BOOKS BY SUSAN WELS
AN ASSASSIN IN UTOPIA:
The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century
Sex Cult and a
It was heaven on earth—and, some whispered, the devil’s garden.
Thousands came by trains and carriages to see this new Eden, carved from hundreds of acres of wild woodland. They marveled at orchards bursting with fruit, thick herds of Ayrshire cattle and Cotswold sheep, whizzing mills, and outlandish machinery. And they gaped at the people who lived in this place—especially the women, with their queer cropped hair and shamelessly short skirts. The men and women of this strange outpost worked and slept together—without sin, they claimed.
From 1848 to 1881, a small utopian colony in upstate New York—the Oneida Community—was known for its shocking sexual practices, from open marriage and free love to the sexual training of young boys by older women. And in 1881, a one-time member of the Oneida Community—Charles Julius Guiteau—assassinated President James Garfield in a brutal crime that shook America to its core.
An Assassin in Utopia is the first book that weaves together these explosive stories in a tale of utopian experiments, political machinations, and murder. This deeply researched narrative—by bestselling author Susan Wels—tells the true, interlocking stories of the Oneida Community and its radical founder, John Humphrey Noyes; his idol, the eccentric newspaper publisher Horace Greeley (founder of the New Yorker and the New York Tribune); and the gloomy, indecisive President James Garfield—who was assassinated after his first six months in office.
Juxtaposed to their stories is the odd tale of Garfield’s assassin, the demented Charles Julius Guiteau, who was connected to all of them in extraordinary, surprising ways.
Against a vivid backdrop of ambition, hucksterism, epidemics, and spectacle, the book’s interwoven stories fuse together in the climactic murder of President Garfield in 1881—at the same time as the Oneida Community collapsed.
Colorful and compelling, An Assassin in Utopia is a page-turning odyssey through America’s nineteenth-century cultural and political landscape.
Read excerpts from An Assassin in Utopia:
After a young woman he loved married another, Noyes—filled with anguish and envy—declared that, when God's will was done, marriage and sexual exclusiveness, guilt, and jealousy would no longer exist. "In a holy community," he wrote to a friend, "there is no more reason why sexual intercourse shall be restrained by law than why eating and drinking should be, and there is as little occasion for shame in the one case as in the other."
Under a bleak grey sky, on the raw, icy morning of April 10, 1841, thirty-year-old Horace Greeley hunched at his desk over columns of type as the first copies of his new daily newspaper, the New York Tribune, thundered off the press. With his pallid skin, ivory hair, and old white coat, he looked like a rumpled ghost in the dawn light of his attic office at 30 Ann Street.
Greeley was nearly bankrupt, but he had staked everything—his meager capital and a thousand dollars from a friend—on the launch of a "new morning journal of politics, literature, and general intelligence." Hawked by newsboys for a penny a copy, it debuted, unhappily, on the same day as New York's funeral parade for America's ninth president, William Henry Harrison, who had died, suddenly, just six days earlier.
After midnight, in a cold and muddy army camp near Columbus, Ohio, Colonel James Garfield nuzzled his two horses, rubbing his cheeks against their velvet noses as they pretended to nibble his brown beard. He had never felt such a crushing need for love and affection. At twenty-nine, he was chronically tormented by self-doubt, depression, and debilitating diarrhea. A former schoolteacher and state legislator, he had no military experience. Now, in October 1861—six months after the first shots in the Civil War—he was training raw recruits in a rainy, ramshackle army complex at Camp Chase.
On the sultry afternoon of July 13, 1865, at 12:35 p.m., the engine room of Barnum's American Museum was suddenly engulfed in flames. Within minutes, the derelict structure was a blazing tinderbox. Patrons and performers stumbled, gasping, out of the building, while animals trapped inside shrieked as fire torched the dusty, crowded halls.
Huge anacondas and pythons slithered down the museum's stairwells. Two panicked lions broke free but died, bellowing, in the smoke. A tiger leaped from the second story to the street and was butchered by a fireman's axe. Soon, tongues of flame were shooting from the windows, and the roof fell in a volcanic mass of fiery debris. A crowd of forty thousand New Yorkers watched the Ann Street wall of the building buckle and collapse with a thundering blast, while eagles, parrots, and cockatoos soared above their heads to safety. No humans died in the inferno, but the museum's menagerie of monkeys, alligators, porcupines, cats, dogs, and a kangaroo perished in the conflagration.
After Horace Greeley's nomination for president, Guiteau became obsessed with the idea that, by supporting the editor's campaign, he would be rewarded with a prestigious post in his administration. He decided to "get out of the law business and get into politics with Mr. Greeley," his wife recalled. He talked about Greeley constantly and "became infatuated with the idea...of doing everything he possibly could" for his election. He almost entirely neglected his law business, and they had no money. But Guiteau assured Annie that, after a while, he would have a grand position. "There is no doubt that Mr. Greeley will be elected," he promised, and as president, the editor would reward him generously for his campaign work. As compensation, Guiteau would ask for an appointment to a foreign mission. He knew the time was coming, she said, when he would be a "big man."
There was no doubt that President Hayes was straightlaced. He never smoked, swore, or drank liquor, and his wife, who banned alcohol from the White House, was known in the capital as "Lemonade Lucy." But Hayes was surprisingly broadminded when it came to his first cousin John Humphrey Noyes. As governor of Ohio, Hayes told visiting Oneidans than he had "no prejudices" against their peculiar religious beliefs, and was "well pleased" at having a visit from them. He even toured the Community's branch in Wallingford, Connecticut. Later, when he was president, Oneidans came to see him in the White House and presented him with a huge bear trap—although they were careful not to embarrass him about their connection.
As the warden of the jail mailed specially printed invitations to a small fraction of the twenty thousand hopefuls who had asked for tickets to the execution, Guiteau began preparing a dramatic spectacle for his departure. He planned to wear a white robe to the gallows, which he would then drop in front of the assembled witnesses and swing to his death in his underwear. He was persuaded to drop that plan, but he did compose a poem to read from the scaffold, and he sent his shoes out to be shined.