An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President's Murder

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Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
Pegasus Crime
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“sprawling, shocking story of the whacko Gilded Age . . .”

Late 19th century America teemed with eccentric characters and bizarre events—from self-proclaimed messiahs, sensationalizing news editors, and free-love advocates to seances with the dead, political deal-making, and the shocking assassination of a president after his first six months in office.

Historian Wels (Titanic: Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner) fashions these disparate elements into a beguiling tale bursting with utopian dreams, murderous ambitions, and the bewildering cons of P.T. Barnum.

An Assassin in Utopia begins at the Oneida Community, a small utopian colony in upstate New York founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, a magnetic, bearded exponent of sex as “a holy practice, the key to spiritual perfection.”

At Oneida, Noyes coined the term “free love.”

There, amid hundreds of acres of wildland filled with farms and mills, older men and women taught sex to young children. Tourists came in huge numbers to visit “America’s most successful utopian community.” Its members included a strange young man named Charles J. Guiteau, who despite the colony’s disposition to group marriage was often rejected during his five years there.

In 1881, Guiteau would assassinate President James Garfield in a railroad station as he was about to take his wife on a vacation in long Branch, N.J.

The author gives us glimpses of the demented Guiteau, first at Oneida and then as he pursues his own political ambitions in the years leading up to the murder of Garfield. Guiteau is Wels’s “assassin in utopia”—a link, albeit a weak one, between Oneida and the assassination. But however great the author’s stretch, she exploits it fully to deliver an often gripping and satisfying story of a captivating American period.

The United States was a country in ferment—religious and otherwise. Pugnacious newspaper publishers like Horace Greeley (founder of The New Yorker and the New York Tribune) flourished in the era of growing literacy. (New York had 150 newspapers!) Showman and former Bridgeport, Conn., mayor P.T. Barnum dazzled the public with his museums of oddities. The Fox sisters in Rochester, NY, caused a national sensation by talking with spirits of the dead.

Others, from intellectual and Dial magazine editor Margaret Fuller to Civil War hero and then president Ulysses S. Grant, parade across the pages. In one way or another, the author finds links between each of them and Guiteau, who implores politicians for attention and appointments.

“I will shoot some of our public men,” says Guiteau, down and out, thwarted in his aspirations, determined to become famous. His father fears he will one day commit “a fearful crime.”

In 1880, Guiteau is a traveling preacher, keen on politics, and fantasizing he will become president. Variously described as “wild-looking” and “a strange, shabby little man,” he seems to some as “perfectly harmless, though a bit off in his head.”

Using a British Bulldog revolver (he has never fired a gun, but has been practicing), on July 2, 1881, he carries out “the divine will for the American people” and shoots Garfield twice from behind. The president dies on Sept. 1.

Guiteau’s lawyer at the murder trial attributes the assassin’s derangement to his membership in the Oneida community.

As an added bizarre touch, after the murderer’s conviction and execution, his stuffed head is taken on tour by an impresario.

Wels’s sprawling, shocking story of the whacko Gilded Age will undoubtedly keep readers turning pages.