The Editor and the Assassin

Susan Wels's true crime odyssey An Assassin in Utopia—linking the assassination of President James Garfield to a free-love community in upstate New York—is out now. Today the author is on the site sharing some of the fascinating facts she uncovered during her research for the book. Read on!

I’ve learned there’s always a new way to tell a story. Having written successful books on the Titanic and Amelia Earhart, I know from experience that if you dig deeply enough, you’ll often find surprising new details and angles to make it fresh. 

In both books, of course, readers already know the end of the story—the Titanic sank, and Amelia Earhart disappeared. But what happened before those famous endings? That’s where stories can take eye-opening twists and turns.

In my new book—An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder—most readers already know what will happen to President James Garfield: he’ll be assassinated in 1881 by the demented Charles Guiteau. But I unearthed a wealth of overlooked details in the course of my research for the book—including the fact that Guiteau’s relationship with the famous newspaper editor Horace Greeley created a stunning template for his motive in murdering the president of the United States.

Greeley, in fact, turns out to be a pivotal, amazingly colorful character in this true crime story about utopian experiments, presidential politics, and assassination. The thrill of discovering and uncovering these unknown historical connections inspired, entertained, and propelled me through more than twelve years of research and writing.

Of course, most of us have heard the name Horace Greeley, but the only thing we tend to know about him is that he supposedly said the famous words, “Go West, young man.” That was all I knew about Horace Greeley. But as I researched this story, the editor’s name kept coming up—and I had no idea how fortunate that was.

In 1834, Greeley founded the New Yorker, and in 1841, he launched a daily newspaper called the New York Tribune. John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community—the free-love utopia that Guiteau joined in 1860—was obsessed with Horace Greeley. 

Guiteau, it turns out, was also fixated on following in Greeley’s footsteps and becoming a great newspaper editor. He was only 23 years old, with no writing or editing experience—but under God’s inspiration, he declared, he might be able to publish a successful daily theocratic newspaper modeled on the New York Tribune. 

Greeley, in fact, was a keystone of this story—an essential, overlooked character, from his appearance to his achievements and influence on the country’s press and politics, and on Guiteau’s decision to assassinate President Garfield. He was a forgotten, eccentric figure who completely fascinated and entertained me.

With his pale skin, ivory hair, and old white coat and hat, people often said that he looked like a rumpled ghost. He was nearly six feet tall, with a high-pitched voice, a shuffling gait, and a head that seemed too big for his body. His close friend P. T. Barnum called him a “gangling, wispy-haired, pasty-cheeked man with the face of somebody’s favorite grandmother.”

But he was an icon in the booming newspaper business of the time, and in 1867, Guiteau went to his office to ask him for a job. Greeley was out. But Guiteau was sure that, like his idol the editor, he was destined to do great things. Then, five years later, when Greeley ran for president of the United States, Guiteau went to work on his political campaign. He was sure that by doing so, if Greeley won, he would be rewarded with an appointment as a foreign minister. So Guiteau wrote a campaign speech for Greeley and gave it at some rallies in New York City.

Greeley, of course, lost the presidential election—in an almost unbelievably tragic way, which I recount in the book. But Guiteau later rewrote his speech for Greeley, in 1880, as a stump speech for James Garfield’s presidential campaign—expecting to be rewarded with an appointment as a foreign minister.

And the rest, as they say, is history.



About An Assassin in Utopia by Susan Wels:

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.

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