Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.
On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.
While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.
In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.
The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.
As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.
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In 2018, the world watched in horror as husband and father of two Chris Watts seemed to transform before their eyes. Initially seen as a grief-stricken husband and father searching for his missing family, Watts soon became one of the most hated men in America when he confessed that he had murdered his pregnant wife Shannan and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste.
Using security footage from the Watts's Colorado home and the couple's own personal communications, Netflix’s true-crime documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door tells the heartbreaking story of the Watts family. While the streaming giant packed a lot of information about the tragedy into its 83-minute running time—including several clips of Shanann Watts speaking about Chris and her family, which she documented on social media—it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Especially about why a seemingly happy husband and dad would suddenly snap and kill his entire family.
If you're looking to dig further into the case, and learn more about the unique psychology of what is usually referred to as a family annihilator or family killer, read on to discover some fascinating facts about the Watts case that weren't covered in Netflix’s documentary. **Spoilers ahead.**
1. Family annihilators generally fit into one of four basic profiles.
Family annihilator is the term used by criminologists to describe a person who murders their own family. In 2013, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice published a study on the characteristics of family annihilators, based on a paper examining 30 years’ worth of newspaper archives. The study noted that assailants are typically male and fall into one of four categories: Self-Righteous, Disappointed, Anomic (Socially Unstable), and/or Paranoid.
In addition to fitting the gender part of the profile, Chris Watts has also been shown to exhibit self-righteous behavior. According to the research, family killers who exhibit self-righteous behavior often seek to blame their spouse for both the crime and any familial strain leading up to the murders. Watts showed this when he told detectives that it was Shanann who killed the kids, prompting him to then kill her out of rage. Watts later recanted this when describing the murders of his daughters by his own hands.
2. Family killers don't usually have a criminal history.
According to the same 2013 study, family killers are unique in that most of them have no history of mental illness nor any criminal record. And most of them seem to be happy family men (or women) before their crimes.
3. financial strain can Be a Major Trigger for Family KIllers.
Although family annihilators have not been studied as much as serial killers or other mass murderers, it still befuddled the public that a seemingly loving father and husband could plan something so horrific.
But when compared to other family killers, there seems to be one commonality that stands out: financial strain. Financial issues are considered to be the second most common motive for family killers to act, according to The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice study.
As with the case of John List, who confessed in a letter that his 1971 family murders were due to finances, Chris Watts appears to have had money issues of his own. The Watts family filed for bankruptcy in 2015 after the couple racked up medical and credit card debt, as well as debt attributed to department store shopping and student loans.
4. Many family annihilators choose to commit their crimes in August.
One odd bit of data gleaned from all this research is that family annihilators most often commit their horrific crimes during the month of August. Why August? Professor David Wilson, director of Birmingham City University’s Centre for Applied Criminology and one of the paper’s authors, theorizes that it may be due to children not yet starting school, and the murderer having access. Another explanation could be parental stress after children are home for months during the summer break, which could worsen other issues like finances and marriage.
Chris Watts murdered his family in the early morning hours of August 13, 2018.
5. Chris Watts has spoken out from prison to express that he wants “a normal life” for his Mistress.
As more details surrounding the Watts case came to light, the public learned that, just as Shannan had suspected, there was another woman in Chris's life: geologist Nichol Kessinger. Kessinger sat down with detectives after learning about the murders and asserted that she didn’t know anything about Chris's plans.
Since then, Watts has sat down with Denver 7 for a nearly 5-hour prison interview to discuss his crimes and what led up to them. During the conversation, Watts spoke at length about his relationship with Kessinger. When asked if he wished he could talk to her he replied yes, “... just to say I’m sorry this all happened." Watts then went on to say, “Hopefully it’s calmed down since ... I just hope she can have normalcy.”
6. Some viewers swear they saw a ghost in the footage.
Following the American Murder: The Family Next Door's premiere on Netflix, one user took to YouTube to point out a rather strange detail: The image of what some believe is a ghost.
The YouTube video above features a clip from the first 15 minutes of the documentary, which is captured via police body cam, and many people think that what they're seeing on the screen is a ghost—perhaps of one of the Watts daughters who was killed. Others, however, refute the paranormal claims, stating that it’s likely the daughter of Nickole Atkinson, a friend of Shannan's and the person who first alerted the police to her disappearance.