Martha "Mamah" Borthwick (June 19, 1869 – August 15, 1914) is primarily noted for her relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright, which ended when she was murdered. She and Wright were instrumental in bringing the ideas and writings of Swedish feminist Ellen Key to American audiences. Wright built his famous settlement called Taliesin in Wisconsin for her, in part, to shield her from aggressive reporters and the negative public sentiment surrounding their non-married status. Both had left their spouses and children in order to live together and were the subject of relentless public censure.
Borthwick earned her BA at the University of Michigan in 1892. She later worked as a librarian in Port Huron, Michigan. In 1899, Borthwick married Edwin Cheney, an electrical engineer from Oak Park, Illinois, USA. They had two children: John (1902) and Martha (1905).
Mamah met Wright's wife, Catherine, through a social club. Soon after, Edwin commissioned Wright to design them a home, now known as the Edwin H. Cheney House. Mamah's sister, Elizabeth Bouton Borthwick, lived in an apartment on the lower level of the house.
In 1909, Mamah and Wright left their spouses and traveled to Europe. Most of their friends and acquaintances considered their open closeness to be scandalous, especially since Catherine had refused to agree to a divorce. The Chicago newspapers criticized Wright, implying that he would soon be arrested for immorality, despite statements from the local sheriff that he could not prove that the couple was doing anything wrong. After the couple moved to Taliesin, the editor of the Spring Green, Wisconsin newspaper condemned Wright for bringing scandal to the village. The scandal affected Wright's career for several years; he did not receive his next major commission, the Imperial Hotel, until 1916.
In 1911, Borthwick began translating the works of the Swedish feminist thinker and writer Ellen Key, whom she admired and had visited while in Europe.
On August 15, 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago, Julian Carlton, a male servant from Barbados who had been hired several months earlier, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead included Mamah; her two children, John and Martha; a gardener; a draftsman named Emil Brodelle; a workman; and another workman's son. Two people survived the mayhem, one of whom helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton swallowed muriatic acid immediately following the attack in an attempt to kill himself. He was nearly lynched on the spot, but was taken to the Dodgeville jail. Carlton died from starvation seven weeks after the attack, despite medical attention. At the time, Wright was overseeing work on Midway Gardens in Chicago, Illinois.
In popular culture
A detailed nonfiction account of the tragedy at Taliesin is provided in Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William R. Drennan.
An opera, Shining Brow, covers the story of the Cheneys and the Wrights, from when they meet in Wright's office, through the aftermath of Mamah's death. Music was composed by American composer Daron Hagen with a libretto by Paul Muldoon.
- Calendar of the University of Michigan for 1892-93. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. 1893. p. 189.
- BBC News article: "Mystery of the murders at Taliesin".
- William R. Drennan (18 January 2007). Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders. Terrace Books. ISBN 978-0-299-22210-9.
- "T.C. Boyle's 'Women' Recasts Frank Lloyd Wright Bio". NPR.org. 3 March 2009. Retrieved 28 October 2014.