Aug 10, 2016

Inside the 19th-Century Free Love Commune Powered by Electric Sex, Eugenics and Delusions of Immortality


Judy Berman


John Humphrey Noyes so fervently believed sleeping around could lead to immortality that he convinced 300 people to join him in a utopian socialist community built on that very principle, in upstate New York. As he saw it, promiscuous “interlocked contact” between men and women—in the form of a polyamory scheme he called “Complex Marriage”—would generate enough spiritual energy to propel the human race into some sort of electrically powered, divinely connected eternal life. And that’s only the beginning of the 19th-century Oneida Community founder’s randy theology.

Ellen Wayland-Smith, a professor of writing at USC, counts two of Noyes’ sisters among her great-great-great grandmothers, has just published a gimlet-eyed book about her family history. Oneida: From Free Love to the Well-Set Table follows the Community from its origins in Noyes’ perverse Christian reveries, through its three-decade existence beginning in 1848, and into its equally improbable afterlife in the 20th century as Oneida Community, Limited – a prosperous silverware manufacturer led by descendants of the original families. In a phone interview Tuesday, the author admitted she’s often asked, “When did your parents sit you down and tell you that your ancestors had been these crazy sex perverts?”

“The more you had sex and the more evenly the sexual energy was spread throughout the whole body, the less sick you would be.”

Her family’s Oneida Community lineage was a staple of Wayland-Smith’s upbringing, though her later research revealed a far stranger story than what she gleaned as a child, wandering through the 93,000-square-foot Oneida, NY “Mansion House” Noyes and his followers once occupied. “I definitely got the whitewashed version,” she says. “If you asked, ‘Who built this house?’ or ‘Who are the people in the portraits?’ the narrative would say, ‘These are your ancestors, and they were these social reformers who thought that all people should live equally, and they created this utopian community experiment.’”

Outside of a vague awareness that Oneida’s members practiced “something called Complex Marriage,” Noyes’ wilder theories about sex and God never came up. “I grew up thinking he was this great guy,” says Wayland-Smith. “And then when you read his stuff, you’re like, ‘That guy was batshit!’”

Noyes’ batshit ideas extended far beyond the belief that, in Wayland-Smith’s words, “the more you had sex and the more evenly the sexual energy was spread throughout the whole body, the less sick you would be. Death would disappear once you had attained perfect equilibrium of divine energy through all the bodies [in the Community].” Sex was literally electric: it fueled a sort of heavenly battery with the power to support eternal life.

Years before he dreamed up Oneida, Noyes channeled his romantic frustration into a theory about sex between angels – maybe he didn’t get to fuck the object of his affections now, but at least they’d have an eternity to bone in the afterlife.

In the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of American capitalism had plenty of people taking solace in odd religious notions. And Noyes, who founded the Community at 36, supposedly radiated a sort of charisma that transcended his plain appearance and electrified his followers. Wayland-Smith recalls an anonymous interview from the 1960s with a veteran of the Community in which the woman said something like, “It’s hard to explain today what it was like back then, but it’s also hard to explain how charismatic he was. There was something about him. When you were in his presence, you wanted to do anything he told you to do.”

Two decades into the Oneida experiment, mortified by the reality that people were still dying, Noyes instituted a creepy, sometimes cruel eugenics program he called “stirpiculture.”

“This was part two of his immortality plan,” Wayland-Smith explains. “He was like, ‘OK, it’s not working the way we are, so we’re going to breed people to be immortal.’ Which was nuts!” Though he touted stirpiculture as a scientific program for breeding the most spiritually potent offspring, it was Noyes who decided which couples were allowed to breed. In practice (and, presumably, because breeding for religious fitness is impossible), that meant the pairings were primarily political.

As all of this suggests, Noyes’ theology tended to evolve in hilariously—if also sometimes devastatingly—self-serving ways. “It’s so closely linked to his own sexual frustration,” says Wayland-Smith. “His first idea about spiritual wives”—as distinct from legal, earthly spouses—“came when the woman he was in love with married someone else. It’s like, that’s a convenient twist in your theology. And the communal thing came on the heels of that, when he realized he was never going to possess her [exclusively], so he would possess her in tandem with other men.”

Noyes may have been bonkers, but Wayland-Smith deduced that he never crossed over from magical thinking into cynical manipulation. For his entire adult life, he remained devoted to what he saw as a fundamentally religious mission. Even after he retreated from Oneida in 1879, afraid he was about to be arrested on moral charges related to the Community’s polyamory, Wayland-Smith says, “he literally thought, ‘OK, I’ve been booted out of New York. I’m going to start trying to do the same thing in Canada, and I’m gonna try to enlist the Queen of England to join my campaign to start God’s heaven on Earth.’ It was so delusional, but he writes about it very calmly and matter-of-factly in his diary.” (Please: take a second to imagine a conversation between Queen Victoria and a man who believed his purpose in life was to power a godly sex battery.)

Considering the absurdity of its underlying theology, what’s most surprising about Oneida is how politically sane and progressive it could be. The Community genuinely lived its socialist ideals. In the years following Oneida’s dissolution, Noyes’ industrious son Pierrepont B. Noyes transformed the more modest manufacturing operation that had once sustained the Community into a prosperous, high-end silverware empire that marketed its products to precisely the sorts of bourgeois households its founder would have disdained. But back in the mid-1800s, life in the Mansion House and on the lush agrarian land that surrounded it was never less than economically egalitarian. According to Wayland-Smith, “There was a pecking order at Oneida, in terms of who was more spiritual or who was more of a leader, but they were absolutely materially equal. Everybody wore the same clothes, everybody ate the same food, nobody owned anything.”

Oneida’s gender politics were even more radical – to the extent that many of their policies still sound like feminist fantasies. Noyes certainly held his share of sexist beliefs, and the control he exerted over women’s sex lives seems downright predatory by today’s standards. But he genuinely valued their contributions, and he knew that to participate fully in the life of the Community, they needed to be liberated from the drudgery of “women’s work.” As a result, tasks at Oneida were never split along gender lines. Workdays for all residents were light and diverse, ranging from farm labor to white-collar work like medicine and journalism. Children were raised by a small committee of caretakers and teachers.

Though initially skeptical of her family’s claims about Noyes’ progressive attitudes towards women, Wayland-Smith says she came away from her research “convinced that he may not have been a feminist, but he did a lot to liberate women. Going in, I hadn’t realized the extent to which serial childbirth and domesticity were basically living death for 19th-century women”—who, in mainstream American society, gave birth to an average of seven children in their lifetimes and spent decades raising the ones who survived infancy. “The fact that he mandated that it wasn’t going to be their lot, that they didn’t have to get pregnant ever if they didn’t want to, that they didn’t have to wash dishes and do the laundry, was incredibly prophetic.”

And how did women sleeping with multiple partners avoid pregnancy in the absence of contraceptives? Once the Community was in full swing, Noyes controlled its population by instituting a revolutionary birth control program he called “male continence” – aka, withdrawal. “Comparing the sexual act to a boat in a stream above a waterfall,” Wayland-Smith writes, “Noyes argues that, through experience and training, the skillful ‘boatman’ could learn ‘the wisdom of confining his excursions to the region of easy rowing, unless he has an object in view that is worth the cost of going over the falls.’” Of course, it wouldn’t be a John Humphrey Noyes project if there wasn’t some pseudoscience to back it up. He also believed that ejaculation drained men of their life force. So, Wayland-Smith points out, “It wasn’t as though men had to refrain from ejaculation just while having sex – they also couldn’t masturbate. You were never allowed to have an orgasm as a man in this community.”

When Complex Marriage was abolished in favor of monogamy during Oneida’s final year, it was out of fear that if the Community dissolved in 1879, straight society would ostracize its women and children as whores and bastards. But that’s not to say the decision pleased everyone it was meant to benefit. On the final day of Complex Marriage, a woman named Tirzah Miller – a pillar of the Community, Noyes’ niece, and one ofOneida’s most fascinating characters – bid farewell to her sexual freedom by bedding three different men. In the book, Wayland-Smith describes the voracious Miller as “the most sexually sought-after woman in the Community.” That role came with a measure of political power, a power that is hard to imagine a woman of such appetites wielding in mainstream 19th-century society.

On a more sinister note, what is remembered as “free love” wasn’t exactly free; Noyes had the power to dictate who was fucking and breeding with whom, resulting in plenty of situations that look a lot like coercion—and even rape—to contemporary eyes. He insisted on personally initiating young virgins into what was termed the “social life” of the Community. “The women were introduced to sex whether they wanted it or not, when they were 12 to 14,” says Wayland-Smith, noting that the age of consent in New York at the time was also, unfortunately, 12. “The thing that bothers me is that the people who initially signed on to this thing were consenting adults. Then what happened, once the new generation came up, was they were born into it. They didn’t know anything else. Their parents gave them over to the Community and part of being in the Community was that you had to have sex. And they were not consenting because they weren’t of age [by contemporary standards].” The darkness didn’t end there. Noyes believed in “avunculate marriage” (between uncles and nieces) and held up certain forms of incest as ideal; Wayland-Smith writes that it’s still unclear whether he slept with his sisters.

The author’s skeptical, conflicted relationship to Noyes’ legacy permeates every page of Oneida, and she’s long understood how crazy the Community might seem to outsiders. In the mid-‘90s she told a grad school instructor about Oneida, and “when I finished talking, he said, ‘Oh, this is like David Koresh and the Branch Davidians,’” she says. “My jaw dropped. It had never, in my entire life, occurred to me to think of my ancestors as cult members. Those were never the terms in which it had been framed. People from the outside, that’s what they thought, and they were not wrong to think it… ‘Cult’ is a difficult term. It’s got lots of shades of gray – but [Oneida was] definitely cult-like.”

Even so, Wayland-Smith believes Oneida offers its share of insights that resonate in an America that’s more divided than ever on issues like capitalism vs. socialism, women’s rights and sexual liberation. “I sound like an old-fashioned socialist, but… the basic idea was that the basis for a just society was a certain level of material equality between people,” she says. “The kind of excesses we have today – it was just unthinkable.” And she points out that Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a book just last year, Unfinished Business, arguing that ‘70s feminism’s promise that women could “have it all” turned out to be a lie. “Oneida already figured that out,” Wayland-Smith says. “They figured out that you couldn’t  do the domestic work and have a life, that you couldn’t do the domestic work and be a professional. They worked around it… You wouldn’t necessarily want to live in the system that came along with it.”

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.

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