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Book review: Oneida unveils a bizarre 19th-century ‘commune’ in New York State

Ellen Wayland-Smith tells the story of her ancestors’ journey from sex cult to cutlery empire

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table Ellen Wayland-Smith

Picador, pp.336, £18.99

There were two communist manifestos of 1848. One had no influence whatsoever on the revolutions of that year, but now symbolises the struggle against bourgeois capitalism. The other secured a small readership, and is almost forgotten today, but it also laid the foundations of a business that catered to bourgeois propriety.

The gestation of Marx’s and Engels’s Communist Manifesto is fascinating — notably their attempts to peel socialism away from its roots in Christianity and the ‘utopian’ theories of Saint-Simon and Fourier. The gestation of John Humphrey Noyes’s Bible Communism is astounding.

And gestation is the word. The Perfectionist community that the tyrannical preacher Noyes created at Oneida, New York, in early 1848 didn’t only produce cutlery. It also produced people. Oneida’s ‘stirpiculture’ was the first modern eugenic experiment.

Noyes believed that the Second Coming had already occurred, and that it was possible to live without sin. In early 1848, while Engels was finishing his manifesto in London, Noyes and a party of godly swingers settled at Oneida in upstate New York.


Marx claimed that the nuclear family developed as a production unit for capitalism. In his 1848 manifesto Bible Communism, Noyes combined this socialist commonplace with what he called ‘free love’. This was a more appealing method of bringing heaven to earth than dialectical materialism, but the love was not free.

Sex was to Noyes as property was to Marx. The root of all evil was ‘sticky love’. The private, monogamous bond bred covetousness and without contraception it turned women into baby machines. Noyes devised a system of sexual communism called Complex Marriage. Instead of economics and class solidarity, good sex would hasten the Apocalypse.

Ellen Wayland-Smith writes:

Death would be vanquished and immortality gained once the flow of electric love juice from Christ’s divine battery had achieved unobstructed equilibrium throughout the nervous fibres of each and every member of His universal body.

Noyes claimed to be in touch with the spirit of St Paul. Though Wayland-Smith does not mention it, his prescriptions were closer to the epistles of James Graham, the sex doctor who ran the Temple of Health in London in the 1780s, before finding his true calling as a promoter of naked female mud-wrestling.

The revolution took control of the means of reproduction. To avoid conception, Oneida’s men were trained in ‘male continence’, coitus reservatus; young males who struggled to maintain their self-control were taken in hand by older females. For the nervous ‘equilibrium’ of the community, the men were taught how to help the women to orgasm. Like sexual pleasure, work was desegregated too. When not labouring in their orchards or their cutlery workshop, the Oneidans maintained a Stakhanovite level of sexual activity in the long grass. But all was not well in the garden.

On a good day, Wayland-Smith writes, the mortification of ‘sticky love’ gave transcendent purpose to communal life. The ‘banal weight of daily cares’ was ‘burned off in the pure fire of universal love’. On a bad day, life at Oneida was a ‘nightmare’. Like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, Noyes began with high ideals but ended with perfect tyranny. Aided by an ‘inner circle’ of spies and the odious rites of Mutual Criticism, Noyes monopolised the sexual economy. He assigned young women to his older male friends, and appointed himself the ‘first husband’ of virgins entering Complex Marriage. In 1869, he instituted ‘stirpi-
culture’ to breed the race of the future.

In August 1879, Noyes fled to Canada to avoid charges of statutory rape. The fornicating cutlers of Oneida came to a fork in the road. They took the path most travelled, and that made all the difference — to their income and descendants. Abandoning Complex Marriage, they formed monogamous units, subdivided their common home, and turned Oneida into a company town. Under Pierrepont Noyes, the founder’s ‘stirpicult’ son, the children of the communists became the board members of America’s third largest cutlery producer. In 1947, the elders burnt the community’s records and built a golf course.

Ellen Wayland-Smith is a direct descendant of John Humphrey Noyes, but so are many other people. She has sticky love for her ancestors, and compassion for their victims. She regrets Oneida’s dissolution into ‘the great gray mass of the American middle class’, but washes her genealogical laundry with a scholar’s eye for dirt. Oneida offers a novel variation on the failures of communism: the sex god that failed.


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