haunted house

The Heinous Crime & Haunted House Story of Frank Lloyd Wright

Spring Green, Wisconsin

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When it comes time to explain why some homes are priced below $50,000, OHU50K often sees comments like, “Look at those orbs in the photos,” or “It must be haunted.” Whether one believes in ghosts or not, most everyone loves a good haunted house story.

In celebration of Halloween, this month we are featuring some of the most famous haunted houses stories in the country. Let’s make it clear. These homes are NOT for sale.


When you think of Frank Lloyd Wright, you naturally think of great architecture. You don’t associate him with a heinous crime and a haunted house. But a scandalous affair and a grisly massacre is just what this haunted house story is about.

The Affair

In 1903, Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife, Catherine, introduced Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin Cheney to Wright when the Cheney couple decided to commission a new house. No good deed goes unpunished, however, because soon after, Wright and Mamah started an affair. Cheney divorced his wife and received custody of their two children. Catherine refused to agree to a divorce, but that didn’t stop Frank and Mamah. Wright abandoned his wife and six children, and in 1911, he began construction of Taliesin where the couple moved in together, a highly immoral act in those days.

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The Fire

On August 15, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago on business, Mamah, her two children, eight-year-old Martha and five-year-old John, along with a group of Wright’s draftsmen and laborers, were being served lunch in the dining room by Barbados native, Julian Carlton. Earlier in the day, he had been reprimanded by Mamah. As related by 19-year-old draftsman Herbert Fritz and his table mates, “We heard a swish as though water was thrown through the screen door. Then we saw some fluid coming under the door. It looked like dishwater. It spread out all over the floor.” Carlton had poured gasoline though the locked doors, and the dining room was engulfed in flames.

According to the August 16, 1914 edition of The Detroit Tribune, Mamah, in an attempt to escape the flames, was the first to put her head out an open window. Carlton, waiting outside, wielded a hatchet to cut her neck and crush her skull. He then systematically did the same for each person attempting egress from the burning house. Seven people were massacred, including Mamah, her two children, two workers and a 13-year-old boy. Two survived but were badly injured.

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16 August 1914 Washington Post

The Aftermath

Carlton was found hours later after the attack inside the basement furnace of the house. He had swallowed muriatic acid and was barely conscious. He never suggested a motive for the massacre and died from self-inflicted starvation eight weeks later.

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Talisin Part 2

Taliesin was destroyed, but Wright rebuilt it in Mamah’s honor. Apparently, the Gods did not look fondly on the new incarnation of Taliesin either, as the home was struck by lightning in 1925 and was burnt to the ground a second time. Third rebuild was the charm.

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The Hauntings

Right after the murders, the bodies were taken to a cottage on the grounds called Tan-Y-Deri. It is here where the ghost of Mamah purportedly resides. Usually dressed in a flowing white gown, she is a peaceful presence but appears restless and lost. Doors, windows and lights have been known to open and close by themselves. Groundskeepers who lock the cottage up for the night, have reported finding doors and windows wide open the next morning.


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Mamah’s gravestone

One Comment

  • Sherry Hood

    Such an interesting and scandalous story. You never hear anything about Wrights personal life, just all the praise for his architecture.

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