The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin
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.
A version of this story originally ran in 2011.