Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taliesin Massacre - 1914

In the style of Lady Gaga, my piece today is on bloody acts in history….(and Architecture in my case). Most people have heard of Frank Lloyd Wright and know of his architectural achievements to some degree. He does have a darker side to his history.

Known for his Prairie Style, and 'oragnic' Architecture, he became arguably the most famous Architect in America to date. His compound, Taliesin, was the scene of a grisly murder of seven at the hand of a servant hired just weeks prior. Frank Lloyd Wright was not present at the time, but the story is nonetheless a horrific recount of lives lost. In the years after the murder, Frank was silent about the incident, and it is difficult to know exactly what occurred that day.

For a brief background, and set up to the story, Taliesin was Frank Lloyd Wright’s residence in Wisconsin, designed by him. It was also where his school was (and still is) and is a shining example and fine achievement for the Architect. Wright grew up near this plot of land, in which its natural beauty is often attributed to his integration of the landscape with his structures.

In 1913, Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney decided to move in with Wright. She was the wife of Mr. Cheney, a client of FLW. Mr. Wright had a wife and 6 children that he left for her as well. In the early 20th century, this was not socially accepted. It was excused in their case, since he was a celebrity of the time.

Some examples of work by Frank Lloyd Wright:

Falling Water:
Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. residence (of Kaufmann's Dept. Stores)
Ca. 1934 Bear Run, Pa.
(photo from

Guggenheim Museum:

Solomon R. Guggenheim
opened in 1959, New York, New York

(picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Johnson Wax Headquarters:

S.C. Johnson and Son, Inc.
Racine, Wisconsin

(Photo by Jeff Dean , located on Wikimedia Commons)

On August 15 1914, Mrs “Mamah” Borthwick (Cheney), was hosting a lunch for nine at Taliesin; ultimately her last meal. Frank Lloyd Wright was away in Chicago working on a project.

One account says that the brutality started when Julian Carlton, a servant at the estate, asked one of the diners, Mr. Weston for some gas because there was a stain on the carpet. In what must have seemed to be a flash in time, the company, Mrs Borthwick and her two children were in a room ignited with flames. As the guests attempted to jump through glass to escape imminent death by the fire set, they were greeted by an axe wielding Julian, meeting the blade of his weapon.

Another, and perhaps more accurate account, describes Julian attacking Mamah first as she sipped soup, with “her head belching blood”. Robert Drennan’s book, in ‘Death in a Prairie House', recounts the day in gory detail. There is no question of the fire set, nor the outcome of seven lives lost.

No one could escape the dining area because Carlton had also locked the doors. He stood waiting for his victims to escape and one by one took seven of nine to an early death. Two had survived.

Julian left the fiery inferno and victims he killed and left for dead. He was soon found on the grouds nearby, after ingesting acid. He avoided an "on the spot lynching", was treated and survied the poisoning. He later died of starvation seven weeks after the incident. Taliesin was revived and is now a not for profit organization, Taliesin Preservation, Inc.

Julian Carlton

(image from

No One knows the reason for the massacre, not even the killers wife, who was also employed by Wright. His horrific acts will be ever sensationalized and remain a mystery of exactly why he was driven to murder. Speculation swirled around rumors that Carlton felt he was underpaid and/or was driven mad by Frank Lloyd Wright’s affair and co-habitation with his mistress.


(image from


(image from Taliesin Preservation, inc.)

On a MUCH lighter note: Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John Lloyd Wright invented Lincoln Logs the following year in 1916.

(image from


  1. i went to Taliesin two years ago and of course NO mention of this is made during the tour. They say, "now this portion was rebuilt after the 2nd fire (there was an earlier fire at the house.) but they don't add, "when the manservant went nuts and killed FLW's mistress, her 2 children and 4 other of their lunch guests."

    I wonder if "Death in a prairie house" is a better account of it than stupid, "loving frank." i hated that book.

  2. I think that the first fire was the massacre and the second was in the 50's. I could be mistaken on that. I think it is crazy how you rarely hear mention of this AND the facts are very skewed! I guess I won't be reading "Loving Frank". It doesn't seem approriate anyway, since he was known to be an ego maniac who wore a cape. Professor Debs said he met FLW once.

  3. I went there in 2004 and they did mention the massacre.. just saying