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.
Susan Wels, author of An Assassin in Utopia, shares this interwoven tale. Of course, she inserts one fiction into this unbelievable but true story. Will I recognize the fiction within the facts? Will you?Support the show
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Fact or Fiction: Author Series presents Susan Wels
Laura: . It was heaven on. 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 marbled at orchards bursting with fruit, thick herds of air, shire cattle, and kotz wild sheep whizzing mills, an outlandish machinery, and they gaped at the people who lived in this place, especially the women with their queer cropped hair and shamelessly short skirts.
Laura: 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.
Laura: And an 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.
Laura: As always on this show, Susan will infuse her factual story with one fictional detail. Will, I guess the fiction, will you listen carefully because it's tricky to know if what you hear is fact or fiction. Ready to play.
Laura: Hi there. Factor Fiction fans. I am your host, Laura, and I'm so excited to introduce you to today's guest, Susan Wells Susan's a New York Times bestselling author, historian, and journalist. Her work has been praised and published by People Magazine, Smithsonians Air and Space Magazine, the New York.
Laura: time.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco magazine, the San Jose Mercury News and the Independent in the uk. She's a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in English literature and journalism. She has a master's degree in history from San Francisco State University. Susan has worked on assignment around the world and serve as correspondent on the Titanic Research and Recovery Expedition reporting daily from the site of the Titanic in the North Atlantic.
Laura: Hey, Susan. Thank you so much for joining us today on the Fact or Fiction author series.
Susan: I'm very excited to be here, Laura.
Laura: Oh, I'm so excited, and I, I know you're a great storyteller. I can't wait to to learn more about the Oneida community and the connection between it and Garfield's assassination. Sounds exciting.
Susan: It's a very strange story, , and it really has never been explored fully before. It's been mentioned in other books, but in about a paragraph or maximum three pages, so I. This is the first book to really explore both of these explosive stories. The Oneida community, which was this, essentially a sex cult in upstate New York, and the assassination of James Garfield and how they were connected with a lot of famous people taking part in this story.
Laura: Yeah. A sex cult in the 18 hundreds. That sounds, uh, a little juicy.
Susan: That's what caught my attention when I first read about the community as a graduate student in history. Um, I could not believe what they were doing. , from the 1840s to the 1880s. This was Victorian America, when you couldn't even say the word underwear, they were called inexpressible. So it was. very shocking to me.
Susan: And, and also if, if this were happening in art time, it would be at least as shocking as it was to the Victorians, but they were very accepted in a lot of ways. It was a time of a lot of social experimentation and ferment and a lot of utopian communities with very unusual ideas popped up like mushrooms.
Laura: before we get to these juicy details about this story, , I wanna learn a little bit about you and your fascinating career. Obviously I had a hard time reading all of your accomplishments. That was amazing. Uh, and I'm a Miss Midwestern girl, so Stanford sounds exotic to me.
Laura: Are, are you a California.
Susan: I was actually born and raised in Manhattan, in New York City.
Laura: That's the other, that's another exotic place. That's the other side of the country. So
Susan: you go. I'm a coastal girl. Uh, I, I headed west to go to college and stayed
Laura: Oh, I don't blame you. The weather. There's amazing.
Susan: little more friendly than New York City for sure.
Laura: So your bio list, your undergrad is being in literature and journalism, but your graduate degrees in history, have you always been interested in history or did something happen after you're in the Bachelor's to just kind of ignite that interest?
Susan: Well, I was an English and journalism major in college because I thought that history was just about dry names. Dates and events. , but when I was in my forties, I worked on a book called America Then and now that paired old photographs of American events, places in daily life with contemporary photos of the same subjects.
Susan: And my job was to write brief essays that tied each of the. then and now photographs together. And all of a sudden I found myself researching historical topics ranging from baseball and weddings to jazz and hemlines, and I felt completely in love with researching and writing history. So I went back to graduate school and got a master's in history, and I've never looked back.
Laura: So it was really just that experience on the America then and now. I'll have to check that out. , that does sound amazing. I I absolutely understand why you enjoyed that. Um, and I also have to ask you about your Titanic research and recovery expedition. Now, is this before you ha earned the Masters or was this after?
Susan: I actually started my master's program . When I, when I came back from the Titanic, I mean, I was, I missed the first week of classes because I was traveling back from, from Boston where we had had docked. But this was in, uh, 1998 and I had written a book on the history of the Titanic, the first new book on the history of the Titanic in many, many years.
Susan: That brought, brought the history up to date, uh, The discovery of the Titanic and then the recovery of objects, and, uh, , I was the first woman to write about the Titanic, which was also a very interesting thing for me. Anyway, I came back from the Titanic and I started graduate school, but that expedition was really one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Laura: Especially for somebody who's interested in history , was that, I'm getting confused on the timeline. Was that around the time that the Titanic, the James Cameron movie came out?
Susan: Well, I was very lucky because my book, which was published by Time Life, came out in October, 1997, and James Cameron's movie came out in December, 1997, and I think we can all remember what happened after that movie came out. I mean, it almost sank the economy of Korea. The entire world was Titanic crazy.
Susan: And so, uh, people were literally stampeding into bookstores. Buying my book, which was a wonderful experience, . And then I was invited to be the correspondent on the 1998 Titanic Expedition. So I was out there on the side of the Titanic for six weeks and it was, uh, absolutely. An amazing experience. We actually brought up a, a piece of the hu of the Titanic.
Susan: It was a 25 foot wide piece of the hull called the big piece. And watching that piece come up and seeing those port holes that had not seen the sky,
Susan: the Titanic went down in 1912 was absolutely amazing. And. What I would do is I would report daily from the site, but I would tie in the history of the Titanic with what was happening on that daily basis.
Laura: Oh, that sounds fascinating. Was that Time magazine that you were reporting for, or is that,
Susan: It was, a joint effort between the company that owned the wreck, the Titanic called R M s T R M S, Titanic Inc. And, uh, the Discovery Channel and the Today Show. So we were all out on the site.
Laura: Cool. Oh, I'm so jealous. . It does sound interesting. So you've also written books about other, more well known historical topics, Amelia Earhart, Pearl Harbor, uh, history of the Modern Olympics, , and other , , mainstream topics I guess that most of us are familiar with, but ASAs an assassin and utopia. , that's not typically a part of a US history class.
Laura: That's, that's covered in high school.
Susan: No, I, I actually think of it as misfit history. It's sort of the, um, , unusual, , the underside of American history that most people don't know about, and the, it doesn't fit into the mainstream narratives at all, , but it's true. I, I have, you know, dozens and dozens of pages of notes on this thing, and it took me 13 years to research and write so I can vouch for the accuracy of what I'm, what I'm writing.
Laura: Well, and everything you're gonna tell me is true today, except for that one thing you're making up.
Susan: Am making up one fact that I will bury what I'm saying.
Laura: Well now. So I think that's interesting. , you mentioned earlier that you thought history was kind of dry and boring when you were in your undergrad. I, I think that high school students would enjoy these stories more than, uh, I mean just maybe a little bit of.
Laura: I don't wanna say titillating facts, but the more unusual details that these, these books and the, , this kind of research uncover, .
Susan: the offbeat underside and, uh, it's, it's what really attracted me to this story. I, uh, stumbled on this as a graduate student in history when I read about the Oneida community for the first time, and I. Couldn't believe what I was reading. As I said earlier, it would've, it would be shocking to us beyond belief right now if it was happening in our time, but it was happening in Victorian America.
Susan: And because I'm a writer, I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to write about the Oneida community. But I didn't wanna write an academic book. And there have been plenty of excellent books written just about the Oneida community. But I thought if I could find a crime that was committed by somebody in the Oneida community, I would've human interest way into the story.
Susan: The problem was I couldn't find a crime. Thes were. Absolutely considered pillars of their community. They were admired and respected by all of their neighbors, despite their exotic practices, wink, wink, which everybody knew about, but they were extremely good business people. They la, they were the most successful utopian community in American history.
Susan: They lasted for more than 30 years.
Laura: There was a whole utopian movement at that time in the 19th century. What were they typically like? , I guess the Oneida community was unusual in some ways, but maybe typical in others. So can you tell me a little bit about this movement and then the appeal of it?
Laura: Why were people interested in. Living this way.
Susan: What happened was, The War for Independence, the Revolutionary War shattered institutions and traditions, not just political ones, but religious ones and social ones. And so basically, Americans, new Americans were creating their society from the ground up, and it was the age of the individual. And Ralph Waldo Emerson actually wrote every reading man, A draft for a new community in his pocket.
Susan: And Horas Greeley, the famous newspaper publisher of the time, said that a man could. Anything he pleases. It was a time of incredible freedom and social ferment. And what happened after the Revolutionary War shattered these institutions and traditions is that charismatic leaders filled the void with new experimental social structures.
Susan: So there were more than 70 utopian communities that popped up in America. Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and the Oneida community was the most successful one.
Susan: So it did share things in common with other utopian communities. Um, group living, uh, charismatic leadership, um, free love.
Susan: Although John Humphrey Noy, who founded the Oneida community, invented the term free love. They were, they were ahead of the curve that way. Uh, but I think it was their combination of, uh, sexual freedom. In quotes, because it was, it did have rules
Susan: , and business acumen so that they were incredibly prosperous and incredibly successful.
Susan: And it was also amazing because John Humphrey know's first cousin was President Ruthford b Hayes, and the Uniteds visited him in the White House, so, They had some status in society. It was a very, very interesting time when a lot of interesting people were actually related to each other.
Laura: Do you think that's one of the reasons why the Oneida community is considered, uh, one of the more successful of the utopian, , communities because they had those connections or did a lot of them, a lot of the other communities had those connections?
Susan: I don't think the connections really factored into its success. It was really, it's, it's, it's longevity had to do with its financial prosperity. A lot of utopian societies. Collapsed because they just couldn't keep it going. They just didn't, didn't have the resources. The land they bought was poor. They couldn't raise crops.
Susan: , they couldn't have things to sell. They tried, but it was, pretty bleak living at the end of the day for a lot of these communal experiments. But, , , the Oneida community got it right.
Susan: one of the things that was so unusual about the Oneida community is that so many tourists visited them in the 1860s, in the 1870s, that the railroad actually had to build a special line that went right to their property.
Laura: Oh no.
Susan: A stop called community and more than 50,000 visitors came to the United community in the 1860s, and they would have strawberries and cream and they would listen to the children singing and they would just roam around and just be gobsmacked. And of course, they all sort of knew what was going on, wink, wink.
Susan: And we were trying to figure out who was sleeping with who and all of this stuff.
Laura: so it's like a live soap opera. . Did the Oneida community charge them an entrance fee? Is that part of why they were so successful?
Susan: No, there was no entrance fee. It was, it was community relations , you know, so far as I know, I don't, I've never come across an entrance fee, but, but it was, uh, they were so popular that the tourists included church groups and Susan B. Anthony and Lincoln, secretary of State, William Seward. I mean, it was really a very famous.
Laura: wow. And, and they had to have a railroad, , line established and an a stop called community. Is that what she said it was? Oh, that's fun. .
Laura: So the silverware connection. It stems from that same original Oneida community. Correct.
Susan: It does. The United Communities had a, uh, a satellite community in Wallingford, Connecticut, and they were making tin spoons
Susan: in a water powered factory. And in 1879, John Humphrey Noy moved from Oneida to Canada to Niagara Falls and they. Eventually moved their spoon making business to Niagara Falls. And of course that developed into the Oneida Silverware company.
Laura: Okay. All right. That's interesting. Okay. So John Nos, um, he's, he's quite a character. You wanna tell me a little bit about him?
Susan: Yeah. John Humphrey, no. Was born in 1811, uh, in Vermont, and he was so incredibly shy. As a young man that he couldn't even bear to be in a room with women he didn't know. He said he would prefer to be in front of a battery of cannon than in a full of ladies with whom he was unacquainted.
Susan: This is how shy he was, and in fact, it was a family trait and many of his relative, his male relatives, married cousins because they were so incredibly shy of meeting other women.
Laura: oh wow.
Laura: I guess he got over that.
Susan: He got over that. He, uh, he had trained for going into the law, but he was so self-conscious and, , so insecure that he just stumbled through his first court appearance.
Susan: And then in 1831, he attended a religious revival and he found his path, which was going to theological school, and he came out of. Convinced that he had to find his own truth and his own truth, which he announced was that he was a perfect human being.
Laura: Oh, Wait, can you say that again? I was laughing. A perfect human being.
Susan: He announced that he was a perfect human being incapable of sin,
Susan: so he.
Laura: must be nice
Susan: It served. It served his purpose because if you're perfect and incapable of sin and you tell everybody that, nobody's going to be able to judge you, which kind of took care of his insecurity problem, which was really crippling.
Susan: Well, he got, he got thrown out of school and he lost his license to preach, but he continued with this and he started developing a following and. In addition to his own perfection, he created a world in which he had access to virtually any woman he wanted, who was a member of the community, because they all recognized that.
Susan: He was not only perfect, but he was God's messenger on earth. So these were all of his self-professed claims. And remember, this was a time when Emerson said Every man has a draft of a new community in his pocket, and a man can do anything he wants. And so John Humphrey Noise invented this world. That was basically completely protective and insulated so that he was able to function as a leader without any sense of insecurity or shame.
Susan: Shame was not permitted in the Oneida community. Sexual shame was not permitted. So it was a group marriage situation and the, uh, of course the young women were trained by the older men and the. Boys, the, the boys slash young men were trained by women past menopause. So, and John Huffy noise was able to say who was going to meet with whom and how.
Susan: And he was very specific in how he regulated the sexual encounters between men and women.
Susan: It was also in a religious context, so that. In the Oneida community, sex was viewed as the highest form of worship, but it had to be performed in certain ways.
Laura: Oh, . Okay. Um, trying to wrap my mind around why were people interested in joining this.
Susan: They're human beings and I think there are certain human beings who really appreciate that, uh, kind of liberty. And also he was a very charismatic.
Susan: I think even today, of course we have communities that attract followers
Susan: for various reasons, but maybe they feel lost in the society in which they're living and want some structure, and they're attracted to the structure that this charismatic individual offers.
Susan: And John Hum Noy was certainly one of.
Laura: I guess some people find that appealing, like being told what to do and how to think, but you know, it's, in some ways I guess it was a free sexual culture, but yet he's dictating everything to them. So that, to me, that doesn't sound like much freedom.
Susan: I think it came down to, , the religious context that he also was creating, that he, he held that the Oneida community was a miniature version of the Kingdom of Heaven. It was an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it was going to be the model for all of these other communities that we're going to.
Susan: Multiply from what they were doing in the United community. So it was a combination of kind of religious excitement and, and sexual excitement. Maybe that's the best way to put it.
Laura: Okay. Okay. I mean, it does sound unique. I, I think. Yeah, . , now the children, the, obviously there were offspring here.
Susan: There were offspring, , mostly by accident in the beginning. Uh, but then in the 1860s and 1870s, they had the first eugenics experiment in American history. So John Humphrey noise and the elders in the community would select who would breed with who. and then they deliberately produced offspring and they were trying to create this, you know, super race of own items
Susan: were, who were close to God,
Laura: Okay. I mean, they've, they probably couldn't be as perfect as John himself. John Noise, John Hefy noise himself, I
Laura: mean, never.
Laura: He was the best one. So I, okay. Let's um, I looked through the chapter headings. I didn't read the book, um, but I saw the name Horace Greeley. You mentioned him earlier, and I have heard of him and I've got some vague idea that he owned a newspaper or was a journalist, but I don't know much more.
Laura: Can you , fill in that gap for me? Tell me more about.
Susan: Yeah, for me, uh, the only thing I knew about Hark really was that he supposedly said the words, go west, young man. And I think maybe that's all that anybody knows about in our, in our time.
Susan: The reason he comes into the story is that as I was researching this, his name kept coming up and it came up in the context of John Humphrey Noise and Charles Gato.
Susan: , newspapers were, uh, there was a startup boom in this era. Newspapers were like the internet of the time. They were new. They were an incredible source of information for the first time. That just connected everybody.
Susan: Hos Greeley had founded first, uh, the New Yorker, which was a weekly, and then in 1841, he founded the New York Tribune.
Susan: And John Humphrey Noise was absolutely obsessed with newspapers and with hos Greeley. He wanted to create a religious daily that was modeled on hos Greeley's, New York Tribune. Horace Greeley was like the Steve Jobs, the the thought leader of this era of newspapers. And Charles Gato, when he was in the Oneida community, was trying to copy everything that John Humphrey Noise was doing.
Susan: In fact, he thought that he should replace Humphrey Noise as the leader of Theda community. He was demented. He had a maniacally inflated ego.
Laura: Unlike noise. Sorry,
Susan: Well, you could say that. , Charles Gato. Left the the Oneida community for just a few months because he said he was going to found a religious daily modeled on Greeley's, New York Tribu, and it was going to be called the Theocrat, and it was actually going to replace churches. It was gonna be so powerful, and he was.
Susan: Crazy because he had absolutely no experience as a writer or editor. He was only 23 years old. He had no contacts, he had no ability to do this. But he thought that under God's inspiration, he was going to be as famous as Horace Greeley. So as I say, this name kept coming up and I thought, okay, who is Horace Greeley?
Susan: I have to investigate this. And it was just an amazing historical. research journey for me because it turns out that Horace Greeley is kind of the, the connector between the United community and the assassination of James Garfield. And here's why. As I said, Charles Gato was obsessed with Horace Greeley.
Susan: He failed at his attempt to start a newspaper, went back to the United community, and then a few years later, he went to Horace Greeley to apply for a job. Greeley wasn't there. He didn't get, , the job, they just shoot him out of the office. But then in 1872, Horace Greeley ran for President of the United States and one of the weirdest elections that have ever taken place in America.
Susan: And at that moment, Charles Gau, who was a practicing lawyer, believe it or not,
Laura: What? Okay,
Susan: He dropped the law and decided to get into politics and he, his thinking was this, if he campaigned for Horace Greeley and Greeley won and went to the White House, Horace Greeley would for sure reward him for his efforts with an appointment as a foreign minister. So Charles Gutto wrote a campaign speech for Horace Greeley, which was terrible.
Susan: It was absolutely terrible. But he was actually allowed to give it a few rallies, and he was just counting on this. This was gonna happen. Horace Greeley was gonna win, and then he was going to be appointed as a foreign minister, maybe the Chile, maybe to Austria. He didn't know he was ready for it. He would parade in front of the looking glass and say, wouldn't I make a fine foreign minister? Anyway, HARs, Greeley lost the election in an unbelievably tragic way, which I recount in the book. It didn't happen, and, and more And Gato was crushed. His dreams had collapsed into dust. Well, in 1880 when James Garfield ran for president of the United States. Charles Gato dusted off that speech that he had written for Horus Greeley, and he rewrote it as a speech for James Garfield, and he was convinced that if he gave that speech and worked on Garfield's campaign, Garfield was going to be so thankful to him that he would reward him with an appointment as a foreign.
Susan: And the rest is history. We know what happened, right? Didn't, he wasn't appointed and he did murder James Garfield.
Laura: Now, wait a minute, lemme stop a second. , there's a lot to unpack here. Um, okay, so Gato. Now this newspaper, he wanted to start. Was that, , approved by John? No.
Susan: No, not at all. , he was completely copying John no's idea.
Susan: No good excited that he was going to do it because he was going to be inspired by God. This man had a, he was, he was demented and had an ego that was absolutely extraordinarily huge. So when he was in the Oneida community from 1860, On, uh, really until 1866, he expected to replace John Humphry noise as the leader of the United community, even though he was a very odd guy and, uh, couldn't get.
Susan: any attention from any of the wo of the women in the United community who called him Get Out instead of Yato. So it was all in his mind. It was all in his mind. So he was just copying whatever John Humphrey Noise did. So John Humphrey Noise said he wanted to found a daily religious newspaper. Gato decided to leave Theda community.
Susan: Found a daily religious newspaper, even though that was John Humphrey Noises idea. He said that there was room for two in the world, even though he had absolutely no ability to do it.
Laura: Right. Okay. So . , you told me a lot about Gato here, , , and, uh, Greeley too that I did not know. But tell me more about Garfield. I, I really don't know much about him .
Susan: Yeah. , um, well, James Garfield grew up in Ohio. He grew up very poor in Ohio. He was an impressive man. He was tall, beefy, athletic, and serious, and he was known for his charm, scholarship and speaking ability and. Although he didn't even go to school until he was 17, he was really, really well-read, and his classmates idolized him and he soon became a teacher and a principal, and he was also elected as the youngest member of the Ohio State Senate.
Susan: So, during the Civil War, uh, Garfield won a bit of fame in battle, and it was enough to get him elected as a US congressman, and he was very attractive. He had bright blue eyes, sandy hair, and a very handsome smile. And women of course, liked him, and Garfield liked women.
Susan: He got married in 1852, but he said Fidelity did not come easily or naturally to him.
Laura: Uh oh.
Susan: Yes, and uh, he had many lapses with clever young women, including a cross-dressing actress and union spy named Paul Bushman.
Laura: what do I say that again? No way.
Susan: Yeah, he had, he, he had a liaison with a cross-dressing actress and union spy who ended up performing on the stage of PT Barnum. Anyway, they were so, they were so close that Garfield asked Lincoln President Lincoln to make her a, a colonel in the union.
Laura: Oh my goodness. . Okay.
Laura: Okay, but now Garfield was married? No. Yeah, he
Susan: Yes, he was married. He was married at the time, yes.
Laura: All right.
Susan: But he was also tormented by chronic self-doubt and depression, and he was moody and sensitive, but he really wanted to live a grand, heroic life with thunder in it. He said, and of course he did after he was elected president in 1880, and we still.
Susan: Remember the thunder of his presidency, not the thunder that he was
Laura: Right. I was gonna
Susan: thunder of a gunshot.
Laura: and he owes that to gato. ,
Laura: Can you tell me a little bit more about what happened to Gato? after Gato assassinated, Garfield
Susan: He was arrested immediately. He shot Garfield a train station in Washington dc. He was arrested immediately. He was taken to jail. There was a trial two months later in November, 1881, and he was sentenced to hang. and he was hanged by the neck in June, 1882, and then he was buried in the prison cemetery, which you can still visit today.
Laura: Well, so, so Garfield didn't die instantly, did he?
Susan: He did not die instantly to fired two shots. Uh, one grazed his arm and the other one went into his back. That second shot in his back would not have killed him. What killed him was the dirty hands of all the doctors who were praying to find the bullet. So he died of a massive infection 10 weeks after the shooting.
Susan: So he was shot on July 2nd, and he died on September 19th, and it was a terrible, terrible death.
Laura: Oh, it sounds, yeah, it sounds, it sounds awful tragic. Uh, did his, uh, did his friend the, um, crossdresser visit him?
Susan: The cross dresser did not visit him.
Laura: so the relationships between these men and women are kind of interesting. It, it seems like, going back to noise, Like that's kind of what spurred him on his insecurity around women, that that had to have been part of his founding of this, uh, group.
Laura: And then gato sounds like he was really interested in women, but they weren't interested in him. And then Garfield had, I did not know about that, that about Garfield. That's, see, history would've been so much interesting. If you'd been my teacher, you could have shared. , you mentioned a little bit, , Gato was absolutely convinced that Garfield would make him a foreign minister. He didn't, did Garfield confront him and say, look, dude, this is not gonna happen. How did that come about?
Susan: Well, they actually did meet after, after Garfield was in the White House in 1881. , his biggest job was appointing office holders and there were lines around the block at the White House, and Gato was one of those office holders who would show up at the White House every day, every other day, every third day, and present his request to be appointed as a foreign minister.
Susan: And he actually got ushered into Garfield's office one.
Susan: and handed him his speech and on the speech he had written Minister for Paris
Susan: and handed it to Garfield and left, and Garfield was utterly bewildered by this. He also showed up, , at a church that Garfield was attending because Gato was stalking him and trying to decide where he was going to shoot him, partly because he.
Susan: A disappointed office seeker, but also partly because there was a war in the Republican party. There were two factions. and Gato had aligned himself with one faction, Garfield with the other. And Gato had this crazy idea in his head that if he removed Garfield, it would bring the Republican party together.
Susan: So it wasn't just about his disappointment at not getting an appointment as a min foreign minister, it was also about the political situation at the time. So I, I trace all of this in the book. It's a, it's a pretty interesting story about post-Civil War politics as.
Laura: Well, sure. And I love that stuff. .
Susan: This is the first book that really explores the entire story of, of both the United community and Gato and the assassination and how they all come together.
Susan: And it's a very, it's an intertwined story. It's, it's a very woven, braided tale. And I will also say that one of the reasons that Greeley is so interesting in this story is that not only was he the connector creating the template for the assassination of Gar,
Susan: In Kato's mind, but also he founded so many Utopian communities that we've forgotten about.
Susan: So that's, that story was, was a very important one to tell because the story is not just about the Oneida community, but it's about Utopias in this period of time. So Hark really actually plays a big role in that. And of course, it very interestingly, his very best friend was PT Barnum.
Susan: PT Barnum also marches through the book
Laura: And you can't make this stuff up.
Susan: You Can, which is why I really, I love History
Laura: Oh, it's, yeah. It's so much fun. So, did I hear you correctly? Horse Greeley created some of these communities too. Is that, did I miss? Okay.
Susan: Did not miss that Horace Greeley invested in. Quite a number of utopian communities. They all failed,
Susan: But they're interesting stories and, and it's, it just shows you how strong the Utopian drive was in this time of pre-Civil War America.
Laura: Okay. Wow. And then PT Barnum connection. Wow. , is there anything I've missed that , we should cover? ,
Susan: Well, I would just also add when we're, if we're talking about hos, Greeley, and Utopias, Possibly the last one was the town of Greeley, Colorado, which you may have passed through on your way to Boulder or or back, and that was founded as utopian community named for Horace Greeley.
Susan: So, It's, it's, it's a very connected story.
Susan: There's l there are lots of elements that, that feed into this, but my hope is that it will be as interesting to readers as it was for me to just plunge into this 19th century time that, that we really have forgotten. We're not taught about it, but it was so full of experimentation and ferment that it was.
Susan: The only thing I can compare it to really is possibly the 1960s in
Laura: Again, more free love. There in the utopic there were utopian communities.
Susan: of experimental social structures.
Laura: very fascinating. This is amazing. So, gosh. Well, are you ready to, to play the Factor fiction game with me or?
Laura: Okay, we're gonna pause real quick for a word from our sponsor belt Dfi, and then we'll be right back.
Laura: . Welcome back listeners. I'm here with Susan Wells, the author of an Assassin and Utopia, and she's just shared an unbelievable but mostly true story about the Oneida community and its connection to the assassination of former president James Garfield.
Laura: She's now agreed to give me four details from the story, one of which she fabricated
Laura: All right, , so Susan, let's hear my four choices and I'll see if I can identify the fiction.
Susan: okay, here's your first choice. John Humphrey. No's first cousin was Rutherford b Hayes, president of the United States and Dens visited him in the White House.
Susan: So number two, So many tourists visited Theda community in the 1860s and 1870s that the railroad built a line that went right to their property.
Laura: Wow. Okay. That's a tricky one. All right. Let's see what else you've got.
Susan: Number three, Charles Gato was buried in the prison cemetery, which you can still visit today.
Laura: Hmm. Okay.
Susan: And number four, James Garfield had a liaison with a cross-dressing actress and union spy named Pauline Kushman.
Laura: . Okay. Burial. All right, so my choices are real quick. Noise was the first cousin of Rutherford b Hayes, and the community visited him at the White House.
Laura: . And then the railroad, uh, I love that they called the stop community. I think that's amazing. Uh, the Gatos buried and we can still see. Grave today. And then the cross dressing, uh, Pauline Kushman then ended up in pt Barnum's Circus, or performing for PT Barnham.
Laura: Wow. Okay. So what I've figured out in these is that usually the one that is the, that's the most believ. , it is usually the one you made up. So, um, . So I do, I think it's pretty, it's a crazy story that he had an affair with Pauline. I, I'm gonna say that one's true. I'm gonna believe that one.
Laura: The burial. Hmm. I believe that, I think the railroad's true because, well, I don't know. And then the first, I think the first cousin's true. I think. , so I'm, I'm eliminated four and one, so now it's down to the railroad, the burial. Um, well I do know that a lot of people visited the community, , mostly because that was in the introduction.
Laura: I read that I copied off the back of your book . Um, so. Uh, I'm gonna say that's the one you made up, that they built a railroad line to it. How did I do?
Laura: Oh, shoot,
Susan: The misinformation in the story is that Charles Gutto was buried in the prison cemetery, which you can still visit today.
Laura: Oh, I was close though.
Susan: Yeah, we're close. You were
Laura: was close. Okay, so where is he buried
Susan: What really happened was mind boggling. They took his body after he was hanged, they put it in a bone boiler. They preserved the skeleton for the Army Medical Museum, but they gave the head special treatment.
Susan: They saved the head and they stuffed it and they put it in a glass jar, and the doctors from the Army Medical Museum would take it out from time to time to amaze their visitor. And then it eventually came into the possession of a very Barnes man, a man named, uh, professor Worth, who took it on tour with a, uh, transparent baby and Monster Devilfish
Laura: Oh my
Susan: and then eventually put Kato's head in his permanent museum in Indiana.
Susan: And then eventually the museum burned down with Gatos Bass and everything else. So that's the true story, which you can't make up
Laura: No, that.
Susan: to body.
Laura: Wow. Okay. So, so Garfield really did have an affair with the Crossdresser,
Susan: I would say he had a liaison.
Laura: A liaison. Okay.
Susan: He was a, he was her most constant companion when she was recovering from, , a grave illness in Tennessee after having been captured by the Confederates
Susan: during the Civil War. And he was such a co constant companion that he actually petitioned President Lincoln to make her a major in the Union Army,
Susan: which he did.
Laura: He did, Lincoln did.
Susan: Well, when he was introduced in by PT Barnum as as, uh, major, major poly.
Laura: oh, I love that. Okay. Well, the, the, the 19th century sounds way more exciting when you tell it like this. This is way better than just the typical Victorian America that we learn about usually .
Susan: Yes, it's, uh, very, very eye-opening. It's the, uh, it's the underside of American history and it is much more interesting than the main narrative,
Laura: Right. I love
Susan: all used to.
Laura: I love it. Well, Thanks Susan. Um, this was so fun. , um, listeners on the Factor Fiction podcast.com site and also on the Factor Fiction Facebook page, you can find a link to Susan's webpage, which has information about her, her other books. And links to purchase an assassin in Utopia.
Laura: Know there are a lot more juicy details about the story that we haven't had time to discuss, and then I think it would also help us understand that interwoven connectedness to all of it too.
Laura: . I'll be back soon with another episode of Factor Fiction. Until then, listen carefully because it is tricky to know if something is factor fiction. Goodbye.