Monday, October 22, 2012

Haunted Wisconsin: Julian Carlton

[WARNING: This post has extremely graphic descriptions of gore and violence.]

Frank Lloyd Wright c. 1914.  Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Frank Lloyd Wright is one of Wisconsin's biggest points of pride.  His genius and influence is seen throughout the world.  But Lloyd Wright was known to be a hard taskmaster and his mistress Martha "Mamah" Borthwick was known to be just as demanding.  Enter Julian Carlton.

Wright's personal home, Taliesin, was completed in Spring Green in 1911.  Wright and Mamah moved that Christmas and began settling in, planning to wed once their respective divorces became final.  The couple loved the home and Mamah hired help to keep it running smoothly.  Julian Carlton, and his wife Gertrude, were brought into Taliesin in June of 1914.  Born in 1884 in Barbados, Julian was a hard worker but was often chided over fellow manservants.  Arguments between Julian and residents of Taliesin flared up, sometimes racially fueled, and Mamah asked Julian and his wife to leave.  At the beginning of August, 1914, Julian tendered his two-week notice and planned for his departure....

Martha "Mamah" Borthwick shortly before her death.
Photo: New York Times

August 15th was a seasonably warm and pleasant day so Mamah and her children opted to take their lunch outside.  This meant that his victims would be separated.  Julian prepared the deeds by dousing the rugs around the house with gasoline and locking the doors of the dining room, where the other workers were having lunch.  Lloyd Wright was in Chicago working on Midway Gardens and Mamah was having lunch in the screened-in porch with her children John and Martha.  Julian placed the soup bowls in front of the family, and as Mamah bowed her head over her lunch, Julian raised his axe and cleaved his way through her neck.  Mamah collapsed as blood poured from her neck into the broth in front of her.  Julian must have worked fast, because 12-year-old John was also found dead in his chair but the 9-year-old Martha rose to escape, sadly not fast enough.  Julian caught her outside and finished the job with a series of bladed blows to her delicate frame.

Inside, Taliesin foreman, Thomas Brunker, carpenter Billy Weston and his 13-year-old son Ernest, draftsmen Herbert Fritz and Emil Brodelle, and landscape designer David Lindblom were eating their lunch.  Upon hearing the screams outside, they curiously rose from their table to investigate only to find that the doors had been locked from the outside.  Working quickly, Julian lit fires he had prepared under the doors of the dining room.  Panic quickly set in and Fritz broke a window to escape, breaking his arm in the process.  Julian and his axe were waiting patiently for them outside, doing the devil's work one them one-by-one.  Fritz, engulfed in flames and screaming for his life, rolled down the hill and was presumed dead by Julian.  Weston was the next one to emerge from the window and was hit twice by the axe until Brunker climbed out and Julian moved to kill him.  He was found with a large wedge taken out of the top of his skull.  The young Ernest Weston was next, cold-heartedly killed as he watched his father burn at the bottom of the hill.  Finally, Brodelle was last out of the house and into the clutches of Julian and his axe, butchered like a steer in a slaughterhouse.
Julian Carlton after his arrest.  Photo: BBC

Despite the grisly scene, Weston and Fritz managed to escape slaughter as the fire department and Spring Green residents arrived to investigate.  They were greeted with the smouldering remains of the Taliesin, the stench of charred human flesh and blood flowing through the immaculate landscaping.  Julian himself was not on the scene, but hiding in a basement furnace room at Taliesin swallowing hydrochloric acid in an attempt to evade capture.  The townspeople were roaring to lynch him but authorities took him to the jail in Dodgeville.  Despite repeated interrogations Julian said little about the murders.  The hydrochloric acid Julian swallowed scarred his esophagus and he was unable to swallow.  It took him seven weeks of starvation to die in prison..

Frank Lloyd Wright received a telegram that day stating simply, "Taliesin destroyed by fire."  He arrived on the scene around midnight and later recalled how the building was "swept down and away in a madman's nightmare of flame and murder.... The great stone and tall on the hillside, their fireplaces now gaping holes."  Later he identified the "charred and axed remains of the victims" draped with white sheets as they lay in his aunt's home in Spring Green.

Aftermath.  Photo:

Wright eventually rebuilt the house as Taliesin II.  He spoke little of the tragedy for the rest of his life, but the murders that took place on that warm summer day have rocked the foundation of the small town of Spring Green and been a fixture of Wisconsin folklore for decades.


  1. This presentation sort of closes the door on a scene that was not nearly as clear as this. For instance, Gertrude and Julian Carlton the two servants from Barbados, gave notice, they were not fired. FL Wright himself mentioned this when he got to Taliesin. Saying, they were not permanent employees and had been intending to leave. Gertrude told of Julian asking her if he could use her as an excuse to give the notice that prompted Wright to put a ad in the newspaper asking for 'two girls or a couple' to replace them, well before the crime. Also - due to the acid Carlton swallowed, he was unable to speak, as well as unable to eat. When asked by the Judge what he wanted to plead, he was able to indicate it would be 'not guilty,' by nodding and agreeing with that statement. But he never had a coherent conversation in which he confessed. He died over a short period of a few weeks, due to throat scarring an starvation. There was never a trial, and most of the information gathered after the crime was from one person - 19 yr old Herb Fritz, a draftsman, who from the bottom of a hill below the house thought he saw Carlton hit Emile Brodelle, another draftsman, over the head with an ax. FL Wright himself was suspected for awhile after the slayings, due to the fact that he was generally disliked for many reasons, including abandoning his children, and for not paying bills to almost everyone who worked for him. He was in deep debt at the time. This could be a case of using a black man to take the full brunt of something for which he may have been partially or entirely blameless.


  2. A great alternative analysis. It would not surprise me if this were truer than what has been written. A black man committing mass murder would likely have no place to hide or seek help for escaping having done such a heinous act. I've often thought similar as well.

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