On a secluded hill in a spring green meadow sits a house built at the turn of the century. It was to be the final home of a woman very much loved. But the near complete destruction of this house was due to avarice, adultery, and insanity. It is truly haunted due to murderous vengeance. Seven occupants of the house perished. How did such abject horror come to pass? And why is this story kept hushed to this day?
A long time ago in the bustling streets of a great northern town, a man with great ambition started his own business. He had no scruples as he stole some of his esteemed employer’s clients and worked secretly until he was found out. And then he was ignominiously fired.
Our subject of this sordid tale is a man of smaller build with big ideas -- but had a chip on his shoulder. He imagined himself to be great at his profession. He was a braggart. While congenial with his clients he was strict with his wife and children. It was the end of the Victorian era and although born from a family with deep religious roots, he developed his own personal philosophy that was very self-centered and based on natural processes.
He married and built a small gabled house on the horse-drawn bustling streets in the suburbs. He and his wife Catherine had 7 children, all very well kept. He built an office adjacent to his house. He loved his work and spent long hours advancing his career – often to the detriment of his family. His business required trips out of town and while on one of his ‘working’ engagements he fell in love with Martha, the wife of a very good client. She was a beautiful woman and very intelligent. She had an understanding of history and art and was actually a translator of books.
The man was obsessed with this woman. Although deemed immoral, they both fled the country nonetheless and traveled through Europe for months. His business suffered, but it didn't matter to him. He found his perfect partner finally. Catherine, his wife, would not grant a divorce and the tales of this unholy relationship spread through the community. She and her children were estranged and left alone in the suburban cottage.
A huge scandal was reported over the 'soul mates' in the press and reporters chased them everywhere they could be found.
The man hid his love interest away in the country house when they returned from their European soiree. Martha was sheltered and adored in the house on the hill overlooking that green meadow. A brook flowed gracefully nearby. The house became known as the ‘love castle’. As time went on, Martha and her children became friends with the assistants, gardeners, and servants. Everyone came to know each other very well and there was a communal attitude there. Life was a secret pleasure for the two lovers.
They would all eat dinner together, entertain in the music room, read stories and act out plays, etc. In those days there were several servants and workers at hand and while there was some formality between the house owner and service people one of the servants was repeatedly chided and humiliated. Julian Carlton had been a recent hire from Barbados. It was said that he was not right in the head, even that he practiced voodoo…But the derogatory treatment by the staff and Martha annoyed and angered the servant so much that he imagined a plot to get even with his employer.
While out of his office on August 15, 1914 a telegram was received concerning a ghastly event at the distant location. The man and the husband of the woman he loved both traveled by train together in deep bereavement to the estate, in shock, to witness after a short buggy ride a smoldering fire and the evidence of multiple deaths following a horrific event.
The vexed servant had planned a deadly revenge for the constant belittlement and nasty remarks. He had prepared a dinner for Martha, her children and the staff people there. While they were at supper he served the dessert at the end and quickly poured gasoline around the dining room.
He then took an ax and charged into the dining room quickly aiming for Martha first, bludgeoning and splitting her head and then proceeded to hack at everyone else at the table. After mortally injuring them all, he fled locking the dining room door behind him and lighting the gasoline which enveloped the room after which the living and dining quarters of the house burnt to the ground. The man’s lover, children and staff had been brutally murdered and those who barely survived the ax were burnt to death.
It was only several days later, after the heat from the fire had subsided, that the police finally found the servant hiding in the boiler in the basement. When found out he quickly swallowed muriatic acid and suffered an agonizing death that lasted for days. The maddening crowd wished to lynch him then and there for his evil and bloody retribution.
The man first introduced in this story was architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The woman he loved was Mary Cheney or Martha "Mamah" Borthwick. Martha had met Wright’s wife Catherine at a social club in Chicago. She referred her husband to Mrs. Cheney’s to design a house for them. The house that Wright cloaked around Martha Borthwick is called Taliesin. The house was named after a Welsh poet from the 6th century and later was portrayed as a wizard or prophet. The word means ‘shining brow’. It was FLWs experimental project, continually being modified based on his latest thinking. Taliesin is built in Spring Green, Wisconsin and was rebuilt after the fire. You can visit this house to this day but you won’t hear this story told by the docents… (photo at bottom)
The tortured photoshopped image above is actually the Ennis House built in 1924 by FLW in Los Angeles. It was the setting of Vincent Price’s black and white horror film of 1959, “House on Haunted Hill”. You can see an image of this house at the beginning of the film. But the interior, quite modern, was not used for the story. A more gothic interior was created by the set designer. A plastic skeleton was flown through the seating area of theaters at choice moments. Alfred Hitchcock admired the low budget success of this movie and made another for himself a year later entitled… Psycho.
Ennis House Photo: Endre Barath Jr.
Above: Taliesien, the house in which the murders actually occurred
Below and top pastoral image: additional photos from Janie-Rice Brother, Architectural Historian, with her blog about historic buildings and gardens here.