Taliesin Massacre: The Bloody History of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home

The Taliesin Massacre is the largest single incident of mass-murder in Wisconsin, and it took place at famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home. In 1914, a disgruntled employee stalked the halls of Taliesin with a hatchet and a can of gasoline, hacking and burning his way through seven victims. Among them were Wright’s mistress and her children. Today, Taliesin is a popular travel destination, with tours of the beautiful Prairie style house and estate. The scars of the massacre may no longer be visible, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. 

Nestled among the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area is the home of celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The rugged landscape was missed by the glaciers that flattened surrounding regions during the last ice age, leaving the ancient, natural formations of forested ridges, rocky bluffs, and river valleys untouched.

Wright’s Welsh ancestors settled there in the 1800s, and Wright spent his childhood summers there working on his uncle’s farm. He lived and went to school in Madison, but he regarded the Jones Valley, named after his mother’s family (the Lloyd Jones clan) as his home.

Later in life, when Wright needed a new place to live where he and his mistress would be sheltered from the judgmental eyes of the public and the media, it was there, where his noted connection with nature first began, that Wright decided to build his ill-fated new home.

The story of the bloody massacre at Taliesin began years earlier.

Taliesin in Spring Green, WI

Taliesin in Spring Green, WI – Photo by Keith Ewing

Soul Mates

By the turn of the century Frank Lloyd Wright had already established an international reputation as an architectural genius. Like most creatives, he was also noted to be a bit eccentric.

Though renowned for his bungalows and churches, as the Kokomo Daily Tribune reported on August 3rd, 1910, Wright had created some “occasional freakish styles” such as a residence built around a large tree, and another without windows, that “caused comment.”

The article also noted that Wright designed his wife’s gowns, and allowed his children to pick their own names at the age of six.

Architect and Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

In 1903, Wright was living in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife Catherine and their children. He was designing a house for electrical engineer Edwin Cheney when passion began to stir between him and Cheney’s wife.

Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney was an educated woman, holding Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Michigan. She was an early feminist responsible for translating the works of Swedish writer Ellen Key to English. Wright viewed her as an intellectual equal, as well as his soul mate.

Catherine and Mamah met through a philanthropic women’s group called The Nineteenth Century Club, of which they were both members. The two couples soon became close friends, and Edwin eventually commissioned Wright to design a new home for the Cheney family.

Over time, it became clear to everyone in town – including Edwin and Catherine – that Frank and Mamah had grown a bit too close.

The couple’s affair soon grew into a massive public scandal, garnering attention from the national media. In 1909, when the couple decided to leave their spouses and start a new life together, they tried to avoid the press by taking trips separately to different destinations, and then meeting discreetly in Florence, Italy.

When the media caught wind of it, they berated the couple, referring to their abandonment of their spouses and families as a “spiritual hegira.” Newspapers suggested Wright should be arrested for immorality.

Frank and Mamah lived together in Europe for a year. Wright studied the local architecture during that time and began sketching ideas for his new studio, while Edwin granted Mamah a divorce. Catherine refused to divorce her husband, telling reporters that she believed he would eventually return to his family.

When it was time to return to the US, the couple knew they would never avoid scandal in Oak Park. Wright had his mother purchase land adjoining her own in Spring Green, putting it in her name rather than his so the media wouldn’t be alerted.

There, Wright built the “shining brow,” as he called it, atop his favorite hill from childhood.

The Love Bungalow

Construction on the couple’s new home was completed in 1911. Wright named the estate after the legendary bard Taliesin of Welsh mythology, who was known for his poetry and prophecy, and had served several kings, including King Arthur.

When locals learned that Wright and his mistress had moved in, the editor of the Spring Green newspaper lambasted Wright for bringing scandal to their community.

Headlines referred to Taliesin derogatorily as Wright’s “love castle” or “love bungalow.”

Despite criticism, Wright and Borthwick lived and worked at Taliesin, though the public opinion did prove burdensome. The negative publicity of the affair made it difficult for Wright to find work. He did complete several notable projects during that time, however, including the Midway Gardens and the Avery Coonley Playhouse.

Borthwick translated four of Ellen Kay’s books during this time. Edwin maintained custody of their two children, John and Martha, though they would occasionally come to visit.

Taliesin also housed Wright’s studio staff, servants and groundskeepers.

Life was good at Taliesin for the next several years, but the clandestine love nest was soon to become a slaughterhouse.

The Massacre

Wright hired a new chef for the summer of 1914. Julian Carlton, an Afro-Caribbean man from Barbados, was recommended to Wright by John Vogelsong, Jr., the caterer of the Midway Gardens project which Wright was still working on. Vogelsong’s parents had previously employed Carlton and his wife Gertrude in their Chicago home.

Carlton was an exemplary employee for a while, but soon began to exhibit increasingly paranoid behaviors and engaged in arguments with other staff. When Talisein residents became concerned over seeing Carlton staring out his window late at night with a butcher knife in his hand, it was time for something to be done.

The only known photo of Taliesin murderer Julian Carlton

Photo of Julian Carlton in the Aug. 21, 1914 edition of the Dodgeville Chronicle

Wright placed an ad for a new chef and gave Carlton notice that his last day would be August 15th. The last straw seems to have been several altercations between Carlton and draftsman Emil Brodelle in the days leading up to Carlton’s final day.

On the 12th, Brodelle had called Carlton a “black son-of-a-bitch” for failing to follow an order. 

The next incident two days later escalated even further.

“We had an altercation on Saturday morning during which Brodelle abused me for more than a half hour,” Carlton explained later. “I told him then that I would ‘get him,’ and I waited for my chances.”

On August 15th, Wright was in Chicago completing Midway Gardens. Borthwick’s children Martha, age 9, and John, 11, were visiting from Illinois.

It was Carlton’s final day at Taliesin, and while his wife packed and prepared to leave, he had other plans.

At noon, he knew, Borthwick and her children would be awaiting lunch in the residential wing on the opposite end of the complex from where the staff ate, making them easy targets. Carlton grabbed a shingling hatchet and attacked them first.

Taliesin Massacre illustration depicts Julian Carlton attacking Martha Borthwick

Illustration of the Taliesin Massacre depicts Julian Carlton attacking Martha Borthwick

He landed several mortal head blows to both Mamah and John where they sat at the table. Young Martha ran, but Carlton caught up to her in the courtyard and buried the hatchet in her, as well.

Afterwards, he doused the bodies with gasoline and put a match to them.

Carlton then went after the other six Taliesin residents. He served them soup in the dining room as he normally would, and while they were distracted with lunch he locked the entrance, poured gas under the door, and set it ablaze.

In the ensuing panic, Carlton stalked them with the hatchet. Emil Brodell, foreman Thomas Brunker, gardener David Lindblom, and 13-year-old Ernest Weston, son of Wright’s carpenter William Weston, all died from severe burns and cuts to the head and neck.

The elder Weston and draftsman Herbert Fritz escaped the house and called for help. Weston stayed behind to help put out the fire with the area farmers who soon arrived to lend a hand. Preacher Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a relative of Wright’s from the Unity Chapel nearby, along with local sheriffs, assembled a posse to track Carlton down.

They found him hiding inside the house, waiting out the blaze in a fireproof furnace chamber. He brought with him a vial of hydrochloric acid so he could commit suicide if the heat from the fire became unbearable inside the chamber.

Carlton had already ingested the acid by the time they found him. It badly burned his esophagus, but he was still alive. He was taken into custody and transported to the Dodgeville jail, where he received medical treatment. His throat was too badly damaged, and despite treatment, Carlton died seven weeks later of starvation before he could stand trial.

“He had refused to eat since his arrest following the tragedy,” The Bemidji Daily Pioneer reported on October 9, 1914. “He was unconscious at the end and during his entire time in the jail made no statement as to his reasons for his crime.”

Taliesin murders

Article from the Bisbee Daily Review (Arizona)

Wright and Cheney both took a train back to Taliesin that night, arriving to find what Wright later described in his autobiography as a “devastating scene of horror.”

Cheney gathered the mutilated bodies of his children and left.

“In his grief, Wright refused to let the undertaker touch the body of the woman he had loved,” Ken Burns wrote for Vanity Fair in 1998. “Instead, he had his own carpenters fashion a simple wooden box for her. There was no funeral either. The coffin was placed on a plain farm wagon, covered with flowers, and drawn by horses. Wright’s son John and two cousins helped him bury her in the little cemetery behind his mother’s family chapel.”

Wright filled in Martha’s grave himself in the cemetery at Unity Chapel, and left it unmarked because he couldn’t bear to be reminded of her loss.

“Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?” he said.

Unity Chapel Cemetery

Unity Chapel Cemetery where Martha Borthwick is buried

Of Graves and Jealous Wives

Upon hearing of Martha’s death, artist Maude “Miriam” Noel sent her condolences to Wright. Within weeks, the two became involved. When Catherine, Wright’s first wife, finally granted him a  divorce in 1922, he waited the required year and then married Miriam.

He rebuilt Taliesin, but much of the house was once again destroyed by fire in 1925. This time it was believed to have been caused by an electrical surge during a storm through the newly installed telephone lines. He rebuilt it again, and continued to call it home.

Miriam had a morphine addiction, and their relationship was rocky. Wright had hoped the marriage would save their friendship, but it only made things worse. She left Taliesin in the spring of 1924. Just a few months later, Wright met Russian dancer Olga Ivanova Milanov Hinzenberg, known as Olgivanna, in Chicago at the Petrograd Ballet, and she soon moved into Taliesin.

Miriam filed for divorce in 1925. She claimed he was cruel and had deserted her. By 1926, with Miriam demanding to live in Talisein, the divorce still had not been settled. She attempted to storm Taliesin and take it by force, though she never got past the front gate. The divorce was finalized in 1927, the same year Mirian was arrested in Madison in the dining room of Hotel Lorain (one of Walter Schroeder‘s properties) for sending an obscene letter to Wright.

Wright and Olgivanna had a daughter and got married in 1928.

Work began on Taliesin West near Scottsdale, Arizona in 1937. It became the winter home for Wright and his students. Wright died there in 1959. In accordance with his wishes, his body was transported back to Wisconsin to be buried in the Unity Chapel Cemetery where he had said goodbye to Mamah many years earlier. His body, dressed in a light tan suit along with his trademark flowing cape and pork pie hat, lay in state in the Taliesin living room while his friends and family paid their respects.

“His face was pale but seemed composed,” the Wisconsin State Journal wrote, “and every familiar line of the features known throughout the world seemed sharply etched against the orange-red background of the drapery.”

Afterwards, the casket was loaded onto a wagon and pulled by two horses on a slow procession to Unity Chapel.

“His wife, Olgivanna, his daughter Iovanna, and about 50 close friends made the slow, solemn, almost hour-long march to the chapel,” funeral director John H. Sime of Sime wrote. “As the procession left Taliesin, the bell at the chapel began tolling and continued until the procession reached there.”

Wright remained there until 1985 when Olgivanna died in Arizona. According to her final wishes, Wright was exhumed, cremated, and sent back to Arizona to be mixed with hers and buried and Taliesin West. Possibly out of spite, she also had Martha’s grave marked.

Grave of Mamah Borthwick in Unity Chapel Cemetery

Grave of Mamah Borthwick in Unity Chapel Cemetery

“Mamah, buried nearby, was given a stone marker reading ‘Mamah Borthwick CHENEY’ emphatically restoring to her the married name she had renounced when she began to live with Frank Lloyd Wright,” Ron McCrea wrote in Building Taliesin.

In 2009, a man named John Ottenheimer replaced the stone with a new marker that simply read “Mamah Borthwick.” But it didn’t last long.

“Ottenheimer’s gravestone plan was foiled when a great-grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Natof, of Chicago, happened to see the gravestone in his family’s private cemetery,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported. “He didn’t know where it came from, but he knew it was not permitted.”

The cemetery board decided to restore the original marker.

Ghosts of Taliesin

In the hours after the attack, while Taliesin still smoldered, rescue workers carried the dead or dying victims of Carlton’s carnage to a cottage up the hill called Tan-y-Deri, where Wright’s sister lived. Today, there are numerous accounts of strange happenings there. Witnesses have reportedly seen lights flashing on and off, windows opening and closing by themselves, slamming doors, and other phenomena. These unexplained events are often accompanied by phantom smells of smoke and gas, as well as the voices of children.

In addition, the apparition of a distraught woman in a white gown has been encountered in Taliesin throughout the years.

It seems Mamah, her children, and the other victims of the massacre at Wright’s home and studio may still linger more than 100 years after their lives came to a tragic and violent end.

Have you had a ghostly encounter at Taliesin? Share your story in the comments below or send us a message.

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