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Death in a Prairie House

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders


Publication Year: 2007

     The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of biographers—a historical and cultural gap that is finally addressed in William Drennan’s exhaustively researched Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.
     In response to the scandal generated by his open affair with the proto-feminist and free love advocate Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright had begun to build Taliesin as a refuge and "love cottage" for himself and his mistress (both married at the time to others).
      Conceived as the apotheosis of Wright’s prairie house style, the original Taliesin would stand in all its isolated glory for only a few months before the bloody slayings that rocked the nation and reduced the structure itself to a smoking hull.
     Supplying both a gripping mystery story and an authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, Drennan wades through the myths surrounding Wright and the massacre, casting fresh light on the formulation of Wright’s architectural ideology and the cataclysmic effects that the Taliesin murders exerted on the fabled architect and on his subsequent designs.
Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Outstanding Book, selected by the Public Library Association

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Felix Raab somewhere notes that studies of this sort, “like good deeds in a naughty world, require no apology.” Perhaps not, but they do require the grateful (if inevitably incomplete) acknowledgment of help where it was found....

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Prologue: The House across the River

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pp. 3-4

Throughout the otherwise tedious spring and summer of 1911, the dusty Wisconsin town of Spring Green, in southern Sauk County, was gifted with a welcome and unexpected diversion, one that had sparked a flurry of interest, rumors, and gossip among the villagers—all 730 of them. Just down the road, across the Wisconsin...

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1. Prelude to Murder: The Architect and the Feminist

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pp. 5-42

For such a bucolic place, Wisconsin has been the unlikely home to a disproportionate number of murderers whose depravities have etched themselves into the collective American consciousness. Ed Gein, for one. He was arrested in 1957 at his Plainfield “death farm,” which was decorated by bowls...

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2. Scandal in Oak Park [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 43-68

It is a commonplace to point out that Mamah Cheney, in terms of her artistic temperament and capricious personality, much more resembled Frank’s two future wives, Miriam Noel and Olgivanna Hinzenberg— and indeed his mother Anna—than she did Catherine. But there is good reason to believe that Mamah met Frank through...

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3. “A Peculiar Establishment”: Life at Taliesin, 1911–1914

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pp. 69-84

If anything, Wright told the Tribune reporter, his marital break-up was the fault of Anna and of Catherine’s parents: he and Kitty had been much too young to marry back in ’89 and should have been prevented from doing so. (It was convenient for him to overlook the fact of established parental disapproval on both sides...

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4. “A Summer Day That Changed the World”: Murder at Taliesin [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 85-130

Mamah was the first to die, surely, the insane force of the blow driving through her thick, upswept hair and burying the axe blade deep within her skull, spattering brain matter and bone particulate into the air like a terrible nimbus around her head, that head then falling onto the table’s white linen and gushing blood. ...

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5. “I Guess You Solved the Question”: The Motives, Trials, and Lonesome Death of Julian Carlton

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pp. 131-153

Julian Carlton, one of the greatest mass murderers of civilians in Wisconsin history, lived for about seven and a half weeks after his arrest. Except for three brief court appearances, he spent his fitful, pain-wracked days and nights in the Dodgeville jail, and it is conventionally assumed that he said nothing germane about the crimes...

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Epilogue: The Legacy of Fire

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pp. 154-168

As the critic Paul Fussell so hauntingly records, the summer of 1914 is etched in the West’s “modern memory” as the ironically benign prelude to our loss of cultural innocence, of any grounds for rational optimism. In England, of course, that particularly glorious summer offered up little hint of what would follow: the Somme, Passchendaele...


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pp. 171-206

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 207-209


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pp. 211-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780299222130
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299222147

Publication Year: 2007