Drennan's book sheds more light on multiple murders at Wright's Taliesin

Drennan's book sheds more light on multiple murders at Wright's Taliesin


I went to college in Wisconsin and one of the big tourist attractions in the state is Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal home, Taliesin, in Spring Green.  It’s quintessential Wright, boxes on top of boxes in his iconic “prairie house” style, and anyone who sees it recognizes it as Wright's design.  What most people don’t know, and what most Wright scholars inexplicably skip over in his biography, shaped the rest of Wright’s life and career—seven Wright-affiliated people were killed at at Taliesin in 1914.  William R. Drennan details the events that led to the deaths in his 2008 book, “Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders”.

By Christmas 1911, Wright had left his first wife and moved with his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, to their new home, Taliesin. Wright met Cheney when she and her husband, Edwin, were his clients.  The affair caused scandal in Chicago, Wisconsin and across the country, especially when the unmarried pair moved in together.

In August of 1914, tragedy struck. Wright’s recently-hired, Barbados-bred manservant, Julian Carlton served dinner to the people of the house and then asked the foreman of the house for some gasoline.  With it, he set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin.  As the people of the house tried to escape the fire through a window in the living room, Carlton hit them with an axe.

In all, Carlton murdered seven people and destroyed much of the Taliesin home. To this day, the Taliesin event is still the largest mass murder ever perpretrated in Wisconsin. Mamah and her two children, John and Marth were killed, along with caretakers of the house, foreman Thomas Brunker, draftsman Emil Brodelle, landscaper David Lindblom and the carpenter’s son, Ernest Weston.  

Carlton survived the fire, despite attempts to kill himself by swallowing acid. He was almost lynched on the spot. Carlton died seven weeks later of starvation, despite medical attention, and never gave a concrete reason for committing the murders.  Carlton’s wife Gertrude also survived, but denied any knowledge of her husband’s plans.

Wright was in Chicago on business the night of the murders.  Along with Bothwick Cheney’s husband, Edwin, Wright returned to Taliesin to bury Mamah in the graveyard of the nearby Unity Church. Edwin returned to bury his children.  Soon after, Wright published a letter in the Spring Green paper thanking the community for its support, but also saying that he would not leave the area, despite the murders and his bad reputation.

Wright was true to his word. He rebuilt Taliesin in memory of Mamah, naming it Taliesin II. Taliesin II caught fire in 1925, so the house that stands on the spot today is offically Taliesin III.

Surprisingly, biographers of Wright have largely ignored this pivotal event in his life. In this book, Drennan talks about Wright’s scandalous love affair with Mamh Cheney and how Taliesin was built as a “love cottage” for Mamah and himself, despite  the pair being married to others at the time of the house's construction.  Drennan was particularly interested in positing theories about why Carlton would commit such a horrific crime, seemingly out of the blue.  In addition to being a murder mystery,  Drennan creates a portrait of Wright and his unconventional and controversial life choices.

This pivotal event is long past due examination from scholars and Wright biographers, so Drennan's book fills a welcome gap in Wright histories.

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