A century ago today, on August 15, 1914, something terrible happened in a very unique house in southern Wisconsin. The house and the estate on which it stood was called Taliesin, and it was the retreat of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed it and several other nearby buildings. Wright built it for his lover, Mamah Borthwick, so the two of them could live there peacefully away from the gossip and scandal that surrounded them, for each of them was already married to someone else. Sadly, the peace at Taliesin was short-lived.
A few days before August 15, Julian Carlton, a chef and manservant at Taliesin, was notified that he was being fired, and the 15th would be his last day. From Barbados, and black, Carlton was also insulted with racial slurs by Emil Brodelle, a draftsman who worked for Wright and lived on the property. Carlton decided to get revenge. He told his wife to pack a suitcase and wait for him and that they were going to Chicago to look for a new job. Waiting until noon when much activity at Taliesin stopped fro lunch, Carlton took an axe and came onto the porch just off the living room of the main house. Mamah Borthwick was there with her two kids, John, age 12, and Martha, age 9. Carlton killed Borthwick with a blow to the face, then turned around and hacked John to death. Martha ran away but the crazed killer chased her, killing her in the courtyard outside the house. He dragged her body back to the house, poured gasoline around the place and set it on fire.
Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover from 1909 until her death at Taliesin, was the subject of Nancy Horan’s popular 2007 novel Loving Frank.
Carlton wasn’t done. As Taliesin burned, he laid in wait for the other residents–six of them–to come running out. Only two escaped. Carlton killed the rest, including Emil Brodelle and the 13-year-old son of another Wright employee. Wright himself wasn’t home at the time, finishing a commission in Chicago.
At some point Carlton decided he would rather not survive the conflagration either. In the basement of the burning house he swallowed a vial of hydrochloric acid–but it didn’t kill him, and instead corroded his digestive tract from the inside out. One of the survivors of the attack and several neighbors put out the fire, and a sheriff found Carlton in the basement and took him to jail. His murder-arson spree had claimed seven lives. His wife, bizarrely, knew nothing of what was happening; she was still waiting for him in a nearby field, suitcase in hand.
The murders at Taliesin nearly destroyed Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. He had Mamah buried on the property, but made sure her grave was unmarked; he said that being reminded of it by seeing a gravestone was more than he could handle. For months he was in a deep depression. His work also changed. After August 1914 Wright never did another project in the “Prairie School” that he had originated. He did, however, eventually rebuild the burnt house at Taliesin, in exactly the same design.
Frank Lloyd Wright surveys the devastation of the Taliesin fire after the brutal murder of his partner and her children.
As for Julian Carlton, the murderer, he didn’t live long enough to stand trial. The acid he ingested made it nearly impossible for him to digest food. Despite medical treatment, he starved to death in his jail cell in early October 1914 while awaiting trial.
Taliesin remained an unhappy place after the murders. Wright did return there and took a new lover, Miriam Noel, whom he married in 1925 after his wife finally granted him a divorce. Miriam, however, was a drug addict and likely mentally ill, and the marriage failed after barely a year. Taliesin was also destroyed by fire yet again in 1925, this time caused by faulty telephone wiring. Wright’s second rebuild left him deeply in debt and ultimately a Wisconsin bank foreclosed on the property in 1927. He got it back, but for the rest of his life split his time between there and another house, “Taliesin West,” in Arizona. After Wright died in 1959 his foundation took over Taliesin, but it was in a state of severe decay by the time the National Park Service stepped in to try to help in 1987. Since then, millions have been spent restoring the property to its sad glory.
As an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright was bold and innovative, and Taliesin reflects that boldness in the way typical of cutting-edge art at that time. The murders, though, seem to have sapped the vitality of the place, and in any event Wright’s vision was about to collide with the 20th century. On the very day Julian Carlton went on his horrific rampage, World War I was just getting started in Europe; the crucial Battle of Tannenberg took place a few days later. The war and its effect on society, art and architecture was similar in many ways to the shocking effect that the Taliesin murders seemed to have on Wright personally. Taliesin is peaceful today, but it would seem hard to shake that pall of tragedy that descended upon it, one summer afternoon 100 years ago.