Tucked away on the third floor of the Canfield Casino is a long-standing exhibit about a 19th century Saratoga family that had its share of triumph and tragedy.
The Walworth Family Exhibit is spread over five rooms of the Saratoga History Museum. Using old photos, paintings and a wealth of furniture from the family’s long-gone Pine Grove estate, the exhibit tells the story of Reuben Hyde Walworth and his descendants.
The story features a highly successful judge; his second wife, Ellen Hardin Walworth, who attained national prominence as a founder of several organizations; and a son, Mansfield, who was shot dead in New York City in 1873 by his own son, Frank.
The Walworth collection, established in the Canfield Casino in Congress Park in 1954, is impressive, said James Parillo, executive director of the Saratoga Springs History Museum. Furnishings and family objects date from the 1820s and earlier all the way through the late 1800s. But everything is quite somber and static.
“We want to bring it to life a little more,” Parillo said.
So with the approval of the Walworth trustees, the exhibit will be making a little more “noise” this tourist season.
A $5,000 grant from the Alfred Z. Solomon Charitable Trust will be used to install a sound system in each room of the exhibit. A visitor will trip a motion detector and a recording will start to play, telling the incredible story of this 19th century Saratoga family.
“We are working on the text right now,” Parillo said while giving a reporter a tour of the exhibit.
“We would really like to have this ready for the summer tourism season,” he said.
The museum is able to accomplish the project with a relatively small amount of money because the cost of professional-grade sound systems has dropped significantly with the advent of new digital, computer-chip technology.
Parillo said the exhibit is considered part of the museum but is really a separate entity, controlled by its own board of trustees, who include local businessman Wallace Allerdice Jr., lawyer James Snyder and Constance Carroll.
Allerdice, who has been a Walworth trustee for more than a decade, said he and the other trustees are pleased with the proposed changes.
“We thought that was a great idea,” Allerdice said.
He said the trustees only meet about once a year. Their last meeting included discussion and approval of adding sound to the exhibits.
The story of the family deserves the updating, because it is compelling.
Reuben Walworth, an officer in the War of 1812, was the state of New York’s last chancellor. He moved to Saratoga Springs in 1823 with his family from Plattsburgh after being appointed a circuit judge of the Fourth Judicial District.
His Pine Grove estate, which eventually included a small courtroom where he heard cases as chancellor of New York from 1828 to 1848, was on Broadway just south of Van Dam Street. A gas station and convenience store now occupy the site.
Doris Lamont, archivist for the history museum, said she is most impressed by the life of Helen Hardin Walworth, the daughter of Reuben Walworth’s second wife, Sarah Smith Hardin.
“Most people haven’t heard of the Walworths. Who were they, they ask?,” said Lamont. “But at the time [early-to-mid 1800s] he was the king of the town.”
“He” meaning chancellor Walworth. Visitors to his Pine Grove estate included some of the nation’s leading jurists and statesmen. DeWitt Clinton, Martin Van Buren, William L. Marcy, Millard Filmore as well as authors Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were among those visiting Walworth.
Lamont said the city was known for its mineral springs and being a health spa at this time, before the introduction of horse racing and other forms of gambling.
Ellen Hardin Walworth was Sarah Smith Hardin’s daughter by a previous marriage and grew up in Kentucky in a well-known and prosperous family.
A year or so after Ellen, then 18, moved with her mother and other family members to Saratoga Springs and Pine Grove, she married Mansfield, the oldest son of Reuben Walworth from his first marriage.
Mansfield graduated from Union College and had a law degree but never used it. Instead he became a journalist, first writing for magazines and newspapers, and eventually becoming a novelist and mystery writer.
“Ellen is fascinating, she was head of everything she touched,” Lamont said.
She was a lawyer and spent winters in Washington, D.C., later in her life. She is a founder of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she operated a girl’s boarding school at Pine Grove later in her life.
She also successfully advocated for a national archives in 1893 and was one of the first women to serve on the city Board of Education, among many other things.
“She is the reason there is a New York State Archives,” Lamont said.
But before she became involved in some of her many successful endeavors, she and Mansfield Walworth had eight children.
One of these was Frank. An 1877 story in the New York Times about Frank’s pardon by Gov. Lucius Robinson in the murder of his father says that Mansfield became a very mean and violent person as he grew older.
He constantly threatened Ellen and was very abusive. This traumatized young Frank. Ellen and Mansfield eventually divorced with Mansfield moving to New York City.
On June 3, 1873, according to the New York Times story, Mansfield went to a rooming house where his son was staying in New York City.
Frank, who was 19, had traveled to New York from Saratoga Springs after Mansfield continued to write abusive and threatening letters, claiming he would kill both Ellen and Frank. He left a note at his father’s apartment, saying he wanted to talk to him about the nasty letters.
Frank shot his father four times, the newspaper story says, with a handgun, and then immediately turned himself into the police.
“I have shot and killed father,” Frank told police. The case was reported in detail by many of the newspapers of the day.
He was found guilty of murder and sent to Sing Sing prison with a life sentence. But four years later, Robinson pardoned Frank Walworth, saying the young man was not legally responsible for killing his father.
In a long decision, Robinson said the facts of the case were carefully investigated, including the threats made by Mansfield that he would kill his former wife and son, who, the governor noted, suffered from epileptic fits.
Frank was released from state prison and eventually married Corrine Bramlette. A daughter, Clara, was their only child and the last descendant of the Reuben Walworth line. Clara, who never married, died in Saratoga Springs in 1952.
Lamont admitted that not everyone has forgotten the Walworth family.
“The natives here, they really know the Walworths,” Lamont said. “They really venerate them.”
There is a Walworth Street on the city’s West Side and a handsome memorial in Congress Park dedicated to Ellen Hardin Walworth (1832-1915), stating that she was one of the founders of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution on Oct. 11, 1890.