Inside the Fiery Massacre at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Estate

One day in 1914, with no warning and for no discernible reason, seven people were murdered at the architect’s Wisconsin home and studio, and the house was burned to the ground.

Library of Congress

When it comes to the greatest American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s name usually tops the list. He might best be known for his masterpieces such as Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, but true architecture buffs also revere his famous home situated on a rolling hill in Spring Green, Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive east of Madison.

Named Taliesin, which in Welsh means “shining brow,” Wright’s sprawling home and studio is a pilgrimage site for design enthusiasts. But many of its visitors might not be aware that they’re also touring the location of one of the grisliest mass murders in Wisconsin history—a tidbit that’s often glazed over when studying Wright’s life and work.

The dramatic event that claimed seven victims, including Wright’s lover, took place on August 15, 1914. But the story begins quite a few years earlier.

Born in 1867 into the prominent Welsh Lloyd Jones family in Wisconsin through his mother’s side, Wright grew up in Madison before moving to Chicago to pursue work as an architect. There he landed jobs first with Joseph Lyman Silsbee, then with the great Louis Sullivan, who favored Wright over his other apprentices. But eventually sensing the impending decline of the master architect, Wright opened his own studio in 1893, becoming one of the most popular architects in Chicago. And all the while he was pursuing his career, Wright also became a family man, marrying Catherine Lee “Kitty” Tobin, with whom he had six children.

Wright’s seemingly charmed life began to unravel, if only for a short time, after he accepted a commission from his neighbor Edwin H. Cheney. It wasn't long before the architect struck up a romantic relationship with Cheney’s wife, Mamah Borthwick. Soon thereafter, the adulterous lovers abandoned their respective partners and children—and Wright his blossoming practice—and spent a whirlwind year in Europe together. When they returned to Chicago, the couple was spurned by society, so they retreated to Wright’s native Wisconsin, where he purchased land near his mother’s family and built what would become his masterpiece of a home, and, eventually, a murder site.

Set on 800 acres, the Taliesin estate comprises a number of structures, including the main house (also named Taliesin), an architecture school (formerly the Hillside Home School, run by Wright’s aunts), various farm buildings, and the house of his sister Jane Porter, which he named Tan-y-Deri. Construction on the estate commenced in 1911, and within the year, Wright and Borthwick moved into their new home. The main house was approximately 12,000 square feet and designed in Wright’s Prairie style—that is, a low, boxy building with a number of horizontal planes and a flat roof—and it included a separate studio for Wright.

The quiet Wisconsin community around Taliesin—dominated by the Wright’s own very religious Lloyd Jones family—were no fans of the sinful Wright and his mistress (Kitty would not grant Wright a divorce, though Cheney did divorce Borthwick). But over time, the furor died down, and the couple, largely left alone, was happy there.

Over the next three years, Wright rebuilt his reputation as an architect, and his duties often called him back to Chicago, where he was on August 15, 1914, working on a project with his son John. Left at Taliesin were Borthwick; her two children from her marriage to Cheney, Martha and John; draftsmen Emil Brodelle and Herbert Fritz; carpenter William Weston and his young son, Ernest; foreman Thomas Brunker; gardener David Lindblom; and two new servants, Julian Carlton and his wife, Gertrude, who had been hired a few months prior.

Accounts of the grisly event vary greatly, as the sensationalist newspapers perhaps went a bit too far with their coverage, embellishing details and creating new narratives based on hearsay. Most of what we know for sure comes from Herbert Fritz, one of only two people to survive the massacre, who gave a detailed statement to the press. The most reasonable sequence of events is detailed in the book Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by scholar William R. Drennan, who pored through the historical record and Taliesin’s original floor plans to produce a logical timeline.

All sources agree that the massacre happened at lunch. Borthwick and her children were seated on a screened terrace, and the rest of the workers were dining separately in a sitting room. According to Drennan, Julian Carlton served Borthwick her lunch, then stood behind her and cleaved open her skull with an ax. He then turned his blade on her son. It was likely that these two died immediately. Little Martha Cheney was not so lucky. Carlton bludgeoned her as she ran, but the blows were not fatal. They were, however, incapacitating. In the subsequent fire that consumed the house, she was burned alive.

Upon witnessing what her husband had done, Gertrude Carlton reportedly fled the premises, only to be apprehended by police later on. She was ultimately acquitted of being an accomplice, and thereafter disappeared entirely.

After the first round of slaughter, Carlton went to serve lunch to the men in the sitting room. According to Herbert Fritz’s testimony, the men were in the midst of eating when they noticed liquid flooding into the room from under the door. By the time they realized it was gasoline, Carlton had dropped a match into the puddle, touching off an inferno. He had also bolted the door from the outside, preventing escape.

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Although engulfed in flames, Fritz had the presence of mind to jump out of a window and roll down the hill towards a stream. Brodelle followed. But by that time, Carlton had run around to the window and was waiting with his axe. From his position at the bottom of the hill, Fritz watched helplessly as Carlton split open Brodelle’s skull. Inside the burning house, the remaining men were able to break through the door, but they were not able to evade Carlton’s axe. With all the victims incapacitated (though not necessarily dead) and Taliesin ablaze, Carlton went to hide in the furnace, presumably hoping he’d be able to make an escape later.

Ultimately it was decided that Carlton was mentally ill, given the testimony of his wife, who reported his paranoid behavior in the weeks leading up to the massacre.

Somehow, miraculously, Weston roused his tortured body and joined Fritz, who had climbed back up the hill with burns and a broken arm from his fall. Together they walked a half-mile to the nearest telephone and raised the alarm. With help on the way, Weston returned to Taliesin and attempted to put out the fire, but it was no use. The entire residential wing of Taliesin burned to the ground. Only Wright’s studio remained unscathed.

Eventually, seven people would die at Carlton’s hand, with only Fritz and the senior Weston living to tell the tale. Carlton himself was discovered in the furnace—he failed to perish after swallowing hydrochloric acid in a suicide attempt once he realized escape was impossible. As he was led away by police, he mysteriously uttered, “They’d better let me live if they expect to find out something.” But after seven weeks in jail, his health declined due to starvation (he had ruined his esophagus with acid), and he, too, died, never giving any indication of his motive.

Ultimately it was decided that Carlton was mentally ill, given the testimony of his wife, who reported his paranoid behavior in the weeks leading up to the massacre. But rumors flew—did Wright hire Carlton as a hit man, or did his enemies do so? Was Carlton retaliating for being fired by Borthwick that day, or perhaps seeking revenge on the staff, who reportedly called him a racial slur (the Carltons were black)? We’ll likely never know the truth.

When Wright returned to Taliesin, he buried Borthwick in the graveyard of the family chapel in Spring Green and vowed to rebuild Taliesin in her memory—and he did, using some of the charred rubble from the original home, tweaking his design to make improvements, as he was wont to do. Interestingly, that version of Taliesin, deemed Taliesin II, also burned, though in a decidedly less criminal manner. In 1925, a lightning strike ignited faulty wiring, or so the story goes. Again, Wright’s studio was miraculously spared.

He rebuilt a third time, again using bits of charred rubble from the ruins, and Taliesin III is the structure that stands today. Apparently untroubled about the tragedy that had claimed the first Taliesin, he would go on to live there with two more of his wives, first Maude "Miriam" Noel, whom he met after she sent him a letter of condolence on his loss of Borthwick, and later Olga Ivanovna "Olgivanna" Lazovich Milanoff, for whom he would build Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It is quite possible to tour Taliesin today and have no idea that anything tragic ever happened there, although if you ask the guides at the property, they’ll likely tell you a bit of the tale. (Drennan’s book is available in the gift shop.) And there are physical clues tucked here and there, if you know what to look for. Indeed, evidence of Taliesin’s incendiary past is everywhere, hiding in plain sight, from half-burned pieces of Japanese art salvaged from the ruins of both fires to charred ceiling beams visible through a vent in the hallway that separates the rebuilt living quarters and Wright’s seemingly fireproof studio.