AN ASSASSIN IN UTOPIA: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder, by Susan Wels
What do an experiment in free love, a renowned newspaper editor with a penchant for the occult, and a dour — then murdered — president have in common?
That’s the question that the prolific historian Susan Wels poses in “An Assassin in Utopia,” which explores the interwoven fates of the radical preacher John Humphrey Noyes, the media impresario Horace Greeley and the doomed James A. Garfield, who was shot four months into his tenure as president of the United States and died of infection two months later. It spoils none of the rollicking pleasures of the book to reveal that the answer is a proto-incel named Charles Julius Guiteau, so let’s set him aside for the moment.
Instead, we can start as Wels does, with the spiritual awakening of Noyes and his ensuing desire to establish a model of communal living based on audacious religious doctrine. Among his precepts: Monogamous relationships are a perversion of God’s will; marriage is a group effort, involving numerous sexual relationships with an unlimited number of partners; men and women alike should work and participate in all household responsibilities. Additionally, it is the sacred task of older men and women to “initiate” the post-pubescent, and birth control is the sole responsibility of men — who are expected to become proficient in the tantric art of “male continence.”
From the start, Noyes horrified more conventional Christians. But the once-timid theologian had graduated from Dartmouth and Yale and come to the same conclusion that countless alumni have since: He was “a perfect human being, incapable of sin.” Noyes launched two newspapers to spread his ideology, financed by his heiress wife, Harriet. He established what came to be known as Oneida in 1848, having acquired 23 acres of land from one of his disciples.
Oneida was unique in its particulars, but between 1800 and 1860, the United States saw over 70 utopian experiments; central New York was such an epicenter for religious fever that it was christened the Burned-Over District. Oneida might have had its scandals — but then, its neighbor was an enclave called the Kingdom of Matthias. “In a ritual called the ‘Fountain of Eden,’” Wels writes, “members … would surround him, naked, in a circle while Matthias sluiced them with a sponge and declared them virgins.”
Fascinating though Oneida is, it’s but one element of this portrait of an era. Each towering figure — preacher, newspaperman, president — gets the biographical treatment. So too does Charles Guiteau. Guiteau joined Oneida in 1860, claiming “an irresistible power” attracted him to the community. He found the supposed paradise disappointing, not least because none of its women would sleep with him. He left in 1863, confident he was destined for greatness. Guiteau lasted three months on the outside. He was readmitted to Oneida on a trial basis, but was no happier.
In 1866, Guiteau moved to New York City and became obsessed with Greeley, whom he wanted to help elect president. When Greeley died, he fixated on a series of Republican politicians. Guiteau ultimately became convinced that Garfield — who won the presidential election of 1880 — had sold out his most committed supporters. Desperate for fame, Guiteau concluded that the president must die. He plotted. He schemed. He shot Garfield twice. Reporters soon linked Guiteau to Oneida, and gleefully charged the lurid social experiment with stoking the assassin’s fanaticism.
For decades, Noyes had operated Oneida with total control. He built out its enterprises, opened its grounds to interested visitors, approved sexual liaisons between members and fathered several children — once with one of his nieces. He slept with whomever he pleased, including teenage girls.
But in 1865, he went too far even for his obedient flock: He decided to dabble in eugenics. He christened it “stirpiculture,” and ruled that only he and his inner circle would decide which Oneidans were permitted to “breed.” Faith faltered.
By 1879, matters had deteriorated further. Noyes heard that he would soon be arrested for his sexual misdeeds, and he fled to Canada. Without Noyes at the helm of the community, suspicion and mistrust took root; Oneida gradually morphed from radical cult to watered-down kibbutz. The concept of “complex marriage” was abolished, and Oneidans entered monogamous relationships. The fabled Mansion House where members lived and worked was divided up into rental units.
The sudden overhaul must have shaken the old-timers. Readers will perhaps arrive at the end of Wels’s complicated tale experiencing a similar kind of dizziness — the whoosh of overindulgence. This is a book to be sidled up to like a buffet: Know that it sometimes groans under the weight of its varied delights. Margaret Fuller — journalist, critic and Transcendentalist — drops in for a chapter. Wels traces the rise of P.T. Barnum and the fall of Reconstruction. She chronicles the ascendance of the Fox sisters, two spiritualists who claimed to be in communion with ghosts.
I inhaled asides about Kate Chase, the “toast of Washington,” and Susan Edson, the first female doctor in the capital. Wels’s expert and well-paced dissection of post-Civil War politics so sated me that the eventual — and titular — turn to the president’s actual assassination arrived like a second main course; I almost didn’t need it. At the same time, I might have made space for a deeper examination of the abuses suffered at Oneida; incest and sex with minors are mentioned with brisk matter-of-factness.
Still, Wels’s kaleidoscopic romp is an undeniable thrill. In a recent reconsideration of Oneida, one writer saw its impact in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the advent of modern birth control. We can find Oneida too in contemporary considerations of what it means to find fulfillment in work and love. Perhaps even the disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried — whose rumored romantic entanglements are the stuff of flowcharts — owes something to Noyes.
Oneida still exists as a museum, and in the form of the silverware company its members founded almost two centuries ago. A recent promotion on its website offered an additional 25 percent off sale items with the code “FORKIT.” With discount innuendo, Eden lives on as a corporation.
Mattie Kahn is the author of the upcoming “Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions.”
AN ASSASSIN IN UTOPIA: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder | By Susan Wels | 341 pp. | Pegasus Crime | $27.95