The Taliesin Murders

It's still considered to be the single worst mass murder in Wisconsin's history.

When eminent architect, Frank Lloyd Wright built his new home near Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1911, he named it Taliesin after the famed Welsh bard (his winter home, Taliesin West was in Arizona).  In designing the elaborate summer house, Wright intended it to be a showcase for his architectural ideas as well as a refuge from personal problems in his life.  His first marriage had ended in 1909 due to his affair with Martha "Mamah" Borthwick (who had once been a client along with her husband, Edwin Cheney).  When Borthwick and Wright both decided to leave their spouses and go to Europe together, it triggered a major scandal (especially since Wright was still married to his wife, Catherine).  After they returned from Europe and moved into Taliesin together, both Wright and Borthwick were condemned for their notorious living arrangements (Borthwick's two children had accompanied her to Wisconsin).  The unhappy lovers were shunned by "polite" society and even denounced in newspaper editorials around the country (it was a less tolerant era then).  

Despite knowing how they were viewed by the public, both Borthwick and Wright managed to settle into a relatively peaceful life together.  Although Wright's career had been badly affected by the scandal (he wouldn't get another major commission until 1916), Mamah Borthwick managed to keep herself busy with her literary work and her feminism.  The scandal might well have died down in time and the two of them 51jcr9EtNuL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1] had hoped to marry eventually once Catherine Wright granted her husband a divorce,

Except for Julian Carlton...

A thirty-year old Barbados native, Carlton and his wife Gertrude were hired as servants in the summer of 1914 on the recommendation of one of Wright's friends.  Julian Carlton served as a butler and general handyman and his wife was the family cook.  While he was generally described as mild-mannered, later witnesses would report that they had seen the butler lash out in anger on a few occasions.  Although Carlton and his wife had only been working at Taliesin for a few weeks, this was long enough for Mamah Borthwick to develop a dislike for him. As well, there was some definite racial overtones to how the Carltons were treated by some of the guests and staff.  When draftsman Emil Brodelle got into a confrontation with Carlton, he reported called the butler a "Black son of a bitch". Given the events that followed, Carlton apparently remembered this insult very well. 

For whatever reason, the Carltons gave their two weeks notice by early August (there were some indications that Borthwick had asked them to leave).  Carlton's wife Gertrude would later report that her husband had begun acting strangely (including sleeping with an axe next to his bed).  By the morning of August 15, 1914, (while Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago on business), Mamah Borthwick sent Wright a telegram asking him to "Come as quickly as you can.  Something terrible has happened".  He didn't receive the telegram until later in the evening and, by then, all Hell had broken loose back home.

The day began innocently enough with Mamah Borthwick and her children sitting at a screened-in porch eating lunch.  At the same time, a group of Wright's employees had gathered around the table in the adjoining dining room,  They included the Taliesin foreman, Thomas Brunker,  carpenter Billy Weston and his thirteen-year old son Ernest, draftsmen Herbert Fritz and Emil Brodelle, and landscape designer David Lindblom.  As they discussed business, Julian Carlton locked all but one of the dining room doors and windows.  After ordering his wife to leave the house, he poured petrol under the dining room doors and set fire to that wing of Taliesin.  Once the fire got started, Carlton ran into the porch area and killed Mamah Borthwick and her son with his axe while they were sitting for lunch.  Martha Cheney, Mamah's daughter,attempted to get away but Carlton quickly caught up with her.  When the others attempted to escape the fire by climbing out the dining room windows, Carlton was waiting for them.  Of all the occupants of the dining room, only Billy Weston and Herbert Fritz managed to survive and raise an alarm.  The other victims of Carlton's rampage (including Mamah Borthwick and her two children) died at the scene while Ernest Weston and David Lindblom died later in hospital.

Dozens of nearby farmers gathered to fight the blaze.  Although Carlton had disappeared from the scene, the sheriff set up a posse that tracked him to where he was hiding in the basement furnace room.  While Carlton attempted suicide by swallowing muriatic acid, the posse managed to get him to the Dodgeville jail (some bystanders wanted to lynch him on the spot).  Although Julian Carlton made several court appearances, the 30-year old Barbados immigrant refused to say why he committed the murders (although he hinted that Emil Brodelle had been the true target for his insult).  Despite medical attention, he died of starvation seven weeks after the murders.  Gertrude Carlton survived the fire by escaping through the basement.  She would later deny any knowledge of why her husband had committed the murders.

Arriving on the scene of the murders on the night of August 15, Frank Lloyd Wright was horrified by the news of the deaths.  As he later described in his autobiography, it was a "devastating scene of horror" from which he never fully recovered.  As it was, he was fortunate to be away that day since Carlton would have almost certainly killed him as well.  He rebuilt the living quarters at Taliesin (which he named Taliesin II).  Mamah Borthwick was buried on the grounds in an unmarked grave (Wright justified this by saying that "All I had left to show for the struggle for freedom of the five years past that had swept most of my former life away had now been swept away. Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?").  He later added a simple tombstone.

So what motivated Julian Carlton to commit the murders?  Despite various theories being advanced (including the suggestion that Mamah Borthwick and her children had been attacked over her "immoral" lifestyle), the true explanation will never be known.  The Taliesin estate is now the property of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation which is maintaining the property (it has been declared a national historical landmark).  The Foundation maintains regular tours of Taliesin where visitors can develop an appreciation of Frank Lloyd Wright's life and work.  While no physical traces remain of that day of horror so long ago, the memory of those brutal murders still remains. 


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