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.

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