by Darcia Helle
August 15th of this year marks the 100th anniversary of the most gruesome mass murder Wisconsin has ever seen. The story has all the makings of a New York Times bestseller or blockbuster movie. We have the wealthy and world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had the sense of entitlement that often accompanies being born into a respected and prestigious family. We have a torrid love affair, the ensuing scandal, and, of course, the crazed killer.
The roots of this tragedy go back to Chicago, circa 1909. By this time, 42-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright was already well-known as the leader of the “Prairie School” school of architecture. He’d been married to Catherine Tobin for 20 years and they had six children together. His life was, on the surface, idyllic. But Wright did the unthinkable; he fell in love with a client’s wife. Her name was Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and their affair rocked Chicago society.
Wright abandoned his wife and children, fleeing to Europe with his mistress and her two children, John and Martha. Not wanting to face the scandal back in Chicago, but wanting to return to the US, Wright decided to build a home on his maternal family’s land in Wisconsin. This new home was a sprawling one-story estate with multiple surrounding buildings, situated on 31.5 acres of land. And, like all proper estates, this one had a name. Because the estate sat on the brow of a hill, leaving the top of the hill unencumbered, Wright called it Taliesin, meaning “shining brow”.
In 1911, Wright, Borthwick — who by then had dropped her married name — and her two children quietly moved to Taliesin. Eventually the press discovered their presence, but the ensuing frenzy came and went. Wright and his new family then settled into a routine, with him back at work and Borthwick caring for the children and watching over the home. Their household staff included Julian and Gertrude Carlton, a married couple from Barbados. Gertrude did the cooking, while Julian filled a variety of roles from handyman to butler. Julian was considered well-educated and likable, though beneath that façade he apparently hid something dark and vicious.
On August 15, 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago on business. Mamah Borthwick had a house full of staff and workers, including a carpenter and his 13-year-old son. That afternoon, per family custom, Julian served dinner to the men in a separate room reserved for workers. Mamah and her two children ate on the veranda. As the men were eating, Julian entered the worker’s room and asked William Weston, the carpenter, for permission to get some gasoline in order to clean a rug. Weston gave his consent.
In retrospect, it was strange that Julian Carlton bothered to seek permission to get some gas. From this point on, the facts are fuzzy, but the order of events following his peculiar request seem to be as follows:
Julian, hatchet in hand, went to the veranda where Mamah and her two children were eating lunch. Catching them completely off guard, he first swung at Mamah Borthwick, killing her with a single blow to her face as she sat in her chair. Julian then turned to John, aged 11, quite literally hacking into the child before he had a chance to move. Martha, aged 9, tried to run, but Julian easily caught and killed her. He then poured the gasoline over their bodies and lit them on fire.
Julian took his hatchet and the rest of his gasoline back to where the men were dining. He poured the gasoline under the door and set the room ablaze. The room erupted in flames. One of the workers, Herbert Fritz, happened to be by the window, and was able to break it and dive out. This caught Julian unprepared and Fritz was able to escape. He broke his arm in the fall and his clothes were on fire, so he rolled down a hill to extinguish the flames which saved his life.
Emil Brodelle came next, but this time Julian was ready and he swung his hatchet taking his life. William Weston and his son Ernest then fled the flames straight into Julian’s bloody blade. Julian struck William as he launched himself through the window. William stumbled, then got to his feet and ran across the courtyard. Julian raced after him, striking him with the hatchet a second time. Weston crumbled to the ground and, likely thinking he was dead, Julian left him and returned to his carnage.
David Lindblom got past Julian with a nasty but non-fatal blow to the back of his head with the blunt edge of the hatchet. He was not so fortunate in escaping the fire. Despite Lindblom’s severe burns, he and William Weston managed to run to a neighboring farmhouse a half-mile down the road to call for help. Lindblom remained at the neighbor’s home, while Weston returned to the Wright’s estate to help the fire brigade extinguish the flames. The efforts, though, were futile. In less than three hours, most of Taliesin’s main house was reduced to ash.
In all, seven people lost their lives at Julian Carlton’s hands. They were: Mamah Borthwick, John and Martha Cheney, Emil Brodelle, Thomas Brunker, Ernest Weston, and David Lindblom, who later died as a result of the burns. Only William Weston and Herbert Fritz managed to survive the ordeal.
Hours after the fire, Julian Carlton was found hiding in the basement’s fireproof furnace. He’d swallowed muriatic acid (household name for hydrochloric acid) in a failed suicide attempt. An angry mob attempted to lynch him, but the police intervened and safely transferred him to county jail. Over the following two months, Julian starved himself to death. He refused to talk or explain his actions, and died without ever offering a reason for the brutal murders.
Gertrude Carlton was found in a nearby field that fateful day, apparently unaware of her husband’s intentions. She was taken into custody, but released shortly afterward with $7 and a train ticket to Chicago.
Survivors don’t offer us much in the way of insight. Later testimony stated Julian Carlton had once accused everyone in the Wright household of “picking on him”. One theory is that Julian’s primary intent was to murder Emil Brodelle, who had called him a “black son-of-a-bitch” just days before the massacre. Some claimed Julian had a disagreement with Mamah Borthwick and she’d fired him, giving him two weeks’ notice. Others said his wife Gertrude wanted to return to Chicago, and so he’d given notice on his own.
Whatever the truth is, we do know that Julian had been showing signs of psychological disarray. Gertrude stated that he’d been agitated and paranoid in the days leading up to the murders. He’d been acting strangely, staring out the window long into the night and sleeping with his hatchet beside the bed. Sadly, either no one tried or no one was able to intervene before his mind snapped and he went on his brief but gruesome rampage.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s grief struck deep. He could not bear to hold a funeral for Mamah Borthwick, but he did fund and attend services for all his employees. Angry about the hurtful gossip that had followed them throughout their relationship, Wright made a final tribute to the woman he loved in a letter he addressed “To My Neighbors”. It reads, in part:
Mamah and I have had our struggles, our differences, our moments of jealous fear for our ideals of each other—they are not lacking in any close human relationships—but they served only to bind us more closely together. We were more than merely happy even when momentarily miserable. And she was true as only a woman who loves know the meaning of the word. Her soul has entered me and it shall not be lost.
For months afterward, Wright suffered from conversion disorder, which is a psychological disorder thought to be brought on by severe stress. His symptoms included insomnia, weight loss, and temporary blindness. His sister, Jane Porter, took care of him during this time. As we know, Frank Lloyd Wright eventually recovered and continued on with his career, and came to be known as the most famous architect in American history. Julian Carlton, however, forever altered the course of his life, separating him forever from his dear Mamah.
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Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
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