The Taliesin Tragedy

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Nearly 100 years ago today (97 if you’re really splitting hairs), some of the most horrific murders in the history of Wisconsin took place. And they involved none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect.

Wright’s was in the middle of building a home for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wis. He had recently left his wife and six children for Mamah Borthwick (pictured), 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 FLW became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take another 11 years 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,” and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the brutal details: their servant, Julian Carlton, locked Mamah, her children and Taliesin workmen in the house while they were eating lunch, then poured gasoline under the door and set the historic 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.

According to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, nine-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, who had been eating on a porch and not actually in the dining room with the Taliesin workmen. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to the room the workmen were in, locked them in and set fire to the place.

Either way, in the end, eight people died - seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindbolm, groomsman Thomas Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of foreman William Weston.

Julian Carlton didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed acid, which slowly killed him over a period of about seven weeks. Despite being questioned, he never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest that the two-week notice he had recently given wasn’t exactly by choice. Though his wife escaped with her life, she denied having any prior knowledge of his plans.

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 may have ignited something within the telephone wires, sparking something and eventually burning the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot.

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August 15, 2011 - 7:06pm
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