Subscribe to Unsung History so you never miss an episode!
May 22, 2023

The Oneida Perfectionist Religious Community

In 1848, a group of religious perfectionists, led by John Humphrey Noyes, established a commune in Oneida, New York, where they lived and worked together. Women in the community had certain freedoms compared to the outside world, in both dress and occupation. What captured the attention of the outside world, though, were the sexual practices of the Oneidans, who believed in complex marriage where every man and every woman in the community were married to each other and where birth control was achieved via male continence. 

Joining me to discuss the Oneida community, and its most infamous resident, presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, is New York Times bestselling writer Susan Wels, author of An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President's Murder.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode Music is “Walk Together (Acoustic Piano and Guitar Version)” by Olexy from Pixabay. The episode image is “Oneida Community,” photograph taken between 1860 and 1880; image is in the Public Domain and available via the Library of Congress.


Additional sources:



Learn more about your ad choices. Visit


Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On this episode, we're going to tell the story of the Oneida Community, and of one of its most infamous residents. A word of warning: This episode contains a frank discussion of sex, and may not be appropriate for all children. Before the American Revolution, in the 1730s and 1740s, the American colonies, along with Britain and Germany, were swept by a religious revival, known as the Great Awakening in the American colonies. Evangelical Christian revivalist leaders like George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards, preached a theology of salvation by Jesus via confession of sins and devotion to God. After the American Revolution, a longer Second Great Awakening swept New Country from around 1795 to 1840. Featuring massive tent revival meetings, Baptist and Methodist preachers taught about individual salvation and free will, instead of the predestination message of early Calvinism. Tent revivals included not just preaching, but also singing, speaking in tongues and dancing. Toward the end of the period, in the 1830s, Upper New York State became known as the "burned over district" with so much spiritual excitement that it almost seemed to catch fire. Presbyterian minister, Charles Grandison Finney, now known as the father of modern revivalism, led a ministry in Rochester, New York that was so influential that apparently religion was the only thing anyone in town could speak of. Taverns were driven out of business. One disciple of Finney was John Humphrey Noyes. He was 20 years old in 1831, when he experienced a religious conversion, influenced by the preaching of Finney. Upon graduating from Dartmouth, Noyes attended Andover Theological Seminary, and then Yale Theological Seminary. Finney preached Christian perfectionism, a belief that humans could conquer sin. Noyes expounded on that to the point where his own professors called him a heretic. According to Noyes, because he had surrendered his will to God, and thus had a "perfect heart," anything he did was, in fact, perfect. He said that, "His new relationship to God cancelled out his obligation to obey traditional moral standards, or the normal laws of society." He was expelled from Yale, and his license to preach was revoked. Moving to Putney, Vermont, Noyes set up the Putney Bible School in 1836, which then expanded into a formal communal organization. One of the tenets of the organization was complex marriage, a belief that all of the men were linked in divine marriage to all of the women in the community. In October, 1847, Noyes was arrested for adultery, and warrants were issued for several other members of the group. In response, Noyes and his followers moved to upstate New York, to the town of Oneida, near Syracuse, where they had access to land. There, Noyes established the Oneida Community, which grew to around 300 people. They supported themselves by farming and logging, eventually turning very successfully to industry. One of the members brought to the community a steel trap he had invented, which the community began to produce and sell. The Oneida traps were so successful that the group began to produce other goods, like silverware. We'll return to silverware in a bit. The Oneida Community continued the practice of complex marriage. In addition to more freedom of sexual activity, women in the Oneida Community enjoyed other freedoms compared to women in the outside society. For practical purposes, the Oneidan women wore short hair and a bloomer style outfit, a short dress over pants. Although women still handled many of the domestic duties, they were free to work in other community jobs, and they were active in the business meetings of the community, as well as the religious ones. To ensure that the women were not constantly pregnant, the men practiced continence, stopping themselves from ejaculating. When community members did want to procreate, they would need to be approved by a committee, which matched them on spiritual and moral qualities. Of the 58 resulting children, nine were fathered by Noyes himself. After age one, children were raised communally, with no special attachment to their biological parents. In another unique aspect of the community, during general meetings, members of the community would remain silent, while being criticized by other members of the community. They may be told of their perceived faults, like egotism, insincerity, or developing too close a relationship with just one member of the opposite sex. The mutual criticism sessions were meant to help the members perfect themselves. One of the more infamous members of the Oneida Community was Charles Julius Guiteau, who joined the community in June, 1860, when he was just 18 years old. Guiteau worshiped Noyes, but he didn't seem to enjoy his five years at Oneida, especially because the women there largely rejected him. Later in his life, on July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield at a railroad station, where Garfield was scheduled to depart for vacation. Guiteau hoped to elevate vice president Chester A. Arthur. After 11 long weeks, Garfield died, and Arthur became president. Guiteau was tried, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882. By that time, the Oneida Community was no more. Noyes had attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass the reins of leadership to his son, Theodore. The founding members of the community were elderly by this point, and the next generation didn't all agree with the founding principles. The outside community had also had enough of the Oneida Community. Noyes learned that he was being charged with statutory rape; and he again fled, this time to Niagara Falls, Canada, in 1879. On Noyes' advice, the community abandoned complex marriage, but they soon disbanded, many of them entering traditional marriages with other community members. Some of the members reorganized as a joint stock company. Over time, Oneida Community Limited, sold off its other businesses like steel traps and silk making and focused its production on silverware.

Although the company has since been sold, and its production shipped over seas, you can still buy Oneida flatware today. The 93,000 square foot Oneida Community Mansion House, where community members lived for decades, is now a National Historic Landmark, which includes a museum and guestrooms run by a nonprofit organization. A stay in the John Humphrey Noyes Suite will cost you $195 a night. Joining me now to discuss the Oneida Community, and Charles Guiteau , is New York Times best selling writer, Susan Wels, author of, "An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a 19th Century Sex Cult, and a President's Murder."

Hi, Susan, thanks so much for joining me today.

Susan Wels  11:13  
Thanks for having me on, Kelly. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:15  
Yes, I am really excited to talk about this book that you've written. So I want to start by asking why why this story, how you got interested in this topic?

Susan Wels  11:25  
I actually found the story when I was a graduate student in history, actually not the whole story. But I read about the Oneida Community for the first time, and my jaw was literally scraping the floor. Well, maybe not literally, but close. I couldn't believe what they were doing in what we think of as Victorian America. And if they were doing that right now, I think we would all be beyond shocked and appalled. It was really an amazing story. And I thought, since I'm a writer, that I really wanted to write a book at some point about the Oneida Community, but I didn't want to write an academic book. I thought, if I could find a crime committed by a member of the Oneida Community, I would have a story and a way into it, a real human interest angle. But the problem was, I couldn't find a crime, because despite their what was considered exotic sexual practices, they were also considered pillars of their community and very upright, and they never really reached the boundaries except in the sexual arena. And I was getting very frustrated. And around 2009, The New York Times had put their archives online and literally as a last ditch effort, I thought, okay, there was a minute chance that if a crime had been committed in upstate New York, which is where the Oneida Community was, that the New York Times would have reported on it. So I literally typed into the search bar, "Oneida Community crime," and I got, I got an avalanche of hits, I mean, so many that I couldn't even absorb what I was seeing. And what I finally was able to take a breath and read, it was a presidential assassination. And at that point, I realized, number one, I've got a book. And number two, it was a much bigger crime than I ever expected to find. And number three, I had a lot of work in front of me. And it took me 12 years to chase down every aspect of this story, but I enjoyed every minute of it, because it's an incredible story.

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:23  
So tell me about the the process of chasing those down, like were you looking at newspapers, you know, what, what are the sources here that we have on these?

Susan Wels  13:31  
Well, the first thing I did was I went to the Oneida Community, I flew to upstate New York, I went to Syracuse University, which is where the Oneida Community archives are. And I went through them. And I found a lot of letters and information that really I don't think anybody has used before. The trial reports because, of course, he the assassin, Charles Guiteau, former member of the Oneida Community, was hanged in 1882. And so the the transcripts from the trial were invaluable, 1000s and 1000s of pages of them. And then I also went to the Library of Congress, I found some incredible stuff about Garfield's assassination that nobody has, sources that nobody had used before. And as more and more stuff came up online, I was able to really mine those and I've really, especially the newspapers, as the newspaper archives for very small community newspapers went online from the 19th century, I was able to really track down aspects of this story that have never been reported on.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:37  
Yeah, yeah. I've been really fascinated. Talking to historians recently about the more and more newspapers come online, it's just it's it's amazing, but that what that opens up. So I want to talk a little bit about this story, and your storytelling, because you know, you could have written a straightforward like history of Oneida. You could have written a straight forward like, "This is Charles Guiteau." You know, there's lots of ways that this could have happened. And you you weave together all these different parts of the story. And there must be things that you had to choose to leave out because, you know, it's space and storytelling. And you know, so how did you make those decisions about like, which rabbit holes to go down? Which paths to you know, which ones were vital to the story? Which ones were really fascinating? You know, what's that process look like for you?

Susan Wels  15:33  
It actually took me an entire year to plot this book. But the driving factor was in the course of my research, I found these incredible connections between very famous people. And I couldn't resist going down those paths and sort of telling those stories because we're, we're never told these stories. They're not part of the educational system. We don't really learn about antebellum America, that was just this fertile ground of experimentation and total craziness. So connections like the founder of the Oneida Community is a man named John Humphrey Noyes. His first cousin was Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States. I'm writing a presidential history in a way because I'm writing about a presidential assassination. So I had to go down the rabbit hole of Rutherford B. Hayes, and lo and behold, what did I find? That the election of 1876 predicted what happened on January 6, 2021, it was absolutely incredible! Another rabbit hole I went down very happily, was Horace Greeley, because his name kept coming up. His name kept coming up in the context of John Humphrey Noyes and his passion for the newspaper business. And the assassin, Charles Julius Guiteau. Both of them were obsessed with Horace Greeley. So I thought, "Who is this guy? All I know about him is that he supposedly said, 'Go west young man.'" That was it. That was it. So I went down that rabbit hole, and I discovered this incredible character, who was just an icon of his era. And not only that, he was so involved in the utopian movement. So this became a story not just about the Oneida Community, and the assassination of James Garfield, it became a portrait of the era. And by the way, Horace Greeley's best friend was PT Barnum. So yeah, I went down, I went there, I went down that road as well, because I was so enthralled by what I was learning about this era that really, most of us know nothing about. I mean, I think our picture of PT Barnum is what we were shown in "The Fabulous Showman," which really has no relation to the truth whatsoever. He was a very complicated and incredibly influential character. All of these people tied into the story. And I think I'm writing about the cultural trends that were running through the 19th century as well, spiritualism, hucksterism hucksterism, the importance of the individual ambition. I mean, just all of this stuff, all kind of came together and was knitted together in this story. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:22  
Yeah. So let's talk about some of those pieces then. You mentioned spiritualism. And you know, so upstate New York is, as you mentioned in the book, "the the burned over district." So can you talk a little bit about that? What what's going on? What is this this time and place in which Oneida emerges?

Susan Wels  18:42  
Oh, Oneida was one of more than 70 utopian experiments that popped up like mushrooms between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. And what happened was that the Revolutionary War collapsed, not just political structures, but cultural, social and religious institutions. And so charismatic leaders filled the void with often very, what we would consider, crazy social experiments. And they were so, so common that Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Every reading man has the draft of a new community in his pocket." And he said, "Every man can build his own world." And literally, that's what people were doing. And John Humphrey Noyes was certainly building his own world in the Oneida Community, and where he planted the seed of that community in upstate New York, it was a hotbed of religious eccentricity. So you had the Shakers starting in 1776. You had Mormonism popping up there in the 1820s. You had multiple experiments going on. And it was it was just just a hotbed of all kinds of new ideas. It was like maybe Berkeley in the in the 1960s. It's really kind of the only thing I can compare it to, that spirit of experimentation and social ferment that that gave rise to these experiments. It was incredibly active between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:14  
So I think we need to help people understand, like, just how out there Oneida is, maybe not, you know, compared to all these other things that are also popping up, but not what people would expect of the 19th century. So, you know, on the one hand, it's a place that gives women a lot of power, you know, and empowers them to a certain extent, at least. You know, they don't have to meet the sort of standards of the time, but on the other hand, it's, it's got some interesting sex things going on. Let's talk about this, like, what, what is this community? You know, there's lots of utopian planned communities, but like, what is this one? And what is it all about?

Susan Wels  20:57  
What this community is all about, essentially, is the weird psychology of John Humphrey Noyes, the founder, who literally in his youth was so absolutely terrified of women that he couldn't even go into a room where he didn't know all the women there. He said he would rather be in front of cannon than going into a room where he was unacquainted with the women. He was incredibly shy and incredibly self conscious, and was so afraid of being judged. And in the spirit of the times, which was singularity, he created a world where he basically was beyond judgment, because he said he was God's Messenger on Earth, he had access to any woman that he wanted. And he controlled the sexual lives of all of his followers, and sex in the Oneida Community was the highest form of worship. This was all within a Christian context. But what they talked about is primitive Christianity, but it was Christianity is is interpreted very bizarrely, by John Humphrey Noyes, who believed that everything that they were doing in the Oneida Community they were also doing in heaven. So it was a miniature of the kingdom of heaven on earth. And that included group marriage. So every man was married to every woman in the community. They were not allowed to have special attachments to partners, or children. Children were raised in a special children's house until they were adolescents. Another unique perhaps, aspect of the Oneida Community is that men were not allowed to ejaculate. And that took training. So the young girls in the Oneida Community were initiated and trained by older men,  mostly John Humphrey Noyes, but beyond him, it was the senior members, senior, most trusted members of the community. And boys were trained by women past menopause. So it was, it was definitely a different kind of place. And and by the way, John Humphrey Noyes also literally invented the term "free love." He was the first person to use it. But love in the Oneida Community was not free, because you had to follow his rules.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:11  
Yeah. And so you mentioned that, you know, he gets to like control the sex lives of all these people. And that's literal, right, like he is deciding who should be having sex, who should be procreating. Like what, what is happening here?

Susan Wels  23:27  
Yeah, he literally did. And in fact, his son mentioned that that was the source of his power, that that control over people's sexual lives was was how he controlled the community. And he was very effective at it. And one other thing about the Oneida Community, it was the first eugenics experiment in the United States. In the late 1860s, in the 1860s, and 1870s, John Humphrey Noyes decided to breed a super race. So he would literally pick the men and women who were allowed to mate and, and breed children. And that was was very much calling the shots in the bedroom.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:08  
Yeah. So one thing I want to maybe dig into a little bit because it's the thing that it's it's the ickiest, right, is that you know, you mentioned that that boys are being trained by by postmenopausal women and girls are being trained mostly by Noyes himself. And this starts pretty young.

Susan Wels  24:29  
Yes, it did start pretty young. Noyes apparently never asked the girls how old they were. He didn't really care about that. He insisted that he never introduced a girl to sex unless he had he got the vibe that she was ready for it. So yeah, it was it was pretty bad. And, you know, some people loved their time in the Oneida Community, honestly. They really did, at least you know, they wrote about it and they testified to that. But some people had an absolutely horrible experience, and I was able to find some of that testimony as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:08  
Yeah. Another interesting piece of this, of course, is that they were a tourist attraction. So people are just like showing up, like, let's see what these crazy people are up to. Why, did they encourage that? Like, what what did that look like?

Susan Wels  25:23  
Yeah, the Oneida Community never kept, never kept a secret about what they were doing. They wanted everybody to know. And they publicized it in newspapers. There was a reporter from Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, who came in and spent three days in the compound and wrote about it, that was a very amazing article about that. They would invite the public to come. In the summertime during, on fine days, strawberry season, they would be invited to come for strawberries and cream and beer and concerts and all of this. And in the 1860s, more than 50,000 people went to the Oneida Community, so many that by the 1870s, the railroad company created a special spur to the Community Mansion House, at a stop called Community. People were were just frantic to go see this place, because first of all, it was lovely, and they were very hospitable. But they also kind of wink wink, knew whatever knew what was going on. And they were kind of peeking around the corners. But there were so many that they had to post rules about no graffiti, don't trample the flowers. Don't look in people's bedrooms. I mean, it was a serious tourist attraction.

Kelly Therese Pollock  26:37  
Yeah. And so then Guiteau, of course, as we've mentioned, is one of the people who is at is at Oneida. And it seems like, you know, you're mentioning some people had good experiences, some people did not, he did not have a good experience there. Can you talk a little bit about what what drove him to go there and the way that the community maybe didn't work for him?

Susan Wels  27:02  
He went there, primarily because his father had grown up in upstate New York and knew about John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community and was a devotee, but he moved his family to the Midwest. And he always had in his mind that he really wanted to go back and join up with the Oneida Community. It didn't happen. But when when Charles Guiteau, his son, was 19 years old, he was living in Ann Arbor, he was studying and he was failing at his studies. And he started corresponding with the Oneida Community, having heard such wonderful things about it all of his life from his father. And he started asking for admission, and after a lengthy correspondence, they finally agreed to let him in. And he was there for five years the first time, without much if any success with the women. The women called him "get out" instead of Guiteau. And he left for three months, because he declared that he wanted to start a religious newspaper modeled on Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, and he was such a megalomaniac that he said that this newspaper was going to supplant all of the pulpits and churches in the world. It was going to be "the thing." But he was 23 years old, he had never written anything. He had no idea what he was doing. Didn't work out. So after three months, he begged for readmission. And he was there for about another year. And he finally left because he was rejected by all the women and it was just getting a little too much for him. So off he went, but he actually, you know, in a couple of years later, applied, or asked Horace Greeley for a job, and that didn't work out either. So, but what did happen with Horace Greeley in 1872, is that Horace Greeley ran for president, and Charles Guiteau at that point, who believe it or not, was a practicing lawyer, he had managed to pass the bar, somehow, he was a practicing lawyer, but he decided to drop the law and get into politics, because he believed that if he campaigned for Horace Greeley and wrote a speech, and delivered it, that Horace Greeley would be so grateful to him when he inevitably won the election and went to the White House, that he would appoint Charles Guiteau as minister to Chile or minister to Austria. It was absolutely insane, but that was the template for his expectations when James Garfield ran for president in 1881. And in fact, Charles Guiteau rewrote the speech he wrote for Horace Greeley as a speech for James Garfield.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:47  
Yeah, so Guiteau seems like megalomaniac, lots of other things going on. It seems too that people must have seen this in him right. Like it at one point he's married, he manages to find someone who's willing to actually live with him. But the people must have known right that there was just something a little bit off about him. 

Susan Wels  30:13  
Yeah, I don't think he had a lot of friends. But he did have a wife. And, you know, she thought, "Okay, he's kind of handsome." He was a lawyer when he courted her. And she was she was from England. But after a few months of marriage, she began to see how demented he was. And they ended up divorcing you know, and he treated her horribly. And he also had syphilis. And I mean, just, it was not not a not a good relationship. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  30:44  
Yeah,I started to think like if this were today, if there, there aren't everywhere, but if there were like red flag laws about buying a gun, like maybe somebody at some point should have stopped Charles Guiteau from buying a gun.

Susan Wels  31:00  
Well, there were certain points in his life when it was recommended that he be committed to an asylum, but he managed to escape. So that didn't work.

Yeah. So you mentioned that he then wrote a speech for James Garfield, as well. So let's talk a little bit about that. You know, he does actually help the Garfield campaign. He's working toward this. What what are his expectations about sort of why, why he's helping Garfield, what might happen?

Well, as with Greeley, he was convinced that when Garfield won the election, as the Republican candidate, that he would be so grateful to Charles Guiteau, that he would appoint him as minister to Paris. And that was, you know, wildly delusional, of course, but that was that was his expectation. That's not fully why he decided to shoot and hopefully kill James Garfield, but that definitely played into it. And he haunted the White House, you know, just begging for this appointment as minister to minister to Paris. He even came into Garfield's office at one point and handed him his speech, and he wrote, "Minister to Paris" on the top of it, and then just turned around and left and I'm sure Garfield was completely stunned. "Who is this person?" But they, he would later stalk Garfield, and very, very thoughtfully and methodically, because he was a smart man, he was demented, and delusional and megalomaniac, but he was a smart man, and he eventually shot him.

Kelly Therese Pollock  32:41  
I want to come back to your your writing style, and you know, the the way that you put books together, because I noticed that you're also an editor. And so I wonder what that interplay is like, as a writer, like do you think about the with an editor hat on as you're writing? You know, what, what does that look like for you?

Susan Wels  33:02  
I found it actually really helpful to have two heads, the writer head and the editor head, and I write as a writer, but then I reread and edit as an editor. So by the time I actually turned a manuscript into the publisher, it's in extremely good shape, and they rarely do much of anything to it. So yeah, it's a very nice duo to have.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:28  
Yeah. I noticed too that you're you have undergrad degrees in I think English and journalism, and then a masters in history. Does that inform your writing style as well, that you have both that sort of storytelling side of it, but then you know the history archival research piece as well?

Susan Wels  33:50  
Absolutely. As a journalist, what I love is writing about things I know nothing about, and then developing enough expertise so that I can tell other people about it. And that's the way I approach history. I studied, I did graduate school in history. I know what academic history is like. And that's not what I like to write. I like to write kind of a journalistic form of history where I'm just bringing the reader in and making it vivid. I was a magazine journalist. So that's the, the approach and the style that I like, of really plucking the reader into the 19th century, and making it as as vivid and intimate as I possibly can so that they really feel like what it was like to be there.

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:37  
Yeah, it well, it works. I really, I found myself you know, it's it's cliche to say like, "reads like a novel," but you know, it very much is the kind of thing you're like, and "Ooh, let's see where this rabbit hole goes. Ooh, that's so interesting."

Susan Wels  34:54  
Yeah, and what I love about history more than anything, is that you can't make this stuff up. I mean, In the what happened in the real world, some of the stories that I tell in the book, if if I were a novelist, and I presented this, I don't think anybody would believe it or buy it. I mean, it was, but it was. It's true. It's all true.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:14  
Yeah. So I want to ask about Titanic because I have an eight year old who loves Titanic. And I promised him that I would ask about that as well. So you wrote a book. It's been a while now, but a book about Titanic. Can you talk just a little bit about that, and then, you know, sort of how the Titanic story keeps living on?

Susan Wels  35:35  
Yeah, that was really an incredible experience. That was back in 1997. I was, I wrote a book about the Titanic, bringing the story up to date, I was contacted about it by the Chief Counsel of RMST Inc, which is the company that owns the rights of the Titanic, because they were the first to go out there and actually recover an artifact from the wreck. In any case, they had been doing expeditions out there, and they had been recovering objects. And so the story of the Titanic had expanded beyond what had been written about before. I was also the first woman to write about the history of the Titanic. And I also took this journalistic approach so that I really relied very deeply on survivor accounts. And I wanted to tell the story of the the whole context of what the Titanic represented, in terms of technology, and culturally, and then what happened after it sank, all of the all of the efforts to find it and all of the theories and all of all of that. Anyway, it came out in October, 1997. James Cameron's movie came out in December. And I remember going to the movie theater the first day it opened in San Francisco and being absolutely transfixed, and having been immersed in the story for, you know, many months, knowing that it was about 95% accurate, and I literally could feel the thunder under my feet. I thought, "Oh, my goodness! This is going to be huge." And yes, there was a there was a stampede from the movie theaters into the bookstores. My my, my book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 weeks. And then I was invited out on the 1998 expedition as the correspondent, which was perhaps the peak moment of my life. I was out there on the Titanic site for six weeks. I was ready, I was ready to dive. But we got hit by a hurricane, so we had to evacuate at the end. But it was it was just a tremendous experience. And I think this is the 25th anniversary of the Titanic movie. So I think there's gonna be a lot of attention. There's a re-release of the film. There's definitely going to be a Titanic-con in Las Vegas in August, and I will be there. But after I had this experience, I was thinking, what is it about the Titanic, that that really just grabs people so much. And I was thinking about what happened after Princess Diana died, and how that event also just the whole world was just, the whole world was grieving in a way that doesn't happen for everybody. And I think with the Titanic, it was a story, and it was a ship, where every class of person could relate. Everybody, every class of person was on that ship. And they were all just filled with dreams about where they were going, and the opportunities of the future, and just just the wonders of possibility; and then the ship sank. And it was just this horrible tragedy that that touched everybody. And when Princess Diana died, I think also she was an icon who everybody related to. And so everybody felt her loss in a very deeply, very deep way. So that's sort of the way I see it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:54  
Yeah, yeah. It's not quite certain why my eight year old is so obsessed, but he can tell you how many types of cheese were on the boat, like he just...

Susan Wels  39:06  
He's a rivet counter. That's what we call those guys.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:08  
Aha! Now I have a name for him. Can you tell listeners how they can get a copy of, "An Assassin in Utopia?"

Susan Wels  39:19  
Yes, you can get "An Assassin in Utopia," hopefully at your local bookstore. Failing that, any of the any online booksellers, including Amazon.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:29  
It's an incredible read. I definitely encourage people to go get it. Well, Susan, thank you so much. This was it was really fun to talk to you and I am glad to have gotten to read this book.

Susan Wels  39:41  
Thank you so much for having me on.

Teddy  40:02  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. Please subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app. You can find the sources used for this episode and a full episode transcript To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on twitter or instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions, corrections, praise, or episodes suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate, review, and tell everyone you know. Bye!

Transcribed by

Susan WelsProfile Photo

Susan Wels

Susan Wels is a bestselling author, historian, and journalist. Her book Titanic: Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; it was also a Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and USA Today bestseller. Her other books include Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It, Pearl Harbor: America’s Darkest Day, The Olympic Spirit: 100 Years of the Games, Stanford: Portrait of a University, and San Francisco: Arts for the City—Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932-2012.

Her work has been praised and published by The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, PEOPLE, Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, the New York Post,, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Jose Mercury-News, and the Daily Express and The Independent in the UK.

A graduate of Stanford University in English literature and journalism, she has a master's degree in history from San Francisco State University.​ She has worked on assignment around the world and served as correspondent on the Titanic Research and Recovery Expedition, reporting daily from the site of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. She and her husband have two daughters and divide their time between the San Francisco Bay Area and their farm in the south of Chile.