The Terrible Attack On Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home

“If anyone around there ever did [me] any dirt [I] would send him to hell in a minute.” —Threats made by Julian Carlton a week or two before Taliesin burned

In A Nutshell

Built in Wisconsin, Taliesin was home to Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha Borthwick. On the outside, the house was an architectural wonder. On the inside, something was very wrong, especially with Julian Carlton. The household servant, Carlton mysteriously snapped and, one day in 1914, went on a rampage straight out of a horror movie.

The Whole Bushel

Think of a famous architect. Who popped into your mind? Chances are good you thought of Frank Lloyd Wright, the influential American designer who created wonders like the famous Fallingwater house and the Guggenheim Museum. The man revolutionized 20th-century architecture, but while he’s well known for his amazing achievements, there are several dark footnotes in the man’s life . . . like The Shining-esque attack on his Wisconsin home.

The date was September 15, 1914. The setting was Taliesin, Wright’s house in Spring Green. A tribute to all his architectural ideas, Taliesin was also home to Wright’s mistress, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick, and her two children. There was also a small staff that included 30-year-old Julian Carlton and his wife, Gertrude. Originally from Barbados, Carlton waited at table and took care of the house when it fell into disrepair. However, there was something a bit off about the servant. Several people described him as hotheaded, and his wife was freaked out when he started sleeping with a hatchet next to the bed. (That’s never a good sign.)

What exactly caused Carlton to go full-out Jack Nicholson is a mystery, but some believe Borthwick might’ve intended to fire him. Perhaps she let him know in advance, and something just snapped inside the man’s head. Adding to the mystery, hours before the tragedy, Borthwick sent Wright (who was out of town) an alarming telegram that read, “Come as quickly as you possibly can. Something terrible has happened.”

Unfortunately, Wright didn’t show up in time.

That night, Borthwick and her children were eating in a screened porch while six other people were eating in the dining room. Everything seemed relatively normal. The food was fine, people were chatting, and Carlton had just finished serving everyone . . . when he bolted the dining room doors and started soaking the house in gasoline. That’s when he lit a match and set the house on fire.

As the flames spread, Carlton told his wife to get out, grabbed his hatchet, and ran to the porch, bringing his weapon down hard into Mamah Borthwick’s brains. Next, he turned on the children, swinging the hatchet again and again. When he was finished with the Borthwicks, he stormed outside and waited for the rest of his victims to jump through the dining room windows. Whenever someone tried to escape from the flames, Carlton was there, hatchet at the ready.

Only two people managed to get away from Taliesin before the house burned to the ground. When a posse finally arrived to track down the murderer, they found Carlton hiding in the basement. He’d tried to commit suicide by swallowing muriatic acid, but the chemicals hadn’t done the trick. But Carlton was a determined kind of guy. Seven weeks later, the servant starved himself to death in his jail cell, taking his motives and his secrets to the grave. As for Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect was totally devastated, and the only way he could cope was to rebuild Taliesin in Martha Borthwhick’s honor. (The photo above is of the original Taliesin building before the fire.)

Show Me The Proof

Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, by Meryle Secrest
BBC News: Mystery of the murders at Taliesin