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The Love Of Frank Lloyd Wright's Life Was Slaughtered By An Axe-Swinging Servant

Updated October 13, 2018 7.1k views12 items

Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for being one of America’s most celebrated architects. But a dark tale of love, scandal, and murder clouded much of his adult personal life. In 1914, the world he had crafted came to an abrupt end when the love of his life was murdered in a shocking and gruesome manner.

Born in Wisconsin in 1867, Frank Lloyd Wright came of age in an era when America was literally redesigning itself. He arrived in Chicago in 1887 and found a city in the midst of a building boom. Structures may have been scraping the sky for the first time in the late 19th century, but Wright began to design livable houses that were in tune with their natural surroundings. He became a master of so-called "Prairie Style" buildings that were low, flat, and whose structures mimicked the prairies of his adopted state, Illinois.

Wright first met Martha “Mamah” Borthwick in the early 20th century while designing and building the Edwin H. Cheney House in suburban Chicago. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick soon fell in love. Their romance was as scandalous for prim and proper America as it was exhilarating for the middle-aged lovers.

By 1911, Borthwick had moved into Wright’s latest masterpiece: Taliesin, the home he built for Borthwick and himself in rural Wisconsin. But though Taliesin was supposed to be an idyllic retreat, it ultimately became a site of horror and tragedy.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney were one couple who never got a happy ending.

  • Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Wright And Borthwick Defied The Sensibilities Of The Early 20th Century - And Their Marriage Vows - To Be Together

    Frank Lloyd Wright had already established himself as one of the finest architects in Chicago when he received a new commission from Edwin Cheney in 1903. Wright diligently built Cheney the house he wanted - and in the process he fell madly in love with Cheney's wife, Mamah Borthwick. Not only had Wright fallen hard and fast for a married woman, he was married himself. Wright had been married to his wife Kitty since 1889, and the couple had six children over the course of their marriage.

    Wright and Borthwick promptly began an affair that scandalized turn-of-the-century Chicago. By 1909, they had each separated from their respective spouses and were openly a couple. Newspapers even began to pry into the relationship. 

  • Photo: Daniel Thornton / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Wright And Borthwick Fled To Europe To Avoid Wagging Tongues

    After the love affair between Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright began in earnest, they knew that discretion was necessary, but difficult. So in 1909, they escaped to Europe to let the scandal die down. Their first stop was Berlin, where the scrutinized couple did all that they could to go off the grid to avoid the prying gaze of the press. They also spent time in Paris and Sweden. But the European escape did little to muffle the shriek of scandal that surrounded them. They had scarcely returned to Chicago before it became clear that it would be best to stay out of town altogether.

  • Photo: Henry Fuermann and Sons/Wisconsin Historical Society/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Wright Built Taliesin So That The Couple Could Have A Private Escape From The Scandalized City

    After Wright and Borthwick's European vacation, it was clear that they could not resume their lives openly in Chicago. So Frank Lloyd Wight set about building a country home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, close to where he grew up. Though he would build a studio at the home he called Taliesin, Wright was close enough to commute back to Chicago to take up more architectural commissions. It also meant that Borthwick would be close enough to see her children. 

    The scandalized public continued to sneer at Wright and Borthwick's choices. Although Borthwick had divorced Edwin Cheney in 1911, Wright's wife refused to consent to a divorce. According to the mores of a socially conservative America in the early 20th century, Wright and Borthwick were irrefutably living in sin. Indeed, the press even described Taliesin as a "Love Cottage."

  • Photo: Washington Herald/Library of Congress/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Borthwick Was Murdered By One Of Taliesin's Servants In The Most Horrific Way Imaginable

    On August 15, 1914, Borthwick and her children were eating their lunch and enjoying the Wisconsin summer from Taliesin's porch. Though it had the appearance of a normal day, August 15, 1914, was anything but a normal day, and things quickly took a turn.

    Their servant Julian Carlton served them, just as he did every day. But he knew something that Mamah Borthwick didn't: this would be her last meal. Shortly after Borthwick and her children began their lunch, Carlton told his wife - Gertrude, the cook - to leave the building, for he had grim work to attend to. Then, according to Marcus Field, "he poured paraffin around the building, locked all the doors, set fire to the house, then proceeded to hatchet seven of the nine occupants to death."

    Mamah Borthwick was hacked to death at the age of 45, and her body was left to burn in the flames that were engulfing the home Frank Lloyd Wright had built with her.