The most iconic and savage event in Frank Lloyd Wright’s turbulent and nearly century-long life took place on August 15, 1914, at his rural and stunning cantilevered hillside home, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. A black employee in a white serving tunic, supposed to be setting out the noonday meal, went berserk with gasoline and a shingling hatchet. In 12 to 14 minutes of blurring chaos, quiet-seeming Julian Carlton, who probably never weighed more than 150 pounds in his life, managed to murder or fatally wound seven people. (Three died more or less instantly, and four others lingered for several hours or days.) Three of his victims were children under the age of 14, although none were Wright’s own children.

The greatest architect America has yet produced wasn’t home that infernal day. He was down in Chicago on business.

Although no one knows for certain, it seems that the first person to have her head split nearly in half was Wright’s mistress. Her first name was Mamah. Once, she had been his client and near neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. For the previous five years, the two lovers, in their 40s, who’d both forsaken their families to go away to Europe together, had been living in a kind of flouting “sin.” Or that’s the way the world had it.

A Case of Identity

As much as this moment has been chronicled, pored over, dreamed into by what is now three generations of Wright biographers and historians, there is still so much about it that has to be imagined, conjured. That’s to say, we know so much and simultaneously so little. Which in a way is its own definition of Frank Lloyd Wright himself: riddles wrapped up inside of riddles, triangles drawn inside of circles drawn inside of squares.

For more than a century, the figure at the center of this small holocaust has remained a kind of cipher, almost a cartoon of madness. History has had a hard time just getting Julian Carlton’s name straight.

Wright evokes riddles wrapped up inside of riddles, triangles drawn inside of circles drawn inside of squares.

In seven years of researching and reporting a Wright book, which has taken me happily around this country and inside scores of his incomparable architectural works, one of the supposedly side questions that kept burbling up in my walking dreams and waking nights was that most basic of journalistic questions: But who really was this person? It was as if we always had the deed and none of the life. An old legend named Shirley Povich at The Washington Post, where I worked for several decades, used to tell his troops: “If you go, it’ll happen.” Perhaps, without fully realizing, I was also being pushed forward by something Wright himself once said: “I believe that in the search for the answer lies the answer.” So I went. So I searched.

Wright in the garden at Taliesin.

Did I solve the riddle? Not entirely. I got some edges and pieces. And here is but one: the slayer was never from Barbados or any other Caribbean place, as has been passed along in uncounted Wright books and newspaper feature stories. He was from backwoods Alabama, one of at least 13 children, with parents who may have been born into slavery.

And why in the greater scheme is that even important? I will duck the complicated answer with the hope you seek out the book (even if you only borrow it from a library). But I will tease with this much: Julian Carlton’s life refracted back powerfully on the mysteries of Frank Lloyd Wright himself. It’s a life of undisputed artistic genius and rank egotism that is, as it turns out, somehow inseparable from and inextricably bound up with fire and loss and murder and race—and, yes, not least, a hidden humanity. Call it haunted. You cannot understand Wright’s life without at least delving into the life and motives of Julian Carlton.

Paul Hendrickson is the author of Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy and Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He loved in Life, and Lost. He teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Knopf will publish his new book, Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, on October 1