Death in a Prairie House

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders


Copyright © 2007 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-22214-7

Chapter One

Prelude to Murder

The Architect and the Feminist

I know how obstinate and egotistic you think me, but I'm going on as I started. I'm spoiled, first by birth, then by training, and ... [finally] by conviction. Frank Lloyd Wright

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. William Blake, "Proverbs of Hell"

For such a bucolic place, Wisconsin has been the unlikely home to a disproportionate number of murderers whose depravities have etched themselves into the collective American consciousness.

Ed Gein, for one. He was arrested in 1957 at his Plainfield "death farm," which was decorated by bowls made from women's skulls and by lampshades and chairs fashioned from human skin. A bled and gutted woman hung in the barn. Gein, who possessed a belt made from nipples, became the prototype for the chilling character Norman Bates, first in Robert Bloch's eerie story "Psycho" and then in Alfred Hitchcock's defining film. He inspired as well the figure of Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris's best-selling Silence of the Lambs. And the arch-fiend Hannibal Lecter in that novel owes much to another Wisconsin killer, the Milwaukee cannibal Jeff Dahmer.

But in terms of their compressed ferocity and their subsequent impact on cultural (as opposed to popular) history, the high crimes and misdemeanors of Gein and Dahmer pale in comparison to the murders committed by the nearly unknown Julian Carlton on August 15, 1914, at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin near Spring Green, on the forested banks of the Wisconsin River. Carlton's rampage resulted in the most murders that had ever been committed by one civilian at one place and time in Wisconsin history: the murders at Taliesin, therefore, have been rightly called the state's crime of the twentieth century. Moreover, unlike the crimes of Gein and Dahmer, Carlton's killings are still shrouded, some ninety years later, in mystery, debate, and evasion.

And Carlton's murders are noteworthy not merely because of their inevitably sensationalistic aspects; his crimes transcend the mere unhappy calculus of body count. Consider: the murders involved the century's single most important residential design and the country's most celebrated and distinctive architect. One of the victims was among the nation's most conspicuous feminists. The crime was broadcast in print by a journalist who was so celebrated that his persona became the protagonist of a staple of the American theater. Further, the accompanying fire destroyed nearly all of the domestic copies of the folio containing a retrospective of Wright's work to that date, thereby retarding full American recognition of his achievement for untold years. And finally, scholars and critics have argued persuasively that, in the wake of the Taliesin murders, Frank Lloyd Wright's designs become markedly (and understandably) more insular, more labyrinthine, even more fortress-like. Accordingly-given Wright's legions of admirers and imitators-the slaughter at Taliesin may well have exerted a significant influence on American residential design throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

Yet despite all this, the murders have received surprisingly short shrift from Wright's vast number of chroniclers. Even as the production of Wright biographies has emerged as a booming cottage industry (Wright is the most written-about artistic figure since Michelangelo), the murders at Taliesin are most often treated as a poignant transitional event in the great man's convoluted journey toward eventual achievement, confirmation, and glory-a kind of fiery, tragic prelude to the Imperial Hotel, Fallingwater, and the Guggenheim. One of Wright's chief biographers dismisses the murders in a single paragraph. In the wake of those seven savage deaths and the destruction of Taliesin, another source notes merely that "This incident marked a rupture in Wright's career."

Well, yes. But perhaps it is time to treat the murders-not to mention their victims and their perpetrator-as something more than footnotes to Wright's ultimate artistic triumph.

Of course, the Taliesin murders, like all murders, do not exist discretely like flies in amber. Rather, they have their own peculiar genesis, their particular genealogy....

* * *

It begins with one mystery and ends with another.

The first mystery is this: Why did Frank Lloyd Wright, a committed champion of domestic virtues and a driven artist on the very cusp of achieving his life-long professional ambition, desert his wife Catherine and their six children in 1909 (and again in 1911) to run off with Mamah Cheney, thereby crippling both marriage and career at a single blow? And the second mystery, inextricably bound up with the first: Why, on a blazing summer afternoon five years later, in a frenzy of blood and fire, did Julian Carlton take away everything Wright had left?

The two mysteries exist as twin dancers in a common dance, spinning in a mirrored hall. Still, it is convenient (if factitious) to separate them and regard them one by one.

As for Wright's desertion of his family, glib answers suggest themselves in battalions. Sins of the father, for example: Wright's father had run off (or, arguably, had been run off) from his own brood back in 1884, and Wright never spoke to or saw him again. Or perhaps, in the parlance of a later day, Wright simply experienced a midlife crisis, a nervous breakdown, intimations of mortality. Or money problems, a perpetual Wrightian difficulty. Or maybe, some say, he was afraid of success, or of ennui, or of any sort of personal or professional equilibrium. But the puzzle does not surrender itself to pat reduction of this sort.

Nonetheless, one must start with the father, if only because he is a neglected figure. After he leaves Anna Wright, their two young daughters, and their teenage son Frank, history pretty much forgets him. But William Carey Wright is himself an absorbing, compelling figure, one who exerted a greater influence on his famous son than has often been acknowledged. Certainly that famous son was reluctant to make such acknowledgment; he and his rapaciously doting mother, notes a recent biographer, conspired "to diminish the father, to the point where he could be seen to have performed a service not much loftier than that performed by St. Joseph."

William was a New Englander by birth (if not, in some ways, by temperament) at a time when a cultivated man from the green and leafy East could prompt as much enchantment as suspicion among rural midwestern folk. And cultivated he certainly was, although not in any area that promised quick or even long-term riches: he was accomplished on the violin, pianoforte, and organ and was a wonderful orator of the new school-down to earth, not flowery. He was handsome, irresponsible with money, congenitally free-spending. (Even his loving daughter Lizzie conceded that "he had no financial sense whatever.") But he composed waltzes and rondos. He adored Emerson. He dressed with a distinct flair. He crafted violins by hand. When in 1859 he wandered into the village of Lone Rock in remote southwestern Wisconsin, he must have struck the locals as impossibly sophisticated, a bon vivant. Or as much a bon vivant as a nineteenth-century Baptist could be: his father, back in Connecticut, was a celebrated Baptist preacher, and William intended to be one, too, having already taken up and discarded what were to him the less lofty callings of medicine and law.

Within a year of turning up in Lone Rock, the instantly popular Wright, despite his lack of formal credentials, was named Richland County circuit court commissioner. In fact, he was the first lawyer ever to hang out a shingle in Lone Rock. Then it came into his head to run for superintendent of the county school district, and on just his second try and mostly on the power of his undeniable charm, he won. One Wright biographer sees William as among "life's darlings: he never met a single person who did not like him." Not, at least, until he married Anna Lloyd Jones.

Anna, from little Bear Creek, was one of the teachers now under his supervision, and quite by chance she had some very distant relatives in common with Permelia Holcomb Wright, William's wife. Deep into her twenties at this time (like her son after her, she lied about her age throughout her long life), Anna was already considered a spinster. Her features were pinched and severe, a facial characteristic that she passed on to her son, at least in his later years. She was a fine horsewoman and carried herself in a no-nonsense, masculine way. Her two younger sisters, Nell and Jane, had been to college. But like many rural schoolteachers of the day, Anna herself had little formal education.

She was, nonetheless, of good stock: born back in Wales in 1839, she could trace her ancestry, through her mother's clan, back to the Lloyds of Castell-hywel-an area referred to by more orthodox natives as a "black hole of Unitarianism." Her father's forebears included the first Rev. Jenkin Jones, a prominent figure in the development of the rebellious Arminian church, which had split from Calvinism over the doctrines of irresistible grace and predestination. For Anna, all this family history trumped her superintendent's claims to have sprung directly from the line of William the Conqueror, and she was immensely proud of her heritage, even haughty about it.

The Lloyd Joneses had made their way to America from Wales in the mid-1840s, more in pursuit of religious liberty than in hopes of improving their material lot in life. (By then they were all radical Unitarians, a breakaway faith that had evolved from Arminianism's left wing.) This is not to say that they were not desperately poor at the time of their exodus: the journey by sail from Britain to New York and then by wagon and canalboat to the Helena Valley cost them nearly everything they had, including Anna's three-year-old sister Nany, who died miserably of a fever between Utica and Rome, New York. Once in Wisconsin, however, the clan-dominated by farmers, builders, preachers, and educators-began to prosper, so that by the time that Anna met William Wright in the early 1860s, the Lloyd Joneses were among the Valley's most distinguished, prosperous, and distinctive extended family. These theological outcasts even flaunted a suitably defiant, if presumptuous, family motto: "Truth against the World"-meaning, of course, their truth.

Anna's father and the clan's patriarch, born at the tail end of the eighteenth century (the same year that Washington died at Mount Vernon), was the Bible-packing, circuit-riding Richard Lloyd Jones (called "Ein Tad"), a tall and thickly bearded figure so intimidating as later to be understandably confused in young Frank Lloyd Wright's mind with the prophet Isaiah. He was "lion maned and mercury tongued," a Wisconsin poet recalled. Over the course of twenty-three years, his wife Mary Thomas ("Ein Mam" or "Mallie") turned out children, and by 1853 Richard found himself surrounded by ten surviving progeny who, in short order, collectively established the Lloyd Jones dynasty in the Helena Valley. Son Thomas (Frank's early mentor) became the family builder, while his brothers John, James, and Enos farmed. The latter-day Jenkin, like his namesake, was a Civil War hero and famous Unitarian preacher who, down in Chicago, socialized with Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington. Anna taught school, as did her sisters Nell and Jane (after Frank's birth, everyone referred to these two maiden ladies as simply "the Aunts"). Margaret and Mary, a bit older than Anna, married prominent area men. So William Wright's eastern breeding aside, Anna had ample reason to be proud of her own lineage.

Then, in 1863, William's wife Permelia died following the delivery of a stillborn infant, leaving William with their three small children. His subsequent courtship of Anna Lloyd Jones-and her avid reception of it-seemed to make sense on both sides.

True, he was fourteen (Anna maintained seventeen) years her senior, short (Anna, like her bewhiskered brothers, was notably tall) and, alas, a Baptist. But at least he was a man with a religious calling; the numerous Lloyd Jones brethren could iron out his theology later. Like Anna's family, he was a decided "dry" on the temperance issue. Further, his education, easy charm, impulsive generosity, good looks, and bubbling musicality were all calculated to stir the heart of the workbound and housebound Anna, whose own artistic sensibilities, such as they were, had been effectively stifled in provincial Bear Creek. Accordingly, there is every reason to suppose, from Anna's side, that this was initially a love match, not a mere flight from the calumny of spinsterhood.

For his part, William needed a wife, and his children needed a mother figure. In Anna, both would be largely disappointed. Brendan Gill quite nakedly asserts that the "single irremediable error" of William's checkered life was his union with "the ambitious, half-mad, sexually cold, and drearily self-righteous Anna Lloyd Jones."

Such an assessment carries with it the conviction inherent to hyperbole, but it may not be entirely fair: many women of a warmer, less volatile, less tiresome nature than Anna's might well have found William hard to live with. True, he was in many ways a lovely, admirable man-gifted (even brilliant), gentle, and long-suffering. But his heart would remain always with his first family, he never acquired the knack of making money, and he was constantly on the move, pursued by creditors. Down deep, in fact, he probably did not care all that much about money. He was an idealist who had migrated westward to disseminate music, oratory, culture, refinement, and high thought, especially New England Transcendentalism's sunnily optimistic gospel of reason and self-reliance. It may have pained him to see his family in want (as they constantly were), but his vision of the American Dream had infinitely more to do with self-fulfillment and the enlightenment of others than with the accumulation of personal wealth. And on those terms, there is a sense in which he succeeded: at the time of his death in 1904, almost every midwesterner whose life he had touched felt enriched and somehow ennobled by that contact. Still, there is a core of truth in his son Frank's assessment when he refers to his father's life as a long and losing battle, a "vain struggle of superior talents [against] untoward circumstance."

Despite some grumblings among the Lloyd Joneses, William and Anna were duly married, probably in August 1866, and some eight months later the new family departed for the nearby market town of Richland Center, where William, now an ordained Baptist minister, had been commissioned to preach and to supervise the construction of a new church building. Here their son was born on June 8, 1867 (not 1869, as that son and Anna would maintain throughout their lives). Emerson, Longfellow, Melville, and Whitman were still alive. The Civil War had ended just two years before. A scant thirty-eight million people lived in the United States.

The boy was dubbed Frank Lincoln Wright; William venerated the recently murdered president and had eloquently eulogized him back in Lone Rock. (Almost seventy years later, critic Alexander Woollcott would complain that friend Frank's prose style was entirely too "Lincolnesque.") Frank, immediately and obsessively adored by his mother, joined an ample household that included William's three children by his first wife Permelia-Charles (then eleven), George (nine), and little Elizabeth Amelia ("Lizzie," about seven). But there would never be a question as to who was Anna's favorite.


Excerpted from Death in a Prairie Houseby WILLIAM R. DRENNAN Copyright © 2007 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.