Reading the only known Photograph of Julian Carlton

© Mark Hertzberg 2020

Look at the photo without reading the caption below it. It is a portrait of a young African-American man, seemingly deep in thought. He merited having his photo on the front page of the Dodgeville Chronicle on August 21, 1914, not a small accomplishment for an African-American man 106 years ago.

Carlton

Not a small accomplishment until one reads the caption below it: “Julian Carlton, Slayer of Seven.” This is not the photo of say, a self-effacing young man who the townspeople are rightfully proud of. It is a portrait of a man who has committed a monstrous act: he butchered seven people, including children, as he lay waste to Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved home, Taliesin. It is surprising that the pejorative “Negro” as in “Negro Slayer of Seven” is missing from the photo caption, although he is described as “a negro chef” in the story, just above.

Various motives has been ascribed to his heinous act. Had he just been fired from his employ? Was he seeking revenge for racist statements leveled at him? We will never know, for he swallowed hydrochloric acid before he was found hiding in a boiler. He died 53 days later, before he could come to trial. He never revealed his motive.

I am a photojournalist, and I cannot look at the photo without thinking about the man – certainly not a woman, not in 1914 – who took the photo. I wonder about the circumstances under which it was taken. Carlton is seated in a high back chair. It looks like he is wearing a striped shirt: is it a jail uniform? We see someone over his right shoulder looking at him (or the photographer). This makes me think that Carlton is seated in the front of a courtroom in Dodgeville, the Iowa County seat, hearing the charges against him: seven murder charges, two of assault with intent to kill, and one of arson. Perhaps the courtroom was filled to capacity, and the crowd spilled into the hallway that summer day. Were there large ceiling fans whirring, were using handheld cardboard fans?

I wonder about what the photographer thought as he snapped the photo. Courtroom photography was my specialty in my 37-year newspaper career. I came face-to-face with probably more than 100 men and women accused of crimes serious enough to merit, like Carlton, a photo on the front page of the local newspaper. I photographed them at some of the most vulnerable times in their life. I knew some of them. It was not my place to speak to them. They generally ignored me. Only a handful tried to hide their face from me, usually unsuccessfully. One flipped me off. Another, a former co-worker, called me a “vulture.” I ignored him. His father told him to be quiet.

Who assigned the photograph of Carlton? What did the photographer think as he pressed the shutter? Who was he: Was he the editor of the newspaper? Was he an experienced photographer for whom this was another routine photo assignment, or was it a nervous cub reporter given an important assignment? Was he the owner of a local photo studio pressed into service for the newspaper, or was he a high school student known to own a camera and easily available on an August day? How many sheets of film or frames of roll film were exposed? Was this a one-shot-and-we’re-done photo, or was this the best of the lot? Did he realize the historic importance of this single image, that it would be important even a century later? Did Carlton try to evade the lens at any point? We will likely never know.

Photographic technology was quite different in 1914 than today. Many indoor photos were two dimensional, lit by the harsh light of flash powder (flash bulbs had yet to be invented). It is somewhat unusual to see an indoor photo from the time taken by natural light. The left side of Carlton’s face is lit, probably by window light. The films of the day were less suited for taking indoor pictures by natural light than they are today. The photographer who guessed what camera settings to use and the person who printed the photograph were skilled: the side of Carlton’s face is not washed out, and we have good detail in the shadow side, the front of his visage. We can read the face of the spectator over his shoulder.

A few weeks ago I was just a couple of feet away from a woman accused of a horrific murder in 1999, and then dumping her victim’s corpse on a rural road, as she was made her initial court appearance. We first encountered each other in the jail hallway. She looked at me, but did not react. We did not communicate. I did my job, to record this long-time fugitive, and went home to edit and send the pictures to my editors. It was over with – the waiting and the photography – in about a half hour. Is that how it was for a photographer for the Dodgeville Chronicle 106 years ago?

(Note: I wondered if the photo was originally taken for the larger Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, or possibly shared between the two newspapers, no matter who assigned it. After a search of the grainy State Journal archives it seems that the photo appeared only in the Dodgeville Chronicle. It is perhaps surprising that the State Journal did not use a photo: its editor and president, Richard Lloyd Jones, was Wright’s first cousin. Jones, a virulent racist, met Wright at the train station in Spring Green when Wright and Edwin Cheney arrived from Chicago after learning of the massacre at Taliesin. The photograph, a meticulously researched biography of Carlton, and Jones’s story and connection to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 are in Paul Hendrickson’s 2019 book about Wright, Plagued by Fire.)