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.)

An Advance Peek at “Plagued by Fire”

© Mark Hertzberg 2019

Santa Claus brought Paul Hendrickson and Frank Lloyd Wright together in 1953 when he left a maroon J.C. Higgins 3-speed for nine-year-old Paul under the family Christmas tree in Kankakee, Illinois. The bike was not hidden under a blanket, Hendrickson recalls. It was uncovered, “dominating the spray of presents,” there for him to see as he came down the stairs in the morning.

It was chilly that day, with temperatures averaging 30-degrees, the wind gusting to almost 20 mph, hardly conducive to riding far (if at all) on his shiny new bike. When winter gave way to spring three months later, the boy hung his soft brown leather Spalding baseball mitt – he thinks maybe an Eddie Mathews model – on the handlebars of his bike and pedaled away, headed for the ball diamonds in nearby Riverview Park (now known as Cobb Park).

Five blocks south of Hendrickson’s boyhood home, just before he had to swing southeast to get to the park, well, there they were: Wright’s Bradley and Hickox houses. There were other nearby houses with Prairie-style elements (including his family’s rented house), but none as striking as the two Wright-designed homes. The boy often paused on his way to the park to take them in.

Bradley House 010.jpgFrank Lloyd Wright’s Bradley House, Kankakee, Illinois

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Hickox House 010.jpgThe Bradley House, left, and the Hickox House

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Bradley House 001.jpgThe Bradley House was the more striking of the two for Hendrickson

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Hickox House 001.jpgThe Hickox House

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This October, almost 66 years after Santa delivered that new bike, Hendrickson’s latest book, a ground-breaking biography of the architect whose work impressed a little boy in ways he did not yet understand, will be published. Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright tells Wright’s story like no other book has. Its genesis was simple, Hendrickson wrote me in an email, “This book started in my imagination…when I was riding past it [the Bradley House] on my J.C. Higgins 3-speed.” 

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I have just finished reading a bound proof of the book (disclaimer: Hendrickson and I have become friends since he began researching certain aspects of Wright’s life and career). I will write about the book in this essay without telling you anything specific about its revelations and interpretations of Wright’s life because that was the condition of my being able to write about it. 

Hendrickson’s goal was to humanize the often-demonized Wright. The book will not be out for another six months but it has rattled the sensibilities of a few Wright devotees, judging from their comments in “The Wright Attitude” Facebook group. They were reacting to the publisher’s advance blurb at: 

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/240133/plagued-by-fire-by-paul-hendrickson/?fbclid=IwAR1hJrTqhlIsM3t28DPcIi59A3OvhKwIlCjMOGJ4reoTnb5yxwLiaKLg0To

Some commenters were upset by “And this, we see, is the Wright of many other neglected aspects of his story: his close, and perhaps romantic, relationship with friend and early mentor Cecil Corwin; the eerie, unmistakable role of fires in his life; the connection between the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and the murder of his mistress, her two children, and four others at his beloved Wisconsin home by a black servant gone mad.”

Hendrickson does not stab wildly in the dark to reach his conclusions. His conclusions – and sometimes he writes that we will never know the answer to one particularly intriguing question or another – are not unsubstantiated. He meticulously outlines the facts he has uncovered (perhaps inconvenient facts for some people). His research is unimpeachable. I have already told you that I won’t spill the beans. You will have to wait until you are near the end of the book for some of the pieces of Hendrickson’s take on Wright’s life to fall in place for you, but they will. I smiled and nodded when I reached those points of understanding.

The colloquialism “gumshoe” refers to detectives, sometimes private eyes. Hendrickson does not wear a tan trench coat and fedora in the style of 1950s film noire detectives, but I thought of him as a gumshoe when I read how he left no stone unturned in his research. He outlines for his readers how he came to understand facts about Wright in his narrative, rather than forcing the reader constantly turn to cumbersome endnotes. Still, his 45-page “Essay on Sources” at the end of the book is as important as the narrative itself. Hendrickson drove untold hundreds (or even thousands) of miles, walked every inch of ground in places that were important to write Wright’s story, dug through voluminous archive files, often finding rare documents that no previous Wright scholar had seen. What was the weather like when Wright left Madison to announce himself to Chicago? Just ask Hendrickson. You get the idea.

Hendrickson was not content to parrot oft-repeated anecdotes about Wright’s life if  he was unable to verify them for himself. His research took him on multiple trips to Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, and New York. That was to be expected. It also took him to some unexpected places in those states, as well as to unexpected states that shall remain nameless in this essay.

Working in his third floor office at home, a baseball-style cap perched on his head, Hendrickson, a former writer for the Washington Post, has taken a clean sheet of drafting paper in his computer and redefined Wright as more layered and more human than many people have previously thought. Of course Hendrickson had to start from what Wright had written about himself and what others have written about him (Hendrickson’s bibliography is four pages of single-space type) just as Wright often drew from his work-to-date when he began a new commission. 

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Photo (c) Cecilia Hendrickson

Take any story you have heard about Frank Lloyd Wright and cast it aside if it does not stand up to Hendrickson’s painstaking primary research. His word images (poetry-in-complete sentences) tumbled from the keyboard for his silver desktop Mac the way designs are said to have tumbled out of Wright’s sleeve.

Hendrickson built his narrative from both the 1933 and 1942 editions of Wright’s An Autobiography (among dozens of other books and interviews). It is well known that Wright did not get it right in many parts of his self-telling about himself. Hendrickson explains those failings, including writing about “the Wright who was haunted by his father, about whom he told the greatest lie of his life.” (from Hendrickson’s publisher’s advance publicity). What was that “greatest lie?” You will have to read the book to find out.

After Hendrickson returned from research trips he hunkered down in his third floor loft writing atelier, between the English classes he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He keeps folder files in a bookcase and in piles on the floor. “I try to keep things fairly clean and ordered,” he wrote me when I asked him to describe how he writes. He kept various biographies, including the two editions of An Autobiography on his large green-glass writing desk with a spiral-ringed index nearby. Two Wright placemats which he considers “talismans” are on the desk, as well. 

His screen saver is a picture of Fallingwater. There is Wright artwork on the walls, “including a photograph of the B. Harley Bradley in Kankakee.” Why that house? Because that is where Hendrickson’s Wright adventures started forming in his imagination 66 years ago as he rode past it on his way to the park and yet another game of catch. 

Note added April 11: A commenter on Facebook squirms at the mention of Wright’s affection to Cecil Corwin (and I am not divulging what conclusion, if any, Hendrickson reaches about that). I have asked him why a man’s affection for another man, or a woman’s affection for another woman, no matter what form that affection takes, should make us uncomfortable. Does that person squirm about Wright’s physical affection for Mamah Borthwick or for Olgivanna before their marriage? I think not.

Many people have pre-ordered Hendrickson’s book on-line from the Seattle behemoth that is Amazon. I urge you to instead order the book from your closest local bookshop. We have to do all we can to keep our local booksellers in business. If you don’t have a bookshop near you, you can pre-order from the publisher. That will do more to help authors than ordering from the Big A.

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