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This true crime odyssey 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.
It was heaven on earth—and, some whispered, the devil’s garden.
Thousands came by trains and carriages to see this new Eden, carved from hundreds of acres of wild 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.
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.
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—by bestselling author Susan Wels—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.
Juxtaposed to their stories is the odd tale of Garfield’s assassin, the demented Charles Julius Guiteau, who was connected to all of them in extraordinary, surprising ways.
Against a vivid backdrop of ambition, hucksterism, epidemics, and spectacle, the book’s interwoven stories fuse together in the climactic murder of President Garfield in 1881—at the same time as the Oneida Community collapsed.
Colorful and compelling, An Assassin in Utopia is a page-turning odyssey through America’s nineteenth-century cultural and political landscape.
About the Author
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.
Advance praise for An Assassin in Utopia:
“Juggling incels and libertines, the mighty and the mightily deranged, Susan Wels deftly brings us this close to an amazing cast of real-life nineteenth century characters—admirable and horrific, brilliant and doomed, messianic and utterly mad—making them (and their vivid emotions) newly relatable to our era. You’ll be casting An Assassin in Utopia in your head, even as it demonstrates that Free Love is anything but, and that one man can make a difference, often in the worst way possible. This is like David McCullough on acid.”
— Chris Connelly, ABC News correspondent and ESPN reporter
"Susan Wels has assembled a large and rowdy cast of characters in this immensely enjoyable and engrossing book. Self-proclaimed messiahs, patronage-dealing politicians, ink-stained journalists, table-rapping mediums, tent-raising charlatans: All are trying to make their mark in Gilded Age America. And, remarkably, all their paths cross in An Assassin in Utopia, with surprising and tragic results."
— John Kelly, Columnist, The Washington Post
"Susan Wels is a gifted and masterful storyteller. Her book is a fascinating, well-told tale of a presidential assassination and sexually unbridled would-be utopia. She provides vivid, nuanced details of the time and some of its most interesting characters —including publisher Horace Greely, showman P. T. Barnum, feminist and foreign correspondent Margaret Fuller, the spirit-seeking Fox sisters, a cross-dressing Union spy, and major political figures of the period. An Assassin in Utopia is a deeply researched, riveting book told with impressive command and narrative power. I strongly recommend it.”
— Michael Krasny, Professor Emeritus of American Literature and retired host of public radio's KQED Forum
Praise for Susan Wels:
“Susan Wels’ companion volume to a Discovery Channel documentary offers the best overview of the ship’s construction, the sinking and modern-day efforts to examine the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.”
— The Sacramento Bee
"Wels, author of a bestselling book about the Titanic, presents an irresistible biography-in-pictures rich in photographs of Earhart and a slew of intriguing documents. Wels’ brisk narrative hits all the main points and captures the spirit of Earhart.”
— Booklist (starred)
“The ship itself is the star of the book Titanic: Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner. Susan Wels has skillfully woven history and potent human drama with modern oceanic recovery and preservation techniques to produce a magnificent book . . . telling the widely known sea-disaster story with revealing new data and insightful tales.”
— Omaha World-Herald
"The volume is well researched and abundantly illustrated and will delight and intrigue those lucky enough to live in San Francisco, those who just visit and leave their heart, and anyone involved with cities and public art."
"Susan Wels combined history, politics, business, and all branches of arts in her massive collection based on an impressive body of research. Whether you love history or arts, Arts for the City belongs in your book collection, or on your coffee table.”
— San Francisco Book Review
"Arts for the City thoughtfully and comprehensively makes the case for San Francisco as a great urban center for art."
— George Calys, The San Francisco Examiner
"Wels's upbeat, thoroughly civic-minded book conveys not only the story of a dynamic arts agency in the City by the Bay. It also describes the extraordinary work the organization has helped to produce, and borne witness to, over the years across different media."
— Publishers Weekly