Architecture of tragedy: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin murders.

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.

borthwick

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.

taliesin and wright

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.

The photo of Taliesin at the top of this article was taken in 2012 by Stephen Matthew Milligan and is used under Creative Commons (Attribution) 3.0 license.
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3 Comments

  1. Fascinating – I’m a total architecture groupie and knew of the grave circumstances of Taliesin but not the details. How crazed and gruesome, both in the way Carlton murdered his victims and who they were. I think the detail about the wife waiting for Carlton in a nearby field, packed and ready to depart, oblivious to his actions added intrigue about his psyche. Was he approaching the home, ready to get his last check, disgruntled but relegated to his final exit when his seething kicked-up, ax waiting in his path by a pile of firewood, inviting him to kill with a vengeance and he snapped? If the killer professed somewhere in your research, I would love to know if it was premeditated. Just curious. Great story well told. Cheers!

    1. Thanks. There are so many levels to this story that we obviously don’t understand. Amazing, and terrible, to think about. The human loss here is almost incomprehensible…an innocent woman destroyed with her children. How could you, as a survivor, even make sense of that? A lot to think about here.

  2. There are two aspects of this story that are worth noting.

    First, another refuge-house of a celebrity burned down in this period. Jack London’s forest retreat (where he would do some of his writings) caught fire and was almost totally destroyed. The ruins are still standing in California.

    Second the 1914 murders at Taliesen put Wright into a someone select group: Architects associated with murder cases. There are two others, and both were victims of “triangle” love-murder situations. Firstt was Stamford white, the great late 19th – early 20th Century architect, partner at McKim, Mead, and White, who designed the Washington Square Arch and the original Madison Square Garden (which, SURPRISE, was built at Madison Square!!!). He got shot and killed in June 1906 by demented and jealous Pittsburgh steel heir Harry Thaw, who was married to White’s old girlfriend Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl. The story was the basis for two films, “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” with Ray Milland as White, Farley Granger as Thaw, and Joan Collins as Evelyn; and “Ragtime” which includes an early section dealing with the murder (Elizabeth McGovern is Evelyn, and author Norman Mailer cameod as White). To add insult to injury Thaw shot white in the roof garden theater-restaurant of the old Madison Square Garden. Despite being seen by hundreds of other people killing White (including White’s brother-in-law, James Clinch Smith*) Thaw got away with the murder in the first trial showing the power of rich people to escape crimes (they used an insanity defense, and blackened White’s character due to his sexual activities). Thaw later divorced Evelyn, and denied paternity of their son.

    [*Clinch Smith, a well known dry wit and joker in the New York social sets, would six years later show a piece of ice he found on the deck of a ship he was on to another passenger, and say he was saving it as a souvenir of the “near thing” collision the ship had just had. He was among the 1,517 casualties of the Titanic Disaster.]

    The other fatality among murdered architects was one Francis Rattenbury. Most people in the U.S. don’t know him (he has an entry in Wikipedia), but he was the biggest and most successful architect in British Columbia at the same time that White was in his position in New York City, and when Wright was beginning to build his reputation. Most of the government and imposing hostelries of Vancouver and other British Columbian cities were his, and still are standing gaining an admiring audience to this day. Rattenbury was married, when he met a younger woman and divorced his wife to marry the younger one. It caused his social ostracism, and ended his career in Canada. He and the second wife, Alma, moved to England, and lived in the country. Alma was talented too, being something of a popular song composer. in 1935 they had a chauffer/servant named Stoner, and Alma and Stoner began an affair. Francis apparently was aware of this, and not crazy about it, but being older than Alma allowed it to continue. Stoner somehow got it into his head to kill Francis, and shot the architect while he was asleep. Francis actually lingered for a day or so before dying.

    Here everything gets a bit complicated. Alma was horrified by the act, and not only because she still had affections for Francis but because she was worried about Stoner. So, when the police asked who did it, she confessed! But Stoner, whatever caused him to act as he did to Francis, was also loyal to Alma as the woman he adored. He confessed!!

    In 1922 there had been a messy and controversial triangle murder, of Percy Thompson by one Frederick Bywaters, regarding Thompson’s charismatic and talented wife Edith. For some reason nothing went well for Edith Thompson in the 1922 trial, and she was arrested and tried with Bywaters for planning the killing of Percy. Bywaters confronted Percy Thompson on a sidewalk, with Edith watching, and stabbed him to death. Edith was screaming for help as Percy bled to death, but she failed to say Bywaters did it. The police found letters of Edith to Bywaters in which she mentioned that she had put ground glass and poisons into Percy’s food to kill him and be with Bywaters. Together with her failure to mention Bywaters stabbed her husband the arrest of Edith as a conspirator in the murder seemed clear.

    The problem here was that Edith Thompson was a romanticist – she mentioned novels in her letters where wives poisoned husbands. The Director of Prosecutions got Britain’s greatest pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, to conduct a careful autopsy for poison and glass in Percy’s body. Spilsbury, who had been in such cases as Dr. Crippen’s, Frederick Seddon’s, George Joseph Smith’s, the Green Bicycle Case, performed the autopsy – he found no traces of any poison or glass inside of Percy. Edith’s statements in the letters were romantic twaddle. The prosecution at the trial, normally all too willing to have Spilsbury appear, refused to let him give testimony.

    They also emphasized the adulterous relationship between Bywaters and Thompson, and painted Edith as a totally amoral woman who manipulated the young man to kill an unwanted spouse (forget she had been screaming for help for Percy!). She demanded she appear in her own defense at the trial, and unfortunately panicked on the stand. Both she and Byswater were convicted, and hanged (her hanging was one of the most disgusting in British history, as she was in a horrible physical collapse). Edith’s execution was so unnerving that a decade later her hangman, John Ellis, committed suicide thinking about it. By that time most peop[e were aware that Spilsbury’s information was purposely withheld. Public opinion was now that Edith should not have hanged.

    This helped the atmosphere at the Rattenbury-Stoner trial in 1935. Defended by Norman Birkett, Alma was able to gain acquittal in a situation that actually looked worse than what was Edith’s situation in 1922. Alma had been living in the same house with both men, carrying on her affair under her husband’s observance, and had covered for Stoner. But Birkett was able to show the extreme emotional turmoil the poor woman was under. Stoner was convicted and sentenced to death. Nobody realized that the twists of this sad case would continue even now. On the day Stoner was to be executed, Alma Rattenbury went to a riverbank, sat down, and stabbed herself to death. She felt responsible for both Francis’ murder and now Stoner’s execution. Had she waited a day she might not have done so. The government decided to reduce Stoner’s sentence (due to his youth) to life imprisonment. As it turned out, when World War II broke out, Stoner asked if he could sign up. Released from prison, he served heroically in the War. He died about twenty years ago.

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