Garrison killer

ISBN Real: Death in a Prairie House revisits the Taliesin murders
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ISBN REAL On Aug. 15, 1914, seven people were murdered at Taliesin, the famed Prairie-Style Wisconsin house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for himself and his out-of-wedlock companion, Mamah Cheney. The victims of the gruesome occurrence were Cheney, her two children from a previous relationship, and four men in Wright's employ.

The Taliesin murders have been recounted many times by Wright scholars, but William R. Drennan's Death in a Prairie House (University of Wisconsin Press, 232 pages, $35.95 hardcover, $16.95 paperback) centralizes the event, placing it compellingly within the context of Wright and Cheney's complex relationship with the conservative locals. Drennan also adjusts many of the accepted details of what happened that day.

One detail that hasn't changed in his telling is that the butler — perhaps to the embarrassment of the zealously unconventional Wright — did it. His name was Julian Carlton, a recent hire at Taliesin and one of the legions of people who probably would never have made history had they been born after the psychopharmacological revolution.

Drennan's realignments are convincing enough. But still, when he argues that "the traditional reconstruction of the crime ... insists on a quite different chronology than the one argued here" (namely that Carlton set the employees on fire only after having hatcheted the family in a separate wing), I can't help but note that the constants — "fire" and "hatcheted" — seem disproportionately more germane.

Academic histories of minor events are funny that way. The anxiety over detail can often seem outsized to the event's wider significance. Without hope of sending a ripple through the historical record, what purpose does a reordering of facts serve, in this particular case, beyond satisfying a morbid strain of OCD?

Yeah, I suppose history should be sorted out as faithfully as possible. Truth and all that. It's just that the horror of the Taliesin murders — "her head belching blood," "hatchet crusted with gore," "he carried the box containing his children onto the train," etc. — renders the fussiness of the housecleaning almost comical.

The absurdity is slightly mitigated by the rubbernecking ingenuousness confided here and there through Drennan's tone. That must sound awfully backhanded, but I wouldn't begrudge anyone an interest in the gory details. After all, I didn't pick up the book because the iffy chronology of the bloody holocaust was an itch I needed scratched. It just seems like Drennan could be more forthright about the real appeal of his subject matter, which I daresay is not its hastily argued effect on Wright's creative output.

I guess I want the new assertions of Drennan's Death in a Prairie House to have been presented differently, maybe as historical fiction or more overtly narrative nonfiction. Certainly there are plenty of sentences scattered about that suggest a man wanting to break free of his academic cocoon and become a fancy-writing butterfly. It's incongruous in this forensics report of a book to write, "She urged the horse past patches of oxeye daisies and finally she neared the house, her young mind filled with horror and her childhood innocence falling away from her on all sides." But that sentence would make a crackerjack opening for a novel.

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