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Horror in Wisconsin: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders

The architect's idyllic estate became a house of horrors.

taliesin frank lloyd wright
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha “Mamah” Borthwick made a home together in 1911, it caused a scandal.

When Borthwick, her children, and several workers were slaughtered there, and the home burned to the ground by a deranged former cook in 1914, it shook the nation to its core.

In 1903, Wright was hired to design a house for his neighbor, Edward Cheney, in Oak Park, Illinois. Wright and Cheney’s wife, Mamah Borthwick, immediately hit it off: their affair became quite the story around town. Chalking it up to just another one of his flirtations, Wright’s wife Kitty refused to grant him a divorce.

Related: A Day That Began with Death: The Hoskins Family Murders of 1919 

After traveling together in Europe, Wright and Borthwick started work together on a house of their own in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright called it “Taliesin,” meaning “shining brow” in Welsh. By the time construction began on the house in 1911, Edward Cheney had granted Mamah Borthwick a divorce, but Wright was still married, much to the shock of his nosy neighbors.

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  • Frank Lloyd Wright

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Life was good at Taliesin, despite the gossip.

In June 1914, Wright hired Julian and Gertrude Carlton, a husband and wife couple supposedly from Barbados, to work as cooks at Taliesin. While at first all seemed well with the Carltons, problems soon surfaced, especially with Julian. His behavior grew ever-more erratic throughout the summer. According to one report, Julian had a tendency to stay up at night, staring out the window while holding a butcher’s knife.

Related: What Happens After a Murder Takes Place in Your House 

By August, the situation had reached a breaking point. An ad was placed in the paper for a replacement cook, and the Carltons were informed that their last day at Taliesin would be Saturday, August 15.

That same weekend, Wright was scheduled to depart for Chicago to continue construction of the Midway Gardens. The architect said goodbye to his lover and departed for the Windy City. Little did he know that it would be the last time he would see Taliesin intact, and his beloved Mamah alive.

Related: The Wolf Family Murders: North Dakota’s Most Brutal Crime

It was a pleasant day at Taliesin on August 15, 1914. Mamah’s two young children from her marriage to Cheney, Martha and John, had come to visit. The family convened in the dining area for their lunchtime meal. Julian Carlton appeared and served the family soup.

As they ate, Julian snuck up behind Mamah, who was seated at the table, and buried a hatchet in her skull. He then attacked John and Martha. All three died from blows to the head.

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  • Julian Carlton’s hatchet

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The carnage had only just begun. In addition to Martha and her children, a group of workers were also in the house. There was a carpenter, Billy Weston, 35, and his son Ernest, 13; Emil Brodelle and Herbert Fritz, draftsmen in their early 20s; the gardner David Lindblom, 50s; and a laborer, Thomas Brunker, 66.

The men were enjoying their own lunch in an adjacent room. Fritz later said he noticed a strange liquid seeping under the door. At first he thought it was water—then quickly realized by the smell that it was gasoline.

Related: A House to Die For: A Look Back at The Blackpool Poisoner 

Before they knew what hit them, the room burst into flames. Julian had locked the door, and set the place ablaze. In a panic, some men tried to exit through a window. Julian was ready with the hatchet for those who escaped the blaze, hunting down Thomas Brunker and gardener David Lindblom and bludgeoning them with his hatchet. Of the six men, Fritz successfully escaped by running down an embankment, though he broke his arm in the process.

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  • The destroyed home

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the time help had arrived, the main house of Taliesin was destroyed. Authorities searched the property and eventually found Julian. He was hiding in a furnace; he had swallowed acid in a failed suicide attempt.

Julian Carlton died nearly eight weeks later, never revealing a single word about his motivation for the worst incident of mass murder in Wisconsin history at the time. Gertrude Carlton, who had been absent during the attack, was released from police custody after they concluded she had nothing to do with her husband’s violent plans.

Related: The Bloody History of Staten Island’s Haunted Kreischer Mansion 

Since that fateful day in 1914, many theories have emerged as to what motivated Carlton to commit such a dreadful crime. Some say he was driven by the racism he experienced at the hands of the workers. Others believe he was angry with Mamah, who had fired him, as he had been acting increasingly odd and paranoid. There can be no doubt that Carlton was seriously mentally disturbed.

Wright re-built Taliesin in Mamah’s memory, and she was buried underneath a large tree at the nearby Unity Chapel, which Wright had also designed. Today, the house stands as a museum and historic landmark, a beautiful testament to the bloody past lying just beneath its surface.

[via Daily News]

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons