There is one story from the pioneering era of aviation that combines firsts, triumph, failure, and tragedy. It also features adultery, scandal, and perhaps even murder. It’s a story that brings to life the highs and lows of flying life alongside the highs and lows of passion, love, and pride. It’s a real-life embodiment of the legend of Icarus. This is the compelling and calamitous story of Captain William “Bill” Lancaster and his lover Jessie “Chubbie” Miller.
Triumph, Adultery, Murder, and Tragedy: The Lost Aviator, Bill LancasterPublished 1 month ago
British-born Captain Bill Lancaster met Australian Jessie "Chubbie" Miller at a fateful party in London in 1927. He was approaching his 30th birthday, she was a spirited 25-year-old, and both were married.
Despite their family situations, Lancaster and Miller both held onto dreams of daring and record-breaking achievements in the burgeoning world of long-distance flight. While sharing a drink at a Baker Street soiree, Lancaster told Miller how, inspired by Charles Lindbergh's New York to Paris flight, he wished to travel from England to Australia in a new, but small, aircraft known as the Avro Avian. Miller quickly asked if she could join him.
Though she had no experience as a pilot, Jessie Miller soon proved herself an asset to Bill Lancaster. She was a charming woman who had a natural talent for raising money and persuading people to part with the provisions and materials that would make the trip possible. On October 14, 1927, Lancaster’s wife traveled to Croydon Airport in London to wave off her husband and his new co-pilot in a plane they called the “Red Rose”.
While the preparation had gone well, the journey itself was arduous. Blighted by bad weather, mechanical problems, and illness, Lancaster and Miller experienced a never-ending series of problems, delays, and at least one crash close to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. By the time they arrived in Darwin, 14,000 miles later, they were exhausted, frustrated, and lucky to be alive. They were also in love.
Love wasn’t the only thing Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller found on their epic flight; they also found fame. For six months, they toured Australia, greeting crowds and attending civic receptions. They were signed to feature in a Hollywood movie and returned to the U.S. to continue their hero's parade. Sadly, the Great Depression and other factors meant Lancaster and Miller’s movie was never made and public interest in their achievements became lost in the financial crises dominating the American landscape.
Miller might have been the proud holder of the record for the longest flight ever taken by a woman, and one of the most famous aviators in the world, but that was not going to pay the bills. After Lancaster made a short but futile attempt to reconcile with his wife, the flying lovers moved to New York and began a new life together.
While Bill Lancaster’s achievement in flying to Australia was impressive, Jessie Miller was a trailblazer. At this time, Amelia Earhart, one of history's most famous aviators, had done nothing more than sit as a passenger on a flight over the Atlantic. Miller, on the other hand, in addition to her record distance, was the first woman to fly more than 8,000 miles and the first woman to cross the equator in the air.
Miller followed this by becoming the third woman to earn a New York pilot’s license and one of just thirty-four licensed female pilots in the U.S. She joined Earhart in establishing the Ninety-Nines aviation group and set a dual speed record for coast-to-coast flying in America. Despite all this, she still had to earn a living. After moving to Miami, Miller decided to take a leaf out of Earhart’s book and publish her autobiography.
Jessie Miller began working on her memoir while Bill Lancaster flew to Mexico in pursuit of a business opportunity. When he arrived, it turned out Lancaster’s clients wanted him to smuggle drugs, and people, back into the U.S. He refused, but it was still six weeks before he returned to the U.S. During that time, Miller, who was tired of being the “other woman” while Lancaster refused to divorce his wife, fell for her ghostwriter, a good-looking young man named Haden Clark.
Lancaster was devastated but had little choice and offered to step aside without fuss if only the couple would wait a month before they married. Sadly for Miller, Clark was a conman who was lying to her about his age, his writing qualifications, the fact he already had two wives, and that he was infected with syphilis. In the end, however, none of that would matter.
"Come quick! Haden has shot himself,” yelled Bill Lancaster as he hammered on Jessie Miller’s bedroom door late on April 20, 1932. The last thing Miller had heard before falling asleep was Lancaster and Clark talking and laughing in the adjacent room as she read. Despite finding two suicide notes, investigators did not believe Clark had taken his own life and Lancaster was arrested for murder.
The aviator confessed he had written the notes and, as a sensational trial progressed, it appeared to all the world that Lancaster would be found guilty. If he was, his life would likely end in the electric chair. Over 18 days, the prosecution made their argument in court before, slowly, a collection of evidence and testimonies supporting Lancaster’s defense began to emerge.
As the days passed, doubt over Bill Lancaster’s guilt began to seep in. Ballistics reports supported the verdict of suicide. Lacaster’s alibi appeared to hold up. Information about Haden Clark’s past as a bigamist and a drug addict was revealed, as did his struggles with mental health and previous threats of suicide. What finally tipped the balance, however, were the written words of Lancaster himself.
“It has been my privilege to see into the depths of a man’s soul through his private diary, which was never intended for anyone’s eyes but his own,” said the judge as he summed up the case to the jury before their verdict. “In all my experience, which has been broad,” he continued, “I have never met a more honorable man than Captain Lancaster.” The aviator was found not guilty and released. He left the U.S. and returned to England.
Although his ordeal was over, Bill Lancaster’s life was in tatters. He needed to rebuild his reputation and, if possible, regain the love of Jessie Miller. The one thing the former military pilot knew was flying, and he hatched a plan to become the fastest man ever to fly from London to Cape Town. a route that had become something of a trophy for British pilots.
The record had recently been taken from Jim Mollison by his wife, Amy Johnson, who completed the journey in four days, six hours, and 54 minutes. Using his father’s money, Lancaster purchased an Avian Mk.V named the Southern Cross Minor. It was slower than the plane used by Johnson, so Lancaster would have to spend less time on the ground. He resolved to sleep no more than two hours at each stop. Flying tired would put him at huge personal risk.
“I want to make it clear that I am attempting this flight at my own risk,” Bill Lancaster said before departing for Cape Town. “I don’t expect any efforts to be made to find me if I’m reported missing.” He had barely flown in over a year and just emerged from the most physically and mentally draining period of his life.
By the time he reached Oran on the north coast of Africa, Lancaster was already well behind schedule. Officials took one look at the tired pilot and decided he was in no fit state to attempt a dangerous flight across the Saraha desert. They told him that, should he crash, he would need to pay $2,000 toward the search cost. “I don’t have it. I’ll take my chances,” Lancaster responded before repeating, “I don’t expect you to look for me.”
“If we don’t hear anything by 6 pm tomorrow,” said Mr. Borel, the head of the Trans-Saharienne Company post at Reggan, “I will send a search car down the track to Gao.” Bill Lancaster, determined not to give up his quest, was about to take off with no lights in his cockpit, no landing lights, and no signal flares. Eight hundred miles of completely uninhabited desert was between him and his next stop.
At 6:30 pm on April 12, 1933, onlookers watched the Southern Cross Minor weave across the ground before lurching unsteadily into the air. At first, it flew in the wrong direction before finally turning south and disappearing into the evening sky. “If you can burn something to light a beacon,” was the last thing Borel said to Lancaster, “we should see you.” Nobody ever heard from Lancaster again.
Regardless of Bill Lancaster’s clear instructions, his disappearance prompted immediate and frantic search missions. At the head of these operations, working out of London, was Jessie Miller. Despite the best efforts of Lancaster’s former lover, and many others, he could not be found. Miller moved on without him but found the scandal over the death of Haden Clark had damaged her reputation among the flying community beyond redemption.
Miller did, at least, find love. She married Josh Pugh, another pilot, and remained with him for the rest of her life. Then, in 1962, she heard news from the Sahara. The wreckage of Lancaster’s plane, and his skeletal body, had been found. “It was the most colossal shock anyone can imagine,” Miller said of that time. “I have been happily married for 26 years. Then suddenly the past reaches out and takes hold of the present.”
Everything we know about Bill Lancaster’s catastrophic final days has been learned from his diaries, which he kept meticulously from the moment his plane plunged to earth. The first entry, made at 5 am on April 14, 1933, read: “I have just escaped a most unpleasant death….It was pitch dark, no moon being up (about 8:15 pm). I tried to feel her down but crashed heavily and the machine turned over.”
“When I came to I was suspended upside down in the cockpit,” Lancaster continued “I do not know how long I had been out. There was a horrible atmosphere in my tiny prison with petrol fumes. By worming my way around and scraping sand away with my nails, eventually I corkscrewed my way out into the open. My eyes were full of blood which had congealed, but eventually I managed to get them open.”
With two gallons of water, which was miraculously undamaged, and the few provisions left over, Bill Lancaster estimated he could ration enough to survive for around seven days. He considered trying to drag his broken body to the Trans-Sahara track but remembered a conversation with Jessie Miller about the best action in this situation and decided staying with the wreckage of his plane was the right course as it provided shade and was more visible from the air.
Lancaster began soaking fabric in petrol to create makeshift signals. “My flares were a success,” he wrote, “at least they showed a brilliant light for 60 seconds. I burnt one every fifteen minutes to half an hour.” Unfortunately, there was nobody in the vast desert darkness who could see his flaming cries for help. Authorities had assumed Lancaster would reach the southern end of his route, and the search was concentrated there.
For days, Bill Lancaster followed a routine of stripping down to his underwear and hiding in the shade when the sun was in the sky followed by wearing every item of clothing he had to try and keep the night’s freezing cold at bay. Throughout this time, he wrote. He described his declining situation in detail and he shared thoughts on his life and the people he loved.
Lancaster also made observations about the scant life around him. “Watching the vulture fly made me wish I could catch him and tame him and leap astride and fly to a pool of water. I would not mind how dirty it was,” the stricken pilot wrote one day, followed by, “There is a little brown and white bird a little bigger than a sparrow settled just near me. I wonder how far an oasis is?”
As time passed, Bill Lancaster began to accept that his chances of rescue were fading. “Chubbie my sweetheart, and mother my best friend and father my pal,” he wrote, “do not grieve, I have only myself to blame for everything. That foolish, headstrong self of me.” Hours after the entry, Lancaster thought he saw lights in the distance and believed it might be his rescue. He drank a thermos of water in celebration, something he soon regretted deeply.
Finally, on his seventh day in the desert, Lancaster wrote “The chin is right up to the last I hope. Am now tying this logbook up in fabric.” Sometime later he wrote on his fuel card that there was, “No one to blame, the engine missed, I landed upside-down in pitch dark and there you are….Goodbye, Father old man. Write [my brother]. And goodbye my darlings. Bill.”
It’s believed Bill Lancaster died on April 20, 1933. His log book and writings were bequeathed to Jessie Miller, who allowed them to be published. Lancaster’s body was buried in Reggan by the French air force. Many years later, the Southern Cross Minor was taken to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, where it is now stored in the vaults, away from public view.
The story of Bill Lancaster has been told several times since, most prominently in the 2014 documentary, The Lost Aviator, made by his great nephew, Andrew Lancaster. The film digs down into the final flight and the truth behind his ancestor’s role in the murder of Haden Clark. While he does not draw a definitive conclusion, the younger Lancaster believes his uncle was “lucky” to be found not guilty. The filmmaker also adds, “[Bill Lancaster] was a very complicated character who didn’t always write what he meant."
While building a house for a client, legendary American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with the man’s wife. Wright built a secret love nest called Taliesin in Wisconsin to provide a refuge from scandal.
But in 1914, handyman Julian Carlton murdered Mamah, her two children, and four others before burning Wright’s famous home to the ground. Today, we’ll discover the truth behind the mysterious massacre...
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Wisconsin on June 8th, 1867, and experienced a "deeply disturbed and obviously unhappy childhood." Still, his mother started his life-long love affair with engineering when she bought her nine-year-old son a set of wooden building blocks. He would go on to become one of the most famous architects and designers the world-over.
Over a 70-year career, Frank would design over one thousand buildings and played a vital role in the 20th-century architectural movement. As famous for his temper and melodramatic personal life as his designs, this “arrogant narcissist,” egoist, and self-proclaimed genius conducted affairs with several clients’ wives. But his life was almost destroyed thanks to one chilling day.
Mary Bouton "Mamah" Borthwick (pronounced "May-mah") was a well-educated early feminist who spoke several languages. In 1899, she married Edwin Cheney, an electrical engineer from Illinois. The couple moved to Oak Park and had two children, John and Martha, but something was missing from Mamah's life…fire and passion. All that changed when she met Frank Lloyd Wright when Edwin commissioned him to design a house in 1903, and he and Mamah fell in love.
Lonely, obsessed Mamah was under his spell. The married Frank once confessed, “Two women were necessary for a man of artistic mind—one to be mother of his children and the other to be his mental companion, his inspiration and soul mate.” Frank and Mamah could often be seen taking joyrides around Oak Park in Frank’s new-fangled automobile. Unfortunately, they could also be seen making love in the unfinished Cheney home. His minimalist, open-plan, large windowed architectural style proved his undoing. Once word spread around their deeply religious and conservative neighborhood, his clients swiftly dropped him. Frank Lloyd Wright was facing bankruptcy.
The affair continued until Wright admitted to “deserting my wife and the children for one year in search of a spiritual adventure” in 1909. "Vampire" Mamah also abandoned Edwin and their two children to rendezvous with Frank in self-imposed exile in Europe. However, more scandal followed when a Chicago Tribune reporter spotted the runaways in a Berlin hotel and splashed their affair all over the newspapers.
While the pair lived in Florence, Italy, Edwin finally granted Mamah a divorce, though Frank's loyal wife, Kitty, refused to divorce him. The lovers returned to the US in October 1910, and Frank briefly reconciled with Kitty. However, he was planning a second “spiritual hegira” so he and Mamah could escape their scandals. He would build them a house in the woods near his childhood home.
At his wit’s end, Frank persuaded his mother to buy him a 600-acre plot of land next to her own in Spring Green, Wisconsin. In 1911, he designed and started constructing a new home for himself and Mamah. Honoring his maternal roots, he named the property Taliesin after the ancient Welsh poet and magician whose name means “Shining Brow.”
The sprawling two-story Mediterranean villa was built from yellow limestone and other local materials. The gorgeous, “low, wide, and snug” bungalow stood on the hillcrest and was the ideal sanctuary to live and work freely. Wright hoped to restart his architecture career far away from the prying eyes of the press. But the couple would not stay hidden long…
Journalists soon discovered Frank and Mamah’s Wisconsin love cottage, and their affair was back on the front page of every newspaper in the land. To early 20th-century Americans, a married man living in sin with a divorced mistress was sickening. But Wright refused to be ashamed and narcissistically proclaimed, “Laws and rules are made for the average.”
The scandal adversely affected Wright's career for years, but he received a major commission to build Chicago’s Midway Gardens in 1913. He left Mamah and her children at Taliesin and set off for the Windy City. On August 15th, 1914, Frank received a desperate phone call. “What’s happened?” his eldest son, John, asked. “Taliesin is on fire,” Frank replied. “Why did I leave them today? What if they’re hurt?”
As the clocks struck midday on that swelteringly hot Saturday, the Taliesin household sat down for lunch. Mamah and her two children sat on the screened patio terrace while six workmen and the carpenter’s 13-year-old son sat in the workers’ dining room on the other side of the house. Like clockwork, Wright’s longtime personal aide and handyman, 31-year-old Barbados native Julian Carlton, served both parties lunch.
Carlton came from an impoverished Afro-Caribbean family in Alabama and moved to Chicago before landing a job as a servant. He’d been at Taliesin just six months. Julian told his wife and the family’s cook, Gertrude, that she could go home… he was about to turn the lovers’ bungalow into a mass-murder mansion.
As the family and the workforce tucked into their lunch, Carlton asked his colleagues where he could find some gasoline as he needed to clean a spill on a rug. One laborer told him where to find a jerrycan, and Carlton set off in search. They were blissfully unaware that Carlton was sneaking around the building, locking all the doors and sealing them inside.
Julian found the gasoline can and picked it up along with a shingling hatchet. Next, he ran down the long hallway to the porch where Mamah and her children were eating. The last thing they would have seen was Julian running at them, brandishing an ax. He took one hefty swing at the back of Mamah’s head as she ate her soup on the porch, piercing her skull through to her forehead.
After dispatching Mamah, the psychotic Carlton turned the hatchet on the two children, John and Martha. It’s believed the madman instantly killed 12-year-old John with one blow of the giant, already-bloodied cleaver. The poor boy was slaughtered, and his “head chopped open, badly burned” as he sat eating lunch in his chair.
Martha, witness to the deaths of her mother and brother, made it out of the room and into the courtyard, where Julian found her and ended her life as well.
Taliesin was so sprawling that the workers hadn’t heard the children’s screams. For them, the first sign anything was wrong was when they heard a splash against the door and smelled gasoline before seeing liquid flowing under the door. A split second later, the accelerant caught fire. Flames and smoke filled the room, while terrified screams filled the air.
One of the survivors, draftsman Herbert Fritz, described the awful events: “We had just been served by [Carlton], and he had left the room when we noticed something flowing under the screen door… Just as I was about to remark the fact, a streak of flame shot under my chair, and it looked like the whole side of the room was on fire.”
Fritz broke a window and escaped the inferno. He rolled down the hill to extinguish his flaming hair and clothes and saw the living quarters engulfed in flames. Herbert tried to return to the house to help others but had to run for his life again as Carlton hatcheted co-workers as they climbed out of the burning building.
Fritz continued, “I saw [Carlton] run back around the house, and I followed in time to see him striking at the others as they came through the door to the court.” Two other workmen escaped––35-year-old master carpenter William Weston, who was struck twice by Carlton’s axe, and 38-year-old injured gardener David Lindblom. The three men ran to the Rieder home half a mile away to call for help.
Neighbors soon arrived but were greeted by a hellish, fiery killing ground and the dead body of John and the dying Martha. Lying near them on the lawn were the dead foreman––Thomas Brunker (68) and two dying workers––draftsman Emil Brodelle (26) plus another workman's son, Ernest Weston (13). They had all been burned or butchered, or both. They found Mamah’s body inside the house; her skull in two.
Five victims died that fateful afternoon; another two died soon after, bringing the final death toll to seven. As Taliesin burned to the ground, Carlton ran to the basement of another building on the estate. He brought with him a small vial of hydrochloric acid. He found a hiding place and attempted suicide by pouring the acid down his throat.
As laborers, farmers, and neighbors worked tirelessly to extinguish the roaring blaze with garden hoses, sheriffs, deputies, and a preacher related to Wright formed a posse and let slip their bloodhounds to search for the murderer. Julian’s wife, Gertrude Carlton, was found in a nearby field, saying she was unaware of her husband's murderous intentions.
Gertrude was wearing travel clothes and stated she was expecting to catch a train to Chicago with her husband to look for new jobs. Sheriff John Williams eventually found Julian Carlton curled up in a basement fireproof furnace chamber under the building on the estate. His attempt to take his own life by drinking acid had failed, and he was barely conscious.
The angry posse tried lynching Carlton, but Sheriff Williams drove him to Dodgeville jail, pursued by armed men in automobiles. Julian couldn’t speak because of the acid, so the police questioned Gertrude. She said her husband had become increasingly paranoid, keeping a hatchet beside their bed. Bizarrely, police released Gertrude with $7 and a train ticket to Chicago.
Survivors reported Emil Brodelle made a racial slur against Julian on August 12th. The two also had a physical confrontation on the morning of the massacre. When Frank arrived, he told detectives, “Three days ago, when I last saw [Carlton], he seemed perfectly normal. He must have lost his mind... and yet I cannot believe the news is true.” That night, Frank grieved at his nearby sister’s house while playing Bach on the piano.
Carlton refused to explain his part in events. Police never determined a motive, yet one theory suggests Mamah fired Julian, so he planned the macabre assault for a day when Wright was in Chicago. He targeted midday as he knew Mamah, her children, and the workmen would be eating lunch. Carlton was charged with the murder of Emil Brodelle but pleaded not guilty. Some conspiracy theorists believe Frank instigated the murders.
As a result of the burns to his esophagus, Julian died of starvation seven weeks later before he could stand trial. Press coverage was savage, even printing that “the tragic ruin of the kingdom of love was the strongest argument that the Avenging Angel still flies.” For the press, Wright’s notorious divorcee mistress harlot got everything she deserved.
Wright laid Mamah Borthwick to rest in a secret nighttime funeral in his family’s plot, which he had designed. She was buried in a plain pine casket under a wreath of flowers. Frank filled the unmarked grave himself. He wrote an emotional letter to local Wisconsin newspapers thanking his neighbors for their support and defending himself and Mamah.
In the letter, he vowed to rebuild Taliesin in Mamah’s memory, stating, “My home will still be there.” By the end of the year, heartbroken Frank had rebuilt his home. However, he’d also fallen in love with another woman. Immediately after Mamah’s tragic death, an artist named Maude "Miriam" Noel (pictured) sent Wright her condolences. Within weeks, Frank and Miriam were lovers. Within months, she moved into Taliesin.
In 1922, Kitty Wright finally granted Frank a divorce; under the terms, he had to wait a year before he could marry his new mistress. Frank married Miriam in November 1923, but she was a morphine addict, and their marriage fell apart within months.
In 1924, while still married to Miriam, Wright met dancer and writer Olga Ivanovna Lazović (pictured). She was the daughter of Montenegrin Duke, leader of the Kuči tribe, and writer Marko Miljanov. Olga and her daughter from a previous marriage, Svetlana, moved into Taliesin II. But Miriam wanted her share of Frank’s money, so sued him for running off with a “pretty Russian dancer." She was also arrested for trashing his Californian cottage and even attempted to take Taliesen by storm!
On April 20th, 1925, tragedy struck again as another fire destroyed the bungalow at Taliesin. Newly-installed faulty telephone wires caused the blaze, allegedly destroying Frank’s $500,000 ($8.5 million in today’s money) Japanese print collection. Wright rebuilt the house a second time, naming it Taliesin III. His and Olga’s daughter, Iovanna, was born in December 1925.
The following year, Olga's Russian ex-husband, Vlademar Hinzenburg, sought custody of his daughter, Svetlana, and accused Frank and Olga of transporting her across state lines, thus violating the Mann Act. Police arrested them in Tonka Bay, Minnesota, but dropped the charges. Miriam’s divorce came through in 1927, but once again, he had to wait twelve months before remarrying. Frank married his third wife, Olga, the next year.
Frank continued designing world-renowned buildings like New York’s Guggenheim Museum and changing architecture as we know it. Taliesin burned down again in 1952, but he rebuilt again, and the beautiful bungalow served as his home, studio, and school until his death in 1959, aged 91. The couple founded the Taliesin Fellowship for architect apprentices and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which Olga ran until she died in 1985. She was 86.
Today, Taliesin still serves as a museum, but if you visit, you’ll note the massacre and Frank’s affairs are scarcely mentioned. He was always a master of public relations. Frank, Olga, and the foundation distanced themselves from the massacre… and it worked. Today, Frank Lloyd Wright is heralded as America’s greatest architect, not for his philandering ways and possible involvement in the slayings.