Sex and death in mid-nineteenth century America

  • Themes: History

Susan Wels captures a fantastically rambunctious period in US history.

Charles J. Guiteau shoots President James A. Garfield.
Charles J. Guiteau shoots President James A. Garfield. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

An Assassin in Utopia: A True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder, Susan Wels, Pegasus Books, 272pp, £15

From 1848 to 1881, the Oneida Community in central New York was ‘the most successful utopian experiment in American history’. Founded by a charismatic 36-year-old religious fanatic named John Humphrey Noyes, it banned not only private property but also monogamy and sexual shame. By the end of 1848, it consisted of 87 men, women, and children. Noyes coined the term ‘free love’, though he did not mean by it anything sybaritic. Members of the community were expected to work hard in the field or the house. They should sleep apart and come together for what he called ‘love interviews’. Men should practise ‘continence’, i.e., holding back. The older members of the community should initiate those reaching puberty into the joys of lovemaking. All should practice ‘regulated promiscuity’.

He considered the taboo of incest to be ‘the devil’s last stronghold’ and therefore saw ‘breeding in and in’ as a virtue. He slept with a niece, Tirzah Miller, and sired a child with her sister, and Tirzah bore a child by another of her uncles. He also ordained that couples should mate onstage, in full public view. ‘It is a sight,’ he said, which would purify the whole Community. It would give pleasure to a great many of the older people who now have nothing to do with the matter. There is no reason why it should not be done in public as much as music and dancing.

As with many subsequent cults, elite members (though in this case not merely men) enjoyed the sexual spoils of younger members. Noyes instructed men and women to dress similarly – no corsets and long skirts – and women bobbed their hair.

In 1875, Noyes initiated a selective breeding programme which Susan Wels calls ‘the first eugenics experiment in US history’. Only ten men fathered nearly half the children, who were called ‘stirpicults’. Noyes himself sired nine of the children. The ‘stirps’ belonged to the Community and to God and were raised in a special Children’s House from the age of fifteen months until adolescence.

At first, Oneida had been considered scandalous by outsiders, but after a few half-hearted attempts at prosecution, it was left to its own devices and swiftly prospered, making a steady income from the manufacture of animal traps and attracting tourists who were eager for a glimpse of what the community was like. It published an annual report and sent it to prominent newspapers, including Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

Already the most famous newspaper editor in America, Greeley had by means of his campaigning zeal helped the Whigs, a party espousing Jeffersonian ideals, to win both the presidency and control of Congress in 1840. He had also already dabbled in utopian experimentation. Enchanted by the ideas of a Frenchman called Charles Fourier, who believed that people should live in in communal societies called ‘phalanxes’, in four-story buildings called ‘phalantseries’, each containing 1,620 individuals, Greeley disseminated these ideas and invested thousands of dollars in a handful of ‘phalanxes’, with mixed success. He also sent his wife Mary, depressed after losing two children and undergoing two miscarriages, to stay at Brook Farm, a utopian community in Massachusetts, which Ralph Waldo Emerson said was a constant picnic and miniature French Revolution. Greeley was a food faddist, eschewing all but the plainest of fare, and a champion of the Fox sisters, a pair of spiritualists who could summon invisible and unexplained knockings. The Greeleys were abominable parents, he being an absentee workaholic and she being a dominating sloven prone to mental illness. Greeley died in 1872, having just lost the presidential election of that year to Ulysses S. Grant. He died a bankrupt, in an asylum, but 50,000 came to pay their respects as his body lay in state in New York’s City Hall.

Charles Guiteau is one of those figures in history who is sublimely unimportant and yet, by virtue of a single destructive act, consequential. He had lived in the Oneida community, where, in spite of the ‘free love’ regime, he was spurned by all the women. He had delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be humiliated by the drudgery of packing animal traps for dispatch across the United States, and he left Oneida in the hope of becoming a great journalist like Horace Greely, even though he had never written an article for publication. Although he qualified as a lawyer in Illinois and married a young English woman, there were warning signs that he was a bit off beam. He became a dandy, living beyond his means and cheating his clients, and convinced himself that if he wrote a campaign speech for Greeley in 1879 he would be rewarded with a foreign posting.

There are few things so dangerous as a disappointed man puffed up with resentment and indignation at the treatment he has received. ‘If I cannot get notoriety for good,’ he told an acquaintance, ‘I will get it for evil.’ Asked what he meant by that, he responded: ‘I will shoot some of our public men.’

Guiteau volunteered his speechwriting services to both Ulysses S. Grant, who told him to get lost, and persistently importuned James Garfield, who fended off his request for the Paris consulate by promising to read his by now rather worn campaign speech. Guiteau persuaded himself that Garfield deserved to die for opposing the corrupt New York interest of Roscoe Conkling and his protégé Chester K. Arthur, known as ‘the Stalwarts’. In his own estimation, Guiteau was performing a patriotic act.

Garfield, a Union military hero in the Civil War, then a staff officer who has an affair with a female cross-dressing Union spy, then a Congressman and power-broker, had never sought the presidential nomination but was elected as a compromise candidate, on the 36th ballot, after the Republican Convention reached a deadlock. He had only been in the job for a few months when the assassin struck, and he was shaping up nicely. His greatest bugbear was those importunate office-seekers who thronged the nation’s capital, office-seekers like Guiteau, each expecting a reward for some tiny gesture of support.

Guiteau stalked Garfield for days, practised using his revolver, and waited for his opportunity. Garfield survived the shooting for several weeks and appeared to be recovering, but died from complications that were the result of inept medical interventions.

As for Guiteau, he was sentenced to be hanged, but blithely assumed that Garfield’s successor, Chester K. Arthur, would pardon him as a supporter. Pathetically, he believed that ‘whatever the mode of my exit from this world, I have no doubt but that my name and work will roll thundering down the ages’. His head was stuffed, pickled in a glass jar, and taken on tour by a travelling museum of curiosities before eventually being consumed in a fire.

John Humphrey Noyes had fled across the border to Niagara, Canada, in 1879, while the Oneida community adopted a new regime of celibacy or monogamy and converted itself into a corporation (canning fruit and making spoons). In a single day, immediately before this change of regime, Tirzah Miller had sex with three different partners.

Susan Wels offers no analysis in this historical true crime-thriller, but she nonetheless exhibits narrative aplomb. There is no causative chain that leads from Oneida to Garfield’s assassination, only a series of coincidences or tangential connections, yet each of these is illustrative of some different aspect of mid-nineteenth century American experience. For example, the great showman Phineas T. Barnum has a walk-on part.

If you want to understand more about the political background you should read Candice Millard’s 2012 book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Otherwise, just enjoy this toothsome confection for what it is.


Christopher Silvester