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. This is the first book to weave together these explosive stories in a tale of utopian experiments, political machinations, and murder.
Rollicking pleasures ... Each towering figure...gets the biographical treatment ... Readers will perhaps arrive at the end of Wels’s complicated tale experiencing a similar kind of dizziness — the whoosh of overindulgence. This is a book to be sidled up to like a buffet: Know that it sometimes groans under the weight of its varied delights ... Wels’s kaleidoscopic romp is an undeniable thrill.
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 ... Wels knows how to paint a picture without being salacious or distasteful ... Wels has a knack for making connections between disparate facts and coincidences ...
At times, Wels seems too caught up in her own research ... An Assassin in Utopia may not stay focused on the story its title promises, but it does succeed in humanizing Garfield and the tragedy of his early death.
There is much to enjoy in An Assassin in Utopia. The descriptions are vivid, the pace is brisk, and the connections among its characters are often surprising. But it is also a book of tangents ... The book’s long digressions on Greeley, Barnum and others, though informative and entertaining, are similarly unrelated to its title subject. And by focusing on the titillating aspects of life at Oneida, Ms. Wels precludes a more substantive consideration of Noyes’s ideas ... As a result, we are no more likely to find in these pages a thoroughgoing treatment of either the Oneida Community or the assassination of James Garfield than visitors to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum were likely to glean an understanding of world history or natural science. But like those museumgoers, readers may enjoy the spectacle.