Davis presiding over the final trial). To make things worse for the Walworth legal team, a freshly revised criminal code had just created the category of “second degree murder,” in order to make it easier for jurors concerned about the death penalty to reach a guilty verdict.
To the Victorian mindset, the concept of ‘parricide’ was horribly offensive as well as deeply religiously immoral. Scholars who have pondered the Walworth case all note that judges and juries were often sympathetic when a jealous husband shot his wife’s lover. There is also evidence that a battered woman who killed an abusive partner might be dealt with leniently. But a young man who killed his abusive father was not going to be similarly excused.
Judge Davis’ jury instructions left little room for doubt as to the outcome he expected:
“The general bad character of a person slain can neither tend to show that the party is not guilty of homicide, or in any sense to mitigate the taking of human life. Equality before the law is a maxim of universal justice, and the life of the humblest and most abandoned is equally entitled to the protection of the law, as that of the most cultivated, refined, and elevated. It is not for man to say which may be taken and which spared.” (NY Times, July 3, 1873)
Frank was sentenced to life in prison for second degree murder. Other than in Saratoga, where local sympathies were with Frank and Nelly, the press and the public hailed this result as a victory for justice over privilege. With her son shipped off to Sing Sing, Ellen Hardin Walworth faced limited choices. Top flight professionals such as O’Conor and Beach were not going to undertake a long, iffy appeal process without being paid for their time. So the most practical hope was a pardon from the Governor.
Then, as now, the exercise of the pardon power is controversial. By 1873, several states had created formal application procedures to bring some order and transparency to the process. It’s an obscure bit of legal history that the form used in New York for many years was created by O’Conor in the effort to obtain a pardon for Frank. But Republican Governor Dix and his Democratic successor Samuel Tilden turned down the request. A busy O’Conor stepped away from the task but Ellen pursued the goal relentlessly. She enlisted the esteemed poet and editor William Cullen Bryant in support and obtained a report from a physician, Dr. John Gray, who visited Frank in prison and described in detail the deterioration of his health (as well as the underlying, always present condition of epilepsy).
In 1877, newly-elected Governor Robinson granted an unconditional pardon, and a permanently weakened Frank finally came home on August 1st. He married a sweetheart who had visited him in prison. They had a daughter and he obtained a law degree, but Frank passed away in 1886 from a lung condition originally contracted in prison.
There is at least one redeeming aspect to this family tragedy. The trial and long effort to save her son seems to have crystallized Ellen’s determination to address women’s condition in society and unlock her own potential. She became an avid public speaker and achieved a law degree from New York University. She joined many organizations; and when she found she was barred from entry on the basis of her sex, she formed her own alternative organizations. She was passionate about preservation and historical lineage, and helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she was the first editor of their magazine.
During the Spanish-American War, Mrs. Hardin Walworth established the Women’s National War Relief Association. At that time, she suffered another loss when her daughter Ruby, who shared her dedication to service, perished from typhoid while tending to the sick in Long Island. In the wake of this additional, crushing grief, she dedicated herself afresh to the many philanthropic avenues she had opened for herself.
She is still revered as a pioneer of the women’s movement.