© Mark Hertzberg (2021)
Some Black guy from Barbados went berserk, setting fire to a house before slaying seven people with a roofing hatchet as they tried to flee the blaze. He never came to trial because he died from having ingested muriatic acid while hiding from authorities. That’s the story we have accepted for 107 years about what happened at Taliesin on August 15, 1914 when Wright’s partner, Mamah Borthwick, her two children, and four of Wright’s workers died a horrific death.
Although Julian Carlton was the slayer, he was not legally guilty of the murders because he was never tried. There is only one known photo of him. It was taken in court and appeared in a local newspaper six days later. I wrote about the photograph almost two years ago:
A comment about this article was posted on the website a few weeks ago by “whatever74,” an on-line email pseudonym. The comment gave me pause:
The account of this murder to me is very suspicious. So many things just don’t add up. I don’t think we have anywhere near the truth. Life for black people back then was so unfair, so hidden, so corrupted, we really have no clue what transpired. He sure doesn’t look insane in this photo. He looks resigned to a fate determined by people in power that couldn’t care less about anything except maintaining that power. Who dies of starvation while in prison? How does that even happen? And look at him in this courtroom shot. Does he look like someone that can’t consume food? He looks perfectly healthy, hardly someone that is wasting away from lack of food.
It just shows you how dangerous it is when one group gets a lot of power. And it happens all over the world. We fear what we could lose and tend to do irrational things to protect against that loss.
I thought that the commenter is likely African-American, suspicious of a white narrative of the crime. It would be easy to dismiss the comment but we should not, especially with the awakening many people who are not of color have had since the murder of George Floyd. Why not believe the initial explanation of the Minneapolis Police Department that Floyd died after some sort of medical incident. Isn’t law enforcement trustworthy?
“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction:…Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later…”
The phone video that Darnella Frazier showed us otherwise. That kind of gulf between fact and fiction is not limited to George Floyd’s murder at the hand of police in Minneapolis.
I believe that what we generally know about the massacre at Taliesin is true, but we need to be careful about some of the nuances. It took more than 100 years, until Paul Hendrickson wore out the soles of his shoes with his gumshoe detective work and wrote Plagued by Fire in 2019 in which he established conclusively that Carlton was a native of Alabama, not Barbados. That undid a century-old “fact” about the killings.
Did it matter for some people that this crazed Negro (I am purposely using pejoratives) was, you know, from down there, from the West Indies? Wright described Carlton as “a thin-lipped Barbados negro.” The lead of the next day’s Chicago Sunday Tribune story was “A Barbados negro with a handax yesterday…” Maybe as a West Indian Carlton didn’t understand how “house Negroes” should do things in America. Conversely, Hendrickson wonders if Carlton wanted people to think that he was from Barbados and thus think that he wasn’t just a plain-old American Negro or N-word, with every connotation that came with such a description.
Hendrickson writes that race was an important identifier in describing Carlton: “The black butcher.” “The black beast.” “The Negro fiend.” “And,” writes Hendrickson, “in a few places worse than that.” Indeed, one of the witnesses to the massacre quotes the father of one the victims as saying, “That [N-word] up there. He killed my boy.” The late Ron McCrea makes a similar point in his 2012 book Building Taliesin. He quotes Ernest Wittwer who was just four years old when his father took him to the jail in Dodgeville to look at Carlton. “He held me up so I could see him through the window. I had never seen a black man before. I never felt the same about black people after that.”
Hendrickson posits that Carlton’s race may have influenced how Richard Lloyd Jones, Wright’s cousin, may have skewed editorial coverage in his newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, in 1921 and helped fuel the Tulsa Race Massacre.
I shared “whatever 74’s” comments with a handful of Wright scholars. One wrote:
“whatever74” brings an interesting and plausible perspective (albeit clearly unsubstantiated by any evidence or proof) to the final days of JC placed in the larger context of American culture and society in 1914…PS: it certainly makes you think . . .
I emailed “whatever 74” and asked what prompted his comment. He replied: I was just reading about FLW. As I reread my comment now I wish there was an edit option. If he had swallowed that acid that made it impossible for him to eat he could have looked just fine and healthy for weeks depending on his condition when he swallowed it. I’ve water fasted for weeks and its surprising how healthy you look when you don’t eat…I suppose is pointless to even discuss an event where we have no idea what really happened. I’ve seen so much prejudice in my life I guess I’m hypersensitive to it. Videos today just showcase how often people in authority misuse that authority to maintain their position of power. I can’t imagine what transpired back then when so many people got away with so much behind closed doors.
Then came another email from “whatever 74”: Just a white guy that has spent quite a bit of time in black culture.
Just what I’ve seen and experienced.
But as we really don’t know what happened and can’t possibly ascertain
what really happened, its probably better to focus on what is happening
Keiran Murphy, the esteemed Taliesin historian, has an unpublished nine page manuscript entitled “The human toll taken by madness: Truth and Myth Surrounding the 1914 Murders at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin.” It cites numerous inaccurate contemporary accounts, including in The New York Times, which many people consider “the paper of record.” The Times wrote that Carlton was arrested 16 miles away from Taliesin after being tracked down by bloodhounds. In fact, he was hiding in a boiler at Taliesin.
Since 2007 many people have asked on social media what kind of soup was being served for lunch that day. The first mention of any soup (on an August day!) is in William Drennan’s woefully inaccurate 2007 book Death in a Prairie House. There is no documentation for his assertion that soup was on the luncheon menu that August day. And so the myths are created even the century after the events of that summer day at Taliesin.
There has been much speculation about whether Borthwick was the intended victim, or was it Emil Brodelle, a draftsman who had allegedly racially insulted Carlton, or was it indirectly Wright himself by killing his lover? Was Carlton upset at being fired by Wright? Murphy sets the record straight that Carlton’s departure from Taliesin was quite possibly voluntary, and that he had told Wright some time before that he would be returning to Chicago.
I talked to a friend who is the steward of a Wright home, and who was recently asked to review an unpublished, but thoroughly documented Wright manuscript. One of the things that struck him was the description of Borthwick as a person of privilege, who, he thought, seemed to not be above using that privilege when addressing servants. Wright, according to the manuscript, was not above using the N-word. Last night, as I finish this article, a Wright scholar told me of a second-hand account from the son of one of the workers at Taliesin that another worker may have been sexually harassing Carlton’s wife.
I appreciate whatever74 giving us something to ponder, although he undid much of the good in his questions with some things he later wrote that I think are gross negative generalizations about African-Americans who, he feels, have not reached their potential.
I do not doubt the general outline of what we have read and believed to be true about the events of August 15, 1914 at Taliesin. But whatever74’s initial comments and Daniella Frazier’s video are stark reminders for us to think twice before accepting a narrative involving race, even from “authorities,” as the unvarnished truth. Carlton’s motive is secondary to my point.
There have been discussions about whether or not Frank Lloyd Wright was racist. Some people dismiss his use of the N-word as a norm 100 years ago, and not perceived by whites as racially insensitive as it would be today.
This is 2021, not 1914 and I daresay that your initial reaction about the veracity of “Some Black guy from Barbados went berserk, setting fire to a house before slaying seven people with a roofing hatchet as they tried to flee the blaze. He never came to trial because he died from having ingested muriatic acid while hiding from authorities.” would reasonably be different depending on whether you are white or Black. I welcome your comments.