Tuesday, February 2, 2010


An acquaintance of mine has a daughter named Taliesin. Initially, I didn't think too much about it, I just thought, "Oh, that's some made-up hippie name." (The acquaintance in question is a bit crunchy.)

But for some reason, I recently began to idly wonder about the name, so I did an online search. It turns out that Taliesin was an ancient Welsh poet who captured the imagination of some of the later Romantic poets, like Tennyson. Going along with the "hippie" theory, this entry from Wikipedia sounds like something straight out of Lord of the Rings:

"According to legend, Taliesin was adopted as a child by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, and prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd from the Yellow Plague. In later stories he became a mythic hero, companion of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur. His legendary biography is found in several late renderings, the earliest surviving narrative being found in a manuscript chronicle of world history written by Elis Gruffydd in the mid-16th century)."

I know what you're thinking: Whatever. However, there was another (but related) entry in Wikipedia under "Taliesin." It's the name that Frank Lloyd Wright gave to his Wisconsin estate.

What comes to your mind when you think about Frank Lloyd Wright? Everyone knows he was a great architect. But when you think about him as a person, who do you imagine?

For me, I never knew a lot about him, but I always assumed he was probably a respectable, mild person who, apart from his architectural achievements, led a fairly dry, boring life. But as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.

I was surprised to discover that, in his own time, Frank was an incredibly controversial and scandalous public figure. He left his wife and six children to run away with the wife of one of his clients, Mrs. Mamah Cheney (pronounced "May-muh Chee-ney"). Mamah happily left her own spouse and two children to run off with Frank. They moved into Frank's Wisconsin estate together and lived in open adultery from 1911-1914. Mamah spent her days translating the works of Swedish feminist Ellen Key.

The rural Wisconsin neighbors were completely horrified and appalled by all this, and even tried to get Frank and Mamah evicted, but to no avail. The local papers published scathing editorials condemning the couple.

Here's the part that really shocked me, though:

"Wright and Mamah Borthwick (now going by her maiden name) moved into Taliesin shortly after Christmas, 1911. On August 15, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago completing a large project, Midway Gardens, Julian Carlton, a manservant whom Wright had hired two months earlier (along with his wife, Gertrude, who served as cook), set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead were: Mamah; her two children John and Martha; Thomas Brunker, the foreman; Emil Brodelle, a draftsman; David Lindblom, a landscape gardener; and Ernest Weston, the son of the carpenter William Weston. Two victims survived the mêlée—William Weston and draftsman Herb Fritz—and the elder Weston helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton, hiding in the unlit furnace, survived the fire but died in jail six weeks later; Gertrude also survived, having escaped the burning building through the basement; she denied any knowledge of her husband's actions."

Holy shiz!! When I read this paragraph, I couldn't believe I had never heard of any this. It made me curious to learn more.

So I checked a book out of the library called Death In a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William Drennan (published 2007). One of the points the author makes is that this major event in Frank Lloyd Wright's life has been more or less lost to history, even though it was huge, huge news at the time (and Julian Carlton is still Wisconsin's greatest mass murderer). He theorizes that perhaps, as time went on, architectural historians didn't think this lurid chapter in Wright's personal life was relevant to his work.

But the author argues that these murders might have, in fact, changed the course of history. Wright went from designing houses with huge windows and walls that were open to nature, to creating spaces that were much more guarded and fortress-like, with hidden front entrances (or no front door at all). Because Frank Lloyd Wright's work was so influential, it's possible that the grisly events of one afternoon in Wisconsin forever altered the American architectural landscape that we live in today.

I learned a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright from this book. He was so loathed in his own town that the neighbors nicknamed him Frank Lloyd Wrong. There's no getting around the fact that he was kind of a dick. He was lots of bad things: arrogant, self-aggrandizing, cruel, insensitive, constantly in debt, irresponsible, deceitful. And he was some good things: extravagant, passionate, individualistic, visionary, hugely talented, resilient, charismatic. But he was definitely not boring.


  1. Well-summarized! Such a weird story, and so odd how unknown it is.

    Bran the Blessed makes me think of actor Brian Blessed...

  2. oh yeah, hahahhahha! That was good. :D

  3. Did Julian Carlton really commit more murders (7) than Ed Gein? Just curious. Thanks.

  4. Good question! I wondered about that too. When I wrote the post, I was quoting the author who claimed Carlton to be Wisconsin's greatest mass murderer.

    I think he probably *is* correct in that assertion, though. The reason would be that mass murder is different from serial murder. Technically, a mass murderer kills a lot of people all at once while a serial murderer kills, well, in a series and over a length of time.

  5. I looked it up--Ed Gein apparently only killed two people, but he was a particularly ghoulish grave robber, which is what made him famous...so even without a different definition of mass murderer and serial killer, Carlton is five ahead of Gein.

  6. Ed Gein is a 'serial' killer (sort of) not a 'mass' murderer. There is a difference. I have to agree I knew nothing about this until I started reading the novel, Loving Frank and did some research on my own. This is an excellent post that I just found while looking for a picture that the book talks about!