Savage Murder at Taliesin

By Chris Bunton

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most famous architects in the world. He lived and worked between 1867 and 1959. His works have inspired millions, but at the same time, his life had dark tragedies.

I have been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright for quite some time, and try to visit his structures everywhere I travel. This time I got to visit his home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The beauty of the site and the savagery of this tale contrast with each other.

But, let’s go back to where this thread of Frank’s life started.

He was young and working out of his studio in Oak Park, Illinois.

At this time he was taking on commissions from friends, neighbors, and word of mouth assignments. There are huge parts of Oak Park that were designed and built by him.

It was around 1903 that Frank was commissioned to build a house for Edwin Cheney, and his wife Martha Borthwick Cheney, called Mamah by friends.

Frank being an outspoken, commanding individual, could be seen as a charmer. He eventually started having an affair with Mrs. Cheney.

Author Paul Hendrickson sites a memoir by Margaret Belknap Allen, where she states that she saw Frank and Martha making love in the living room of the Cheney house. (Above)

Frank’s wife Catherine said “I can name you a number of prominent women of Oak Park with whom he went automobiling, but those trips were purely business matters,” she said. “Those women were architectural clients, and he told me about every one of them.”

When news of the affair broke it was damaging to Frank Lloyd Wright, but even more so to Martha Borthwick Cheney. The newspapers delighted in speaking of the affair, chasing the couple around and dragging them through whatever mud they could find.

In 1909 Frank and Mrs. Cheney traveled to Europe together where they practiced various intellectual pursuits and tried to hide from the press.

It was in 1911, when Frank decided to return to his family home and build Taliesin. Martha came to live with him there as he worked to rebuild his faltering business.

Taliesin was a working farm. It was also a place where Frank could tryout his various ideas, and show them to clients who came to visit.

As a working farm, there were many farm hands on the site including a man from Barbados, named Julian Carlton. Who sources say, was anything from a handyman, to a cook, to a butler.

It seems that Carlton had a difficult time at Taliesin. The various sources have given many accounts, but none have been clear. What is clear is that he was fired from his job, or was set to be fired very soon.

It was August 15, 1914, while Frank was away in Chicago on business, that Julian Carlton seated Martha Borthwick Cheney and her two small children John 11, and Martha 9 on the dining room porch for lunch.

At the same time the workmen from the farm were seated inside the dining room.

Carlton served Martha and her children soup. He then killed them with a hatchet.

As soon as this was done, he ran to the dining room and set it on fire with gasoline; and then as the workmen tried to escape, Julian chopped them down with the hatchet.

He killed, Emil Brodelle, 26, David Lindblom, 38, Thomas Brunker, 68, and Ernest Westin, 13. William Weston and Herbert Fritz escaped and sought help. Ernest Westin was William Westin’s son.

Frank received a phone call about the fire and was on his way home from Chicago by train, when he ran into Edwin Cheney who was also on his way to Taliesin. Neither man knew the extent of the crime until they reached Spring Green.

Julian Carlton fled into another part of the house and was found hiding behind a furnace. He had tried to commit suicide by drinking acid. Sources, give various types of acids, but it was probably Carbolic Acid, which was a common suicide method of the day. He died 7 weeks later before trial.

The newspapers at the time treated the fire and murder as some sort of retribution from God against the arrogant Frank Lloyd Wright and his adulterous mistress. They treated Martha as though she had it coming to her for her sins.

Taliesin was supposed to be a place of escape for Frank; a utopia where he could build and dream of a better world. But, it became the place of the worst tragedy of his life.

Frank buried Martha at a chapel nearby. Edwin Cheney did not attend the service. He took the bodies of his children and returned to Chicago.

I toured at Taliesin, and asked the tour guide where the crime had taken place exactly. He said “That’s something we really do not like to talk about”. He refused to elaborate further.

But, being undeterred I decided to ask a different tour guide who we happened to run into later. He told me where the dining room and the dining room porch used to be. However, because of the fire at the time of the crime, and a second fire at a later date, along with several design changes the location was no longer the same. These pics show about where the scene occurred. The sources below have pics that show other angles, and pics from the time of the crime.

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Sources and further reading:

Bio: Chris Bunton is a Writer, Blogger and Poet from Southern Illinois.

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Publishing Editor for The Yard: Crime Blog.

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