He is famed worldwide for his architectural genius, but the grisly story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s murder mansion and his lost love have become buried in history. Until now.
Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s creative legacy includes landmark buildings like the New York Guggenheim. Over his long career, he designed over 1000 structures and saw over 500 built into reality. It was in one of Wright’s magnificent structures that a deadly drama was to unfold. The house, Taliesin, was the Wisconsin hideaway of Wright and his lover Martha ‘Mamah’ Borthwick.
The stone building is perched on the brow of a hill within a 600-acre estate. The design is typical of Wright’s aesthetic. Taliesin was dubbed “Love Cottage” by the journalists that hounded the couple about their affair. Wright had begun building Taliesin, named after a bard of the 6th century, in 1911 after he and Borthwick returned from a scandalous adventure in Europe. Scandalous because at that time both Wright and Borthwick were married and had children with other people. The pair had begun their love affair years earlier after Borthwick’s husband Edwin Cheney commissioned Wright to design a house.
Borthwick was an educated and modern woman with a BA and an MA from Michigan University. She was a translator who would go on to befriend and translate on behalf of one of history’s most noted feminist writers, Ellen Key. It is not clear if Martha and John, Borthwick’s two children from her marriage to Cheney, were living at Taliesin or visiting their now-divorced mother. Either way, they were with her on that fateful afternoon at Taliesin.
It was August 15th, 1914, Wright was away working. Oblivious to the horrors that were unfolding at his home in Wisconsin. It had been an unusually hot summer and Borthwick and her two young children were taking their lunch outside on the terrace overlooking the sprawling fields and trees below. On the screened terrace the mother and her family enjoyed a welcome breeze whilst lunch was served by estate worker Julien Carlton.
Carlton and his wife Gertrude had been working at Taliesin for much of the season. Thought to be originally from Barbados, Gertrude cooked for the family and workers at the estate whilst Carlton helped with housework and small repair jobs. That day, Carlton also served the Wright’s workmen who were dining together in another part of the large house. Gertrude would later tell the police that her husband had sent her home when her cooking was completed. She denied any knowledge of Carton’s plan.
After his wife had left, Carlton fetched gasoline and an axe from amongst the tools and materials of the laborers. Without warning, he attacked Borthwick with the axe. Killing her with his deadly blows. Terrified, the youngest child 8-year old Martha fled as Carlton, having now turned his attention to her 12-year-old brother, continued his attack. Carlton caught Martha and killed her as he had her sibling and mother. Using the gasoline to then set them all on fire.
So large was Taliesin that none of the laborers or draftsmen inside the house heard the screams of the terrified children. They too were taken unaware when Carlton poured the remaining gasoline under the locked door of their dining room and set it alight. The men were trapped, amongst them was the young son of one of the draughtsmen. Some of the men tried to break out through a window. Despite his clothes being on fire, Herbert Fritz managed to escape the burning room. The window through which he fled dropped him onto a hill which helped him put out the flames on his body as he rolled down and away as quickly as he could.
Carlton, realizing that his would-be victims could escape, positioned himself below the window catching the men with blows from his axe. Only three people managed to escape that day. Fritz and his colleagues David Lindblom and Billy Weston (Lindblom later succumbed to his injuries and died). Weston’s son, just 13-years-old, perished along with three other men at Carlton’s hands.
The surviving men managed to raise the alarm and bring help to Taliesin. Carlton had fled but was later tracked down by the police. He had drunk a bottle of acid and had hidden in a building on the estate. He was alive but never gave any reason for his actions. Seven weeks after the murders at Taliesin, Carlton died of starvation.
About the author: In addition to her role as a professional writer at UK Writings, Beatrix Potter also enjoys researching historical mysteries and writing for educational websites. She is an accomplished linguistics expert.
- BBC. The Life of Taliesin the Bard. BBC Wales History. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/myths_taliesin.shtml
- Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (2019, July 8) About Frank Lloyd Wright. The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Retrieved from https://franklloydwright.org/frank-lloyd-wright/
- Klein, C. (2019, Jan 29) The Massacre at Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Love Cottage”. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/the-massacre-at-frank-lloyd-wrights-love-cottage
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- TODAY’S TMJ4. (2014, May 14) Taliesin mass murder: 100 years later. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeLgtq4KXmo
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