In A Nutshell
In 1914, celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s grand estate, Taliesin, was burnt to the ground by a servant named Julian Carlton. As the building burned, Carlton attacked the occupants with an axe, murdering seven. To this day, no one knows why.
The Whole Bushel
Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s foremost architect, perhaps best known for the Fallingwater estate. He also had what might be politely called a “wandering eye,” despite a long marriage and six children. In 1903, while designing a house, he began carrying on with the wife of his client, Mamah Cheney. Wright’s wife, Kitty, refused him a divorce, figuring that his infatuation with Cheney would dry up as it had with all the previous women he’d dallied around with. To escape the absolute scandal that the affair had lit, Wright and Cheney lived in Europe for some time. Eventually, they moved back to America, staying in Wright’s secluded Wisconsin estate, Taliesin (named after a medieval Welsh poet).
On August 14, 1914, Taliesin was struck by unimaginable carnage. While members of the household were having lunch, newly hired servant Julian Carlton bolted the doors, drenched the floors in gasoline, and set the building ablaze. In the chaos, Carlton materialized with an axe, killing seven, including Mamah and her two children, Martha (age nine) and John (age 12). When rescuers arrived, they found Carlton nearby, foaming at the mouth from swallowing hydrochloric acid in a failed suicide bid. He was nearly lynched at the scene, but was eventually brought to jail.
Wright, who’d been away on business in Chicago, returned home the next day to what he would describe as a “devastating scene of horror.” Carlton, an immigrant from Barbados, never revealed his motive. There were theories that perhaps the couple “living in sin” offended his strict Christian sensibilities. But murdering children and attempting suicide would seem like extreme solutions. Frank Lloyd Wright never would get any answers to the mystery behind Carlton’s rampage. The servant made a few court appearances, but declined to say what inspired his bloodlust. He starved to death a few weeks later.
Although Taliesin was largely destroyed by the fire, Wright vowed to rebuild it as a tribute to his beloved Mamah. He succeeded, but bizarrely enough, Taliesin II would also burn to the ground, apparently the result of an electrical surge. Taliesin III stands to this day. Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959, aged 91.