MURDER AT TALIESIN

THE HAUNTING OF FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT'S WISCONSIN HOME AND STUDIO

  Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Chaney

Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Chaney

Frank Lloyd Wright has long been regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in American architecture. He designed breathtaking home and buildings and created a unique legacy that continues today. One of his creations was Taliesin, a home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, that was also meant to be a hideaway for Wright and his mistress. But on August 15, 1914, the beautiful home became a scene of horror when a grisly murder claimed the lives of Wright’s mistress, two of her children, and four others who worked at the estate.

It also, some say, created a haunting that endures to this day. 

The story of Taliesin began when Wright met the woman who would become his mistress, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. Not long after being commissioned by businessman and Oak Park, Illinois, neighbor Edwin Cheney to design a house in 1903, Wright fell in love with Mrs. Cheney, even though he was married and had six children of his ow. The pair eventually ran off to Europe together. While the Cheneys divorced, Catherine Wright refused to release her husband. 

Seeking a place where he and Martha could live out of the public eye, Wright built a residence and studio in Spring Green in 1911. Wright called the estate Taliesin, in honor of the Welsh bard, but the press dubbed it the “Love Cottage” Locals were not welcoming of their new neighbors. They were criticized by church ministers and even the superintendent of the community’s schools. When sharp tongues, disapproving looks and even threats failed to convince the couple to leave Spring Green, townspeople called on the sheriff to arrest Wright. The eccentric architect, however, cared little about standard conventions or what the outside world thought of his relationship – and there wasn’t anything that the sheriff could do about it.

On the afternoon of August 15, 1914, Wright was in Chicago working on the design of Midway Gardens. At lunchtime, Martha and two of her children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, sat down to eat on the porch at Taliesin. Inside the main dining room, at the other end of a 25-foot-long passageway, Wright’s draftsmen and laborers also gathered around a table to be served lunch by Barbados native Julian Carlton, a handyman and servant who had spent the summer waiting tables and performing housework at Taliesin. Carlton’s wife, Gertrude, did most of the cooking.

As the workers were eating in the dining room, 19-year-old draftsman Herbert Fritz and his table mates noticed something unusual. “We heard a swish as though water was thrown through the screen door. Then we saw some fluid coming under the door. It looked like dishwater. It spread out all over the floor,” he recalled.

After serving soup to Martha and the children, Carlton instructed his wife to leave the house. He then returned to the porch wielding a hatchet and attacked Martha and the two children before dousing the floors with gasoline and setting the entire house ablaze.

The dining room where the workers were having lunch suddenly burst into flames. The door had been locked from the other side. With his clothes burning and hair on fire, Herbert Fritz jumped out the window next to where he was seated and rolled down the hillside to put out the flames. When he looked back, he saw Taliesin in flames and saw Carlton swinging a hatchet at his co-workers, who had managed to force open the dining room door and to escape through the window to the courtyard. 

Although badly burned and wounded, both 35-year-old carpenter Billy Weston, and landscape gardener David Lindblom, managed to escape with Fritz. They hurried a half-mile to the nearest house with a phone to call for help. The people who rushed to the scene found the bodies of Martha, her two children, two workers, and a 13-year-old boy. David Lindblom later died from his burns. 

Hours after the attack, Carlton was discovered barely conscious inside the basement furnace of the house, having swallowed muriatic acid. He never offered a reason for his attack and died from starvation seven weeks later. Gertrude Carlton said her husband had become increasingly paranoid in the weeks prior to the attack, even keeping a hatchet in a bag next to his bed. Rumors spread that Carlton had been harassed by some of the workers at Taliesin and there had been an argument a few days before the attack over the saddling of a horse. One of the surviving workers told the police that Martha had told the Carltons they were being let go. The killer’s wife confirmed they were due to take a train back to Chicago that night.

Through his grief, Wright set out to resurrect Taliesin, much of which had been destroyed by the fire. By the end of 1914, the residential wing of the estate was rebuilt, and by the end of the year, Wright had fallen in love with another woman, who had penned him a condolence letter. The two married in 1923—after Catherine finally agreed to a divorce—two years before Wright’s estate burned to the ground once again, this time from faulty wiring. Wright once again rebuilt Taliesin, which still stands today.

Memories of the tragedy are said to still linger today. In the wake of the attack, firefighters took the dying and badly burned victims to a cottage on the property called Tan-Y-Deri. It is in, and around, this cottage where Martha’s spirit has been reported over the years. She is usually dressed in a long, white gown and while she is a peaceful presence, she is obviously restless and lost. It is also said that doors and windows open and close by themselves within the cottage and lights sometimes turn on and off. Witnesses say that they often close the place for the night, only to return the following day to find everything wide open. 

The events of the past have truly marked the house as a haunted place that will be forever linked to a tragedy of more than a century ago.