The new book An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder (Pegasus Crime, 2023) by Susan Wels is a true crime odyssey that explores a forgotten, astonishing chapter of American history, leading the reader from a free-love community in Upstate New York to the shocking assassination of President James Garfield.
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.
Thousands came by trains and carriages to see this new Eden, carved from hundreds of acres of woodland. They marveled at orchards bursting with fruit, thick herds of Ayrshire cattle and Cotswold sheep, and whizzing mills. 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.
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 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.
Susan Wels is a bestselling author, historian, and journalist. Her Titanic: Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; the book was also a Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and USA Today bestseller. Her work has received press coverage in PEOPLE, Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the San Jose Mercury-News among many other journals. Wels’s work as a historian includes her acclaimed San Francisco: Arts for the City as well as her research on the role of women at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Wels and her husband divide their time between the San Francisco Bay Area and their farm in the south of Chile.
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