Book Summary – An Assassin in Utopia: the True Story of a 19th Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder

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An Assassin In Utopia: The True Story Of A Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult And A President’s Murder By Susan Wels

Book Summary 

Robert Lincoln had the tragic fate of witnessing three presidents assassinated, starting with his father. He was on the scene for the deaths of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. 

Charles Julius Guiteau, the murderer of President Garfield, is often labeled as an unhinged, disappointed officeholder. This book shows that there is a lot more to the story.  

Guiteau believed President Garfield outrageously turned against someone who helped him win the presidency. He included himself. Guiteau was upset that Garfield did not reward his help. He did not want some small position; he wanted to be a foreign minister.

Charles resided in the Oneida Community, the most successful of many utopian societies. Religious movements thrived during the 19th Century, including the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Some tried to set up their communities to provide ideal societies. Most attempts quickly failed. Oneida thrived for decades.

Roscoe Conkling, who became the leader of a Republican faction, made his start in Oneida. Garfield overcame a horrible childhood to become a Civil War officer and member of Congress. Conkling opposed his run for president. Who was president before Garfield? Rutherford B. Hayes, a relative of the leader of the Oneida Community.  

Horace Greeley, the publisher famous for telling people to go out west (“Go West, Young Man”) made his name in New York. Greeley was a big supporter of reform movements, including the Oneida Community. He had an ill-glorious end trying to defeat President Garfield in 1872. 

Guiteau repeatedly crossed paths with him. Guiteau, an “incel” before the concept existed, serves as a link to multiple fascinating stories. Susan Wels connects stories involving religion, politics, the rise of the mass media, P.T. Barnum (of the circus fame), and ghosts.

Check out this book to see how “the truth is stranger than fiction” is often accurate.

Author and Book Details 

Susan Wels is a bestselling author, historian, and journalist. She has a master’s degree in history. Her books cover many historical topics, including Amelia Earhart, the Titanic, and Pearl Harbor. She has the skills and knowledge to pull off this complex, often convoluted tale.

An Assassin in Utopia spends the most time on three main stories. We learn about Oneida, Horace Greeley, and Garfield (including his assassin). The book then provides a lot of interlocking ongoing events. A reader can be overwhelmed with all these details! 

There is so much going on that P.T. Barnum’s political career, including his involvement in a famous law against birth control, was not discussed. After all, there is a cross-dressing spy, a successful African-American entrepreneur, various sex scandals, and a whole lot more.  

It keeps all the balls in the air overall very well. My main complaint is about two chapters about two sets of siblings who claim to be able to communicate with the dead. The book notes in passing that P.T. Barnum (takes a con artist to know one) was suspicious of a set of sisters. Nonetheless, it does not discuss how both were known fakes.  

The two chapters about the spiritualists were at least one too many. Overall, the book does a great job. People will want to learn more about many of the stories covered in the book. Some fine black and white photographs. Notes and bibliography.  

Assassin in Utopia is a good book by an excellent storyteller. It is a popular history and not meant to be an academic book. Nonetheless, it would also be a fine addition to academic study.

Mass Media 

Horace Greeley is quite a historical character. Susan Wels provides a detailed look at his life, including his troubled marriage. Greeley took advantage of the growth of mass media.

The growth of the American party system took place in the Jacksonian Era. Greeley benefited from the development of political party machinery, including a political press. 

Newspapers have always played a memorable role in American politics. The “penny press” (newspapers for a penny) helped reach a broader audience. Greeley used his papers, with a national readership, to talk about politics, anti-slavery, reform movements, and much more.

Greeley also was a pioneer in the use of foreign correspondents. Margaret Fuller was an early correspondent. She died on the way home from Europe. Karl Marx, the father of communism, also wrote in Greeley’s papers. Mark Twain first gained national renown thanks to Greeley.   

Oneida and Free Love 

Religious innovation thrived during the 19th Century.  

Upstate New York was so filled with religious fervor that it was called the “burned-over district.” Mormonism started in New York. William Miller predicted the world would end. He even claimed that he knew the date. Or two. He was wrong.  

John Humphrey Noyes was so painfully shy that he could not handle practicing law. Noyes found his calling as a prophet. Noyes proclaimed that his unique truth included the ability to challenge the sexual norms of the day. His community practiced a form of free love.

Many new religions challenged traditional sexual norms. The Church of Latter Day Saints had polygamy. Some reform groups promoted sexual abstinence. 

Noyes supported open sexuality. People openly had sex with multiple partners. Nonetheless, certain people (especially Noyes himself) had special powers to choose appropriate partners. Noyes also supported a form of eugenics, trying to partner up the “best” possible parents. 

The book shows the positives and negatives here. Women had the power to refuse. Guiteau was quite upset no one wanted to have sex with him. On the other hand, Noyes did not find it problematic for men to have sex with young teenagers. Noyes had sex with his niece.  

(The logic of everyone being married to each other would appear to leave open same-sex relationships. The book does not address this issue.)  

The problems of free love would continue. The 1960s and 1970s would show that the ability to have sex outside of marriage did not suddenly end sexism and sexual abuse.  

Swing States

The 2016 and 2020 presidential elections showed the importance of “swing states.” 

Swing states result in very close elections. A small number of voters shifted one way or the other can determine the outcome. Other states are safely in each side’s pocket.

New York and Ohio were two crucial states in presidential politics after the Civil War. Multiple presidents were from Ohio, including Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield.  

Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-NY) played an important role. He had a lot of power because of the importance of control of custom house jobs. The jobs were prime political plums. If you had it, you better support Senator Conkling. If you think this shows the need for civil service reform,  that is part of this story as well. Ironically, a former Conkling flunky played a prominent role.  

One story in this book is the rise and fall of Senator Conkling. President Garfield’s vice president, Chester Arthur, was originally a close Conkling crony. After Garfield’s death, President Arthur would support civil service reform. A lot of turns in this book’s story!