Review of “An Assassin in Utopia” by Susan Wels


On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was in a good mood. Having completed six months in office, Gaffy, as at least one of his friends called him, was going on vacation. It was a welcome break from the presidency, which Garfield found tedious and depressing. After doing a handspring over a bed in the White House, the 49-year-old president headed to the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station. He was accompanied by Secretary of State James Blaine — and no security. While waiting for the train, he was suddenly shot twice and fell to the ground. Though he survived the initial incident, Garfield would ultimately succumb to his wounds a few months later.

The killer, Charles Guiteau, was delusional and obsessive, a stalker who believed that murdering Garfield would save the Republican Party. He was also a former member of a New York utopian colony, the Oneida Community.

Like that once-famous colony, Garfield’s untimely death has been largely forgotten today, but both take on central roles in Susan Wels’s book “An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder.” Wels has exhaustively researched the assassination and all the factors leading up to it, especially Guiteau’s association with Oneida. Packed with colorful characters and well-chosen details, this book is an engrossing — if at times too wide-ranging — account of Victorian-era American eccentricity.

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From the outside, the Oneida Community looked idyllic. Led by the preacher John Humphrey Noyes, it was the most successful utopian colony of the period, spanning more than 30 years. At its height, tourists flocked to what Wels describes as the “wild woodland” in Upstate New York, with orchards, livestock, “whizzing mills” and women with “queer cropped hair and shamelessly short skirts.” But behind the facade, Oneida’s free-love philosophies descended into pedophilia, incest and experiments in eugenics.

The colony’s bizarre sexual beliefs naturally make for some of the most interesting reading in the book, as Wels knows how to paint a picture without being salacious or distasteful. Guiteau, who joined Oneida at age 19, was no doubt attracted to the colony’s erotic reputation. Unfortunately for him, the women wanted nothing to do with him and mockingly called him “Git Out.” “Sexual frustration, in fact, was the main cause of Guiteau’s misery,” Wels writes, as he “whined about his lack of access to Oneida’s women.” Still, he believed he was a great man in the making, destined to be “famous in this world.”

His narcissistic aspirations contrast sharply with Garfield’s waning ambitions. As a senator, former Civil War general and family man, Garfield seemed, by middle age, to be content with his life. No one was more shocked than he was when he emerged from the Republican convention as the presidential nominee. Instead of touring the country, he campaigned from the front porch of his Ohio farm, attracting trainloads of visitors. He seemed dismayed when he won. “He had accidentally attained the presidency,” Wels writes, “without the fire and vision for it that drove other candidates.”

Wels has a knack for making connections between disparate facts and coincidences. A hearse “ominously trapped” in Garfield’s inauguration parade becomes, in her hands, sad foreshadowing. Ties to Oneida surrounded the presidency. Roscoe Conkling, Garfield’s biggest political enemy, was a former district attorney in Oneida County and called “the giant of Oneida.” Garfield’s predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, was Noyes’s cousin. (Strangely, Hayes’s contentious election, with voter suppression, fraud accusations and simmering violence, had eerie parallels to the 2020 election.) In another coincidence, Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert was at the train station and saw Garfield’s shooting. It was the second presidential assassination he witnessed, having been at his father’s side as he died in 1865. That year, when speaking on Lincoln’s death, Garfield had said he didn’t believe it was “in the American character to become assassins.”

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At times, Wels seems too caught up in her own research. Large portions of the book cover figures like Margaret Fuller and P.T. Barnum who are only tangentially connected to the story. “An Assassin in Utopia” also touches on a cross-dressing female Civil War spy, the spiritualist Fox sisters, the New York cholera pandemic, the history of the graham cracker, and the beliefs and ill-fated political career of newspaper publisher Horace Greeley — just to name a few threads. Throughout, Guiteau lurks in the background, growing increasingly unhinged as he drifts from one scheme to the next. Unfortunately he’s too thin and uninteresting a character to absorb all the detours, so it’s easy to lose track of why you’re reading about, say, the origins of Greeley, Colo., a place where neither Garfield nor Guiteau set foot.

The upside of this approach is that by the time I got to the assassination, I was thoroughly immersed in 1880s Washington, with its shabby White House engulfed in the “stench of sewage rising out of malarial mud flats” outside. The ending is a page turner as Wels describes Garfield’s last days alive, oblivious to Guiteau skulking in the shadows. I felt real sympathy for the charismatic, reluctant president. “An Assassin in Utopiamay not stay focused on the story its title promises, but it does succeed in humanizing Garfield and the tragedy of his early death. “I am bidding goodbye to the freedom of private life, and to a long series of happy years,” Garfield wrote at the beginning of his term, unaware of how true those words would turn out to be.

Joy Lazendorfer is a journalist and the author of the novel “Right Back Where We Started From.”

The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder

Pegasus Crime. 352 pp. $24.95

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