One of Wisconsin’s finest landmarks, and arguably the state’s crown jewel, is Taliesin, the sprawling 600-acre estate and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, renowned as history’s greatest architect. Taliesin, in Spring Green, WI, is visited by the thousands every year by those curious to see where the genius did his work, and national landmarks such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum were born.
However, there is another story to Taliesin. The story that the guides really don’t like to talk much about while conducting tours.
Its the story about a sunny, summer day on August 15th, 1914 when nine people sat down for lunch and were subsequently butchered with a hatchet while Taliesin burned to the ground.
Not much is known about the murders today other than who was killed and who killed them. The motive and the specific facts about how they were carried out went to the grave with the murderer, a wandering cook and handyman employed by Wright named Julian Carlton. For decades after Wright’s death, the Taliesin murders were almost forgotten to history as researchers were stymied by Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, who attempted to suppress the tragedy until her death in 1985.
Not until 1998 were the murders brought back into the public light with a piece in a Madison newspaper and the first real comprehensive study of the tragedy was then published in the book “Death in a Prairie House” in 2007, from which the murder scene, described below, is paraphrased.
By 1903, Frank was married and living in Oak Park, IL, just outside of Chicago. His career was well established, his “Prairie-House” architectural style was in high demand, and his wife, Catherine, had bore him 6 children. Frank, however, seemed bored. Rumors flew around Oak Park about his eccentric lifestyle. One woman who seemed to be getting a lot of Frank’s attention was the wife of one his client’s, Mamah Cheney. (May-ma Chee-ny)
Frank had been hired by Mamah’s husband, Edwin to design their new home in Oak Park. It’s unclear as to when the affair actually started, but by 1909 both Frank and Mamah requested divorces. Edwin granted, Catherine did not, holding out that Frank would have a change of heart and return to her. He didn’t.
The Oak Park community was outraged. Frank and Mamah eloped to Europe, where they lived for about a year before the American press tracked them down and blew their cover. Upon their return to Oak Park, they were scorned within and ostracized from the community. It was then that Frank asked his mother to purchase land for him to build a house in his beloved Wisconsin, where he was born and raised, and then borrowed money to begin building it.
The Spring Green community was also well aware of Frank’s less-than-stellar reputation, but he was one of them. His mother and her family still lived in the area. They were more forgiving. Many believed that the home was actually being built for Frank’s mother, Anna, to live in. Another uproar started when they realized it was actually a “love nest” for Frank and his mistress. But by 1914, the commotion died and the lovers were living a quiet life. Frank’s career had picked up again and he was also mentoring apprentices in his Taliesin studio.
On August 15th Frank was not at Taliesin. He was in Chicago on business. Mamah’s children, John (12) and Martha (8) were visiting as they had every summer. The recently hired cooks, apparent immigrants from Barbados, Julian Carlton and his wife, Gertrude, were busy making lunch for the family as well as the draftsmen and laborers in the home.
In the screened-in terrace, Mamah sat down to dine with her children. Julian entered the room and served them soup. As the three began to eat, Julian walked behind Mamah and proceeded to split her skull with one crushing hatchet blow. Twelve-year-old John was next with one blow to his forehead. Martha was able to run…initially. The murderous cook chased her down in the courtyard, applying multiple blows to her head.
Julian then went into the dining area where the 6 others were ready to be served, roughly 80-90 feet down the hall from where he had just murdered Mamah and her children. Thomas Brunker,(66) Billy Weston,(35) his son Ernest,(13) Emil Brodelle,(30) Herbert Fritz,(19) and David Lindblom,(55) had all just been served soup by Julian as well. When Julian walked back out of the room, he bolted the locks, poured gasoline underneath the doors, and lit the room on fire. Within seconds, the trapped men were burning up. Julian then ran around the outside of the house to the window of the dining room. As the men struggled out, he was there to mow them down with his hatchet. He then walked back into the terrace, poured gasoline on the dead bodies of Mamah and John and watched them incinerate.
Frank was notified by phone that night and returned home quickly. In what must’ve been a most awkward train ride, Edwin Cheney rode up along side him.
Julian Carlton was found hiding in the basement on the property. He had swallowed acid in an attempted suicide, was unable to speak or eat, and died of starvation in custody 7 weeks later. In the midst of the attack, Gertrude bailed. There is no evidence to suggest she had any knowledge of or part in the murders. She was released and disappears from history shortly thereafter. Miraculously two of the men, Herbert Fritz and Billy Weston, survived their wounds.
Carlton’s motives to this day remain unknown. He is also a virtual unknown. Although claiming to be from Barbados, his death certificate actually states he’s from Alabama. There are countless mysteries about Julian Carlton and the Taliesin murders which will simply never be known.
Frank Lloyd Wright rebuilt Taliesin and continued living on the property until his death in 1959.
Today, rumors of ghosts at Taliesin are many. Mamah Cheney is said to still be seen on the property, as well as voices of unseen children, and mysterious scents of smoke and gasoline. Maybe these are signs from those who’s lives were taken so swiftly and traumatically on that day, asking for answers to questions that, even over 100 years later, we are still unable to give.
Scott Wittman is a professional Historical Landscape photographer, writer, researcher, and traveler. More of his work can be seen at www.scottwittmanvisual.com.