An Assassin in Utopia (2023) – Susan Wels

I occasionally find a non-fiction historical book that catches my interest, I’ll devour Erik Larson and Stephen B. Ambrose works voraciously, but when I read the blurb for Susan Wels’ An Assassin in Utopia, I had to add it to the list.

Following historical events of the mid to late 19th century, Wels’ work centers around a number of people, but at its heart is President James A. Garfield, his assassin, Charles Guiteau and a sex cult created and overseen by John Humphrey Noyes.

With a sweeping look at events beginning with the creation of Noyes’ utopian sex cult in Oneida, New York. The cult was controlled by Noyes who preached a form of free sexuality that he controlled and worked to break down a number of ingrained cultural taboos. It gained such notoriety that a special train spur was created so that tourists could come out and see the followers, who were said to be friendly and productive.

The book also explores the creation of penny papers, newspapers that were not just for the elite, but affordable for the common man, established by Horace Greeley. It also digs into the political landscape of the Republicans and the Democrats, back when the party platforms were reversed.

We are introduced to the odd character of Guiteau who was a little off and was intent on achieving a political position, and making a bit of a name for himself after his time at Hoyes’ commune didn’t give him the experiences he wanted.

Political aspirations, corruption, a threat of a storming of the capitol for a ‘peaceful protest,’ there are a number of too familiar traits in these events that ring too hauntingly close to home. Throw in the unstable form of Guiteau, and it’s no wonder that Garfield’s life was in danger.

It’s a fascinating tale, and absolutely wild to read something that sounds like it could happen today, and then when you realize it could happen today, it reminds us of how far we haven’t come.

Despite that, it’s a very enjoyable exploration as the reader discovers small historical events and personages that had influences on bigger events. Wels relates events in an easily digestible, and completely engaging way, with reveals of lore and trivia that illuminate history in a way that makes it more than names in a history book, but actual people with lives, desires, flaws and aspirations.

A wonderfully enjoyable book, An Assasin in Utopia shines a light on an aspect of history that I was completely unaware of and fascinated to learn about. I really enjoyed this one and blazed through it, loving every minute of it. Check it out.


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