The Frank Lloyd Wright Ax Murders

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

"Taliesin is really a great example of the later Prairie style. It's where the architecture school is, during the summer session anyway, because Olgivanna, Frankie's third wife...or maybe his fourth, I can't remember, liked to have everybody down at Taliesin West in Arizona in the winter. The students build their own shelters out in the desert and everybody is supposed to learn how to play an instrument."

"Uh, huh. That's neat."

"He built Taliesin for his second wife, who he stole from a client. Of course, she ended up being killed by that ax murderer."

"Wait. What?"

This is pretty much verbatim from a conversation I had with my husband (then boyfriend) on one of our early dates. Get into a relationship with a second-year architecture student, and it's pretty much expected that you'll end up hearing a LOT about Frank Lloyd Wright--his design philosophy, his work history, even some little gossipy snippets about his rather sketchy dating life. But the ax murder thing? That, I was not expecting.

True story, though.
Wright did, in fact, run off to Europe with his client's wife, Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Cheney, in 1909, leaving her husband and his wife (and six children) behind. It was the sort of thing polite Victorian society was willing to overlook in an artist, but not in a neighbor. When Wright and the de-Cheneyfied Borthwick returned to the states, they left Wright's old digs in Chicago behind and moved to rural Wisconsin, near Wright's maternal family. There, they lived happily in sin (Wright's ex not being willing to grant a divorce) in a house that Wright meant to embody everything that was good about his architectural style.

The idyll ended in 1914. Wright was off at work and Borthwick was dining with her two children from her previous marriage and several of the Taliesin staff. As they ate, another staff member named Julian Carleton locked them in, poured kerosene around the house and lit a match. When the diners managed to bust their way out, Carleton hacked them to death with an ax. Of the nine who sat down to eat, only two survived. Borthwick and her children were killed. The whole thing turned into a media sensation. "Murderer of Seven: Sets Fire to Country Home of Frank Lloyd Wright Near Spring Green," declared one newspaper. The Wisconsin State Journal, on the other hand, went for something a bit more Rupert Murdoch-esque (and also inaccurate), with the headline "Insane Negro Kills Five in Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Love Bungalow'".

To this day, no one has a clear idea of what drove Carleton to grisly murder. Wright had apparently threatened to fire him at some point before the murders, but there doesn't seem to have been any hints of what was to come. Even his wife, who also worked for the Wrights, had no idea of what he'd been planning. And Carleton himself wasn't talking. Although captured alive by authorities after the murders, Carleton had drunk acid and died a few days later in jail.

Image courtesy


  1. And then there’s Arcosanti, the project of one of Wright’s students. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.

  2. You can also look up the architect Carlo Scarpa; regarding his demise, falling to his death on a construction site. Not to mention the rumors that Scarpa was pushed

  3. Wait, you mean there were unexplained, non war related, multi-kill, murderous rampages before video games and assault weapon bans?

  4. There’s nothing new about violence: whether committed by the insane, or by the merely cruel.

  5. As I was told it, a grief-stricken Wright buried her body himself, in a secret plot on the grounds. A quick search didn’t turn up anything about it, so I don’t know if that’s apocryphal or not.

  6. This is far too common knowledge to be placed on BoingBoing… where were the editors on this one?

  7. Interesting. I wonder if that’s where Nancy Collins got the idea for the subplot of the early-modernist architect’s ax-murdered family in her second Sonja Blue novel.

  8. I read the book “Loving Frank,” thinking it would be a nice little book about an artistic genius. When I got to that part, near the end, I thought I’d picked up the wrong book. Definitely a 180 for the story.

    1. Me too. I just could not believe it. Intelligent reflections and dialogue hijacked by a grisly scene out of a horror film. Indeed, one could argue that Mamah sacrificed her life “Loving Frank.”

  9. It was really a cyborg sent back from the future to destroy the child that was mankinds last chance of saving humanity after the colonization war.

  10. Just a question, not a criticism, so let’s not all get overly excited. The author writes:

    “He built Taliesin for his second wife, who he stole from a client.”

    Strictly speaking, it should be “whom”, not “who”. Does anyone know whether using “who” instead of “whom” is still considered an error or not? Is this a worldwide thing (well, within the anglophone world at least), or regional?

    1. Haha. Digilante, you’re probably right. “Who” vs. “Whom” has never been one of my strong suits. Although, I’m happy to report that I’m pretty sure I’ve finally gotten “affect” vs. “effect” figured out.

  11. My wife recently read a book about Wright called “Loving Frank”. I’m not interested enough to read it, but it’s about him and his romantic life or something. Apparently he was a bit of a heel.

  12. #1. But of course Paolo Solari’s vision of an ultraurban Archology is arguably the EXACT OPPOSITE of the endless suburbia of Wright’s Broadacre city. It is often the case that today’s “great idea” is simply a reaction against yesterday’s “great idea.”

  13. “Who” and “whom” follow the same rules as “he” and “him”, “she” and “her”, if that helps. (One is the subject of a sentence, one is the object).

    I watched “The Thirteenth Floor” recently (zzzz) and was flabbergasted to see that they’d used Deckard’s flat from “Blade Runner” — which is in a Wright-designed home called Ennis House — in a painfully obvious attempt to steal some cool-by-association.

    Having said that, is it sad to want to live there?

  14. I second that – enjoying your posts very much Maggie.

    That was absolutely not a stab at you! I just see it a lot these days, and someone who is a professional translator said to me recently that it’s not entirely considered an error anymore… I wonder if someone knows for sure.

  15. Well then I’m inclined to third…that.

    Your posts Maggie certainly are quite exciting and a welcome breath of fresh air to the community.

  16. Digilante,

    I’m a writer. I should probably be stabbed for not knowing my grammar rules. ;) No worries.

  17. I drove around the country last summer and happened to visit quite a few Wright sites on the way. Oddly enough, I ended up settling just a few blocks away from his Hollyhock House. And now he’s here on boingboing. Freaky.

    I can see why docents at Wright sites used to be reluctant to relate this episode to visitors. What will you remember more, that Wright made major contributions to the evolution of architecture, or that an insane chef murdered his mistress, her kids, and a bunch of staff? Still, his contemporarily shocking adultery and subsequent griefs had an impact on the number of commissions he got, so it can’t be dismissed by those interested in his work as ‘just’ a personal tragedy. Also, it’s still the worst mass murder in Wisconsin’s history by body count.

  18. Digilante, of course, mistaking whom for who, and vice versa, is still considered an error in both spoken and written English…. this despite English’s gradual simplifying as an inflected language, and despite authors and speakers whom should know better but don’t.

  19. @#5 “Wright buried her body himself, in a secret plot on the grounds. A quick search didn’t turn up anything”

    If you want to dig up a secret grave, you gotta be persistent!

  20. Mr. Wright, while being an architect of some reknown, in my book nets a fail as an overall human being for his well documented history of, how to say this exactly…oh yes, banging other dude’s wives and being what can only politely be described as a raging anti-semetic rasict gay-bashing a-hole, when his own commitment to hetrosexuality was not exactly crystal clear. Oh, so a bonus point for hypocricy too.

    So +1 for cool houses, +2 for pacifism, but -1 for banging married women and -5 for racism and intolerance (and the ignorance-based world view it represents).

  21. @Osprey101

    I love the idea of arcologies — as a non-driver and someone who suffers from hay-fever, a compact indoor city would probably be close to my ideal environment — but Paolo Soleri is probably the reason such things will never be built — he is a first class loon on the level of L. Ron Hubbard.

    When I was younger, I had my parents drive me out to Arcosanti. I was hoping to see a great arcology in progress of being built, as that’s how Soleri described it in his book. Instead, it was just a cult of weirdos who make bells for a living! I am not making this up.

  22. Hamish (#18), it’s absolutely not sad to want to live there! That’s a beautiful house. The actual apartment in Blade Runner wasn’t in the house, though, I think it was a set. But they used casts from the Ennis House textile blocks in order to make the apartment.


    There are those of us who choose to banish *whom* from usage because we feel it is part of a plot to make us all sound like English butlers.

    We feel the same way about *whilst*.

    But that’s just us.

  24. @#12

    Objective who is perfectly fine in any informal context—in fact, according to the OED, whom is “no longer current in natural colloquial speech”.

  25. Maggie, paraffin _is_ petroleum.

    In the USA, paraffin is a hard, white, solid wax derived from petroleum.

    In the rest of the world, paraffin is what the USA calls kerosene, a smelly flammable liquid, also derived from petroleum.

    Jet propellant is also paraffin/kerosene, only with better quality control (no dust or water in it).

    If you want to see Wright architecture in a movie, watch Gatticca.

  26. Another recommendation: T.C. Boyle’s recent novel “The Women” is a fictionalized account (historical fiction, I guess) of much of Wright’s life, including the axe murders.

    If you love Boyle (and I certainly do!), you’ll like this even if you don’t like architecture (though I do).

  27. If Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife were a thing rather than a person, one would use ‘which’ not ‘what’

    Regardless, whom sounds wrong in the sentence. So it’s wrong.

  28. You’ll hear about Wright if you’re dating an average architecture student. If you’re dating a good one (or at least one going to a good school), you’ll hear about Le Corbusier.


  29. Olgivanna Hinzenberg had been a student of the eccentric Russian Esoteric Teacher G. I. Gurdjieff, who had several ideas related to architecture. Wright absorbed his influences from her initially and built Taliesin to serve as a kind of Gurdjieffian School.

    You can find out a bit more about Wright’s association and influence from Gurdjieff at

  30. Interesting story…. with that said, that is a beautiful axe, and may I ask where you found it?

    I chop my own firewood in the true diy spirit.

  31. “Maggie, paraffin _is_ petroleum.”

    Anonymous, thank you. I’m an idiot. I had a brain fart this afternoon and was thinking, like, beeswax. Because, as I said, I’m an idiot.

  32. Nice line of choppers. E and K look like the best for cabin living. All you need is a Swedish saw and you’re set for the year.

  33. purt near there Buddy, though if I were laying in a year of firewood I’d rent a hydraulic splitter and a chainsaw.

  34. Hamish Macdonald:

    As others have noted, the interior of Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner is a set on a sound stage, though it is a reproduction of part of the interior of the Ennis-Brown house.

    The actual house itself is only in one brief, dark exterior shot as Deckard drives up to it.

    The house has been in quite a few other films, going back at least as far as Micheal Curtiz’s 1933 Female, where it served as the residence of a female automobile tycoon played by Ruth Chatterton.

    In addition to to The Thirteenth Floor, it’s also been featured in William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, The Day of the Locust, The Terminal Man, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, Disney’s The Rocketeer, and the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, not to mention probably another dozen or so more obscure titles.

  35. bbonyx

    In his defense, that was just 2nd year of a 5-year program. By the end, it was all “Carlo Scarpa” this, and “Rick Joy” that…with a handy dose of Louis Kahn on the side.

    And, speaking of Louis Kahn, if Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t quite enough of a cheating, lying, child-ignoring cad for you…you should really watch “My Architect,” the documentary made by Kahn’s son by one of the three women he simultaneously cheating on for decades.

  36. Digilante @13, “whom” is a part of formal English. People speaking or writing informally generally don’t bother with it, and it’ll probably be a mere historical artifact by the end of the century.

  37. @ Avram, it’s less that “people . . . don’t bother with it” than people simply don’t know there are two forms: it’s ignorance of the correct forms (or reflexive use of the new, single form), not choice, that accounts for most usage.

    It’s odd that the usually acute OED notes that whom is no longer in “natural colloquial speech.” Natural and colloquial to whom, I’d ask? It would be quite unnatural and un-colloquial–indeed, horribly stilted and classist–for an educated writer and speaker to mimic the bleatings of cabdrivers and dishwashers, no?

  38. “It would be quite unnatural and un-colloquial–indeed, horribly stilted and classist–for an educated writer and speaker to mimic the bleatings of cabdrivers and dishwashers, no?”

    What about farmers and bus drivers? Sadly, one often learns one’s speech patterns in childhood, from older family members. I think it would probably be a lot more classist to have picked up a Frasier-esque style of speech post-college.

    You’re just lucky I don’t still have the noticeable NE Kansas accent.

  39. We’re all lucky, rather!

    I don’t know, what about farmers and bus drivers? My “cabdrivers and dishwashers” was more of an extreme (and extremely snobbish) example, rather than a real one. My point is only that for a lot of us whom is the quite natural form: no sedulous aping of our social betters, no Fraisierism, it’s just what we’ve been saying since birth or have learned to use.

    The educative point is interesting: you’re sort of positing that it’s unnatural and snobbish to learn to speak in new ways, aren’t you? I mean, one could simply learn “proper” English usage in primary school or in college, and then assimilate its rules: I say this as an English teacher who had the incorrectness of saying “I could care less” pointed out to me in my mid-twenties. Damnable lower-middle-class parentage! But I learned the correct form and moved on, not for class reasons, mainly, but that I valued the more grammatically correct form.

    That said, let me agree with others that you’ve been a great guestblogger, one of those than whom there are few finer…. :P

  40. So, DAWWG, you’re one of the conspirators! Well, we’re not going to sound like Jeeves, no matter how Woosterish and feckless you try to make us feel. (:o )

    Although not my primary or favorite profession, I did spend a few years standing in front of English classes with chalk on my shirt — before going off to study the behavior of cultures more interesting than my own — and I might have been the one to correct your “I could care less” solecism, had you been few years younger. But, to quote the late Paul Harvey, did you hear the rest of the story? That commonly misused phrase is a shortened version of the earlier, longer expression, “I could care less but I don’t see how.”

    Now, how are you with *hopefully*?

  41. Buddy, my more than brother! Had I but known!

    I once read a witticism of Leon Botstein’s re: hopefully, to the effect that it was passive, indicating that one sort of wanted an outcome but wasn’t going to exert any effort in order to effect said outcome; but that a construction like I hope indicated a more active engagement with a desired outcome. So I sorta don’t like hopefully.

  42. Amazing story, thanks for posting it.

    But according to this BBC News account, Julian Carleton didn’t die a few days later; it took much longer:

    He died from starvation seven weeks later, despite medical attention. He made two court appearances but never stood trial, and his motive for the attack was never explained, although there are various theories.

  43. #37 – I think you may mean Taliesin West in Arizona. FLW had not yet met Olgivanna (his third wife, and the one he actually stayed with for the rest of his life) when he originally built Taliesin.

    FLW’s design work is teh awesome. As a person, he seems to be a colossal jerk but sort of a walking billboard for the “artistic genius” personality. And yeah, he does come off a little like that guy in the Ayn Rand book, although not sure that’s a compliment. I’d still love to live in one of his houses for awhile, leaks and all, and mourn the lost Larkin building in Buffalo.

  44. #58 posted by FAC33 (‘Ceremony’?):

    FLW’s design work is teh awesome. As a person, he seems to be a colossal jerk but sort of a walking billboard for the “artistic genius” personality.

    Much like Eric Gill: extraordinarily influential typeface designer, but also known to have sexually abused his sister, his children and his dog.

  45. Also, it’s still the worst mass murder in Wisconsin’s history by body count.

    And since they seem to be a regular event here (5 since I moved to the state, including the day I arrived 4 1/2 years ago), that’s sort of impressive.

    And I wouldn’t say it’s too common knowledge to post here at all; I was here for years before I heard about it — I think it was a WPR story in reference to the nonfiction book that brought it to my attention.

  46. I keep seeing examples of artist whose art I admire and enjoy whom I would not want as a friend! I guess we need both . . . (how’s my English?)

  47. @#26,

    If Wright was, as you say, a ‘raging anti-Semite’, that ‘fact’ was lost on the Beth Sholom congregation in Elkins Park PA, who commissioned him to build their synagogue (1954).

    The interior space Wright created was an astonishing fusion of (then) modern engineering, and Jewish symbolism. It’s hard to imagine a genuine bigot immersing himself in a hated tradition to construct a lasting expression its highest aspirations.

    What next, David Duke publishing a glowing history of American Gospel?

  48. Hee! This reminded me of my days as a volunteer docent for the Ennis House and the Hollyhock House, where I was known as “The Danger Docent” because I loved to lay on the gorey parts of Wright’s history (these murders and fires, his junkie girlfriend, the guy who owned the Ennis House in the 60s who would shoot Frat boys off the hillside walls with buck shot when they were climbing “The House on Haunted Hill” as part of their hazing process, etc.). I had several of my older guests make comments like “I come here once or year or so when I have friends visiting, and I have NEVER heard that version!” I also would let folks onto the parapet and into the laundry room of the Ennis House if they were cool!

  49. You might read Wright’s autobiography to get another slant on the story. With Wright’s dedication to truth in architecture, we know that his own account couldn’t possibly be the least bit slanted.

    I also don’t like the constant morphing of the English language. i done growed up in the MidWest farming country, and i reckon as how i spent so much time in school larnin’ to use proper english that i don’t want to change agin. i can’t even member whom any of my teachers was.

  50. #60 posted by hepcat:
    Also, it’s still the worst mass murder in Wisconsin’s history by body count.
    “And since they seem to be a regular event here (since I moved to the state, including the day I arrived…”


    #61 posted by Anonymous:
    I keep seeing examples of artist [sic] whose art I admire and enjoy whom I would not want as a friend! I guess we need both . . . (how’s my English?)

    Lose “whom”.

  51. Wisconsin Public Radio has a four disc audiobook out right now about the Taliesin murders.

    Death in a Prairie House.

  52. Frank Lloyd Wright was a much more interesting character than initially represented in my first few encounters with his persona in class. His desire to do all things his own way, never constrained by social limits or industry standards, is a lesson on life. You have to take risks, sometimes it works out as in the Guggenheim and sometimes it doesn’t, as seen with Mamah! Anyway, does anyone know the true literal translation of “taliesin” in its native language which I believe is Scottish?

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