February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Driven from Vermont, the prophet John H. Noyes and his followers formed a communistic society in central New York where they shared everything — including a belief that scientific breeding would improve their offspring
Sin, the conviction of sin, the assurance of punishment for sin, pervaded pioneer America like the fever and ague, and took nearly as many victims. Taught that in Adam’s fall we had sinned all, threatened with hell-fire by revivalist preachers, tortured by the guilt of intimate offenses, earnest youths whipped themselves into madness and suicide, and died crying that they had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is unforgivable, though no one knows quite what it is.
The year 1831 was known as the Great Revival, when itinerant evangelists powerfully shook the bush and gathered in a great harvest of sinners. In September of that year John Humphrey Noyés, a twenty-yearold Dartmouth graduate and a law student in Putney, Vermont, attended such a revival. He was in a mood of metaphysical despair, aggravated by a severe cold. During the exhortings the conviction of salvation came to him. Light gleamed upon his soul. “Ere the day was done,” he wrote later, “I had concluded to devote myself to the service and ministry of God.”
Noyes was a young man of gaod family. His father was a Dartmouth graduate, a successful merchant in Putney, and a congressman. John was a bookish youth, delighting in history, romance, and poetry of a martial character, such as lives of Napoleon or of the Crusaders or Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion . He was redhaired and freckled, and thought himself too homely ever to consider marriage. But when he began preaching his face shone like an angel’s; one of his sons later averred that “there was about him an unmistakable and somewhat unexpected air of spiritual assurance.” According to his phrenological analysis, his bumps of amativeness, conibativeness, and self-esteem were large, his benevolence and philoprogenitiveness very large. His life confirmed these findings.
After his mystical experience in Putney, Noyes spent a year in the Andover Theological Seminary (Congregational). He found his teachers and companions lukewarm in piety, and devoted himself to an intensive study of the New Testament, most of which he could recite by heart. A divine direction—“I know that ye seek Jesus which was crucified. He is not here”—sent him from Andover to the Yale Theological Seminary in New Haven. There he came in contact with the doctrine of perfectionism and was allured by it.
Perfectionism asserted that men may be freed from sin and attain in this life the perfect holiness necessary to salvation. It rejected therefore the consequences of original sin and went counter to the Calvinistic dogma of total depravity. Perfectionism took shape early in the nineteenth century and found lodgment among adventurous groups in New Haven, Newark, Albany, and in villages of central New York, “the burned-over district,” where religion smote with a searing flame. Perfectionism was likely to develop into antinomianism, the contention that the faithful are “directly infused with the holy spirit” and thus free from the claims and obligations of Old Testament moral law. And antinomianism led readily to scandal, as when three perfectionist missionaries, two men and a sister of one of them, were tarred and feathered for sleeping together in one bed.
Though suspected of perfectionist heresy, Noyes was licensed to preach in August, 1833. At about the same time, he made a sensational discovery: Jesus Christ had announced that He would return during the lifetime of some of His disciples. Jesus could not have been mistaken; therefore the Second Coming of Christ had taken place in A.D. 70. The “Jewish cycle” of religious history then ended and a “Gentile cycle” began, in which the Church has improperly usurped the authority of the apostles. We live no longer in an age of prophecy and promise, but in an age of fulfillment. Perfect holiness is attainable in this life, as well as guaranteed deliverance from sin.
Noyes found this revelation by fasting, prayer, and diligent search of the Scriptures. At divine command he announced it in a sermon to the Free Church of New Haven on February 20, 1834. “I went home with a feeling that I had committed myself irreversibly, and on my bed that night I received the baptism which I desired and expected. Three times in quick succession a stream of eternal love gushed through my heart, and rolled back again to its source. ‘Joy unspeakable and full of glory’ filled my soul. All fear and doubt and condemnation passed away. I knew that my heart was clean, and that the Father and the Son had come and made it their abode.”
This was all very well, but next day the word ran through New Haven, “Noyes says he is perfect!” with the inevitable corollary, “Noyes is crazy!” The authorities promptly expelled him from the seminary and revoked his license to preach. But the perfect are proof against imperfect human detractors. “I have taken away their license to sin, and they keep on sinning,” said Noyes. “So, though they have taken away my license to preach, I shall keep on preaching.” This he did, with some success. His first convert was Miss Abigail Merwin of Orange, Connecticut, with whom he felt himself sealed in the faith.
Nevertheless his way was far from smooth. He had yet to pass through what he called “the dark valley of conviction.” He went to New York and wandered the streets in a kind of frenzy, catching a little sleep by lying down in a doorway, or on the steps of City Hall, or on a bench at the Battery. He sought the most ill-famed regions of the city. “I descended into cellars where abandoned men and women were gathered, and talked familiarly with them about their ways of life, beseeching them to believe on Christ, that they might be saved from their sins. They listened to me without abuse.” Tempted by the Evil One, he doubted all, even the Bible, even Christ, even Abigail Merwin, whom he suspected to be Satan in angelic disguise. But after drinking the dregs of the cup of trembling he emerged purified and secure. He retreated to Putney for peace and shelter. His friends, even his sister, thought him deranged. But such was the power of his spirit that he gathered a little group of adepts, relatives, and friends to accept his revelation.
Miss Abigail Merwin, however, took fright, married a schoolteacher, and removed to Ithaca, New York. Noyes followed her there—a rather ungentlemanly procedure. After a few months she left her husband, but not for Noyes’s arms—only to return to her father in Connecticut.
Noyes was delighted with the pretty village of Ithaca, with his lodging in the Clinton House, and especially with the broad-minded printers, unafraid of publishing heresies and liberal with credit. On August 20, 1837, he established a periodical, the Witness , for a subscription rate of one dollar, or, if a dollar should be inconvenient, for nothing. The issue of September 23 reverberated far beyond the subscription list of faithful perfectionists. Noyes had written a private letter expressing his radical views on marriage among the perfect. By a violation of confidence, this had reached the free-thinking editor of a paper called the Battle-Axe . Noyes, disdaining evasion, acknowledged in the Witness his authorship of the letter and reiterated his startling conclusions. The essential of “the Battle-Axe letter” lies in the concluding words: “When the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven, there will be no marriage . The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast at which every dish is free to every guest . Exclusiveness, jealousy, quarreling, have no place there, for the same reason as that which forbids the guests at a thanksgiving dinner to claim each his separate dish, and quarrel with the rest for his rights. In a holy community, there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restrained by law, than why eating and drinking should be—and there is as little occasion for shame in the one as in the other.… The guests of the marriage supper may each have his favorite dish, each a dish of his own procuring, and that without the jealousy of exclusiveness.”
Ungallant as this statement is in its characterization of women as dishes to pass, it states a reasonable protest against the egotisms of marriage. One may readily perceive in it also a secret resentment against the unfaithful Abigail Merwin. One may even interpret it as the erotic outburst of repressed impulse. Noyes, an impassioned, amorous type, was still a virgin.
Noyes was soon vouchsafed a sign, almost a miracle. When he was eighty dollars in debt to an Ithaca printer, he received from a disciple in Vermont, Miss Harriet A. Holton of Westminster, a letter enclosing a gift of exactly eighty dollars. He paid his bill, returned to Putney, and after a decent interval, forgetting the perfectionist views of the Battle-Axe letter, proposed exclusive marriage to Miss Holton. The two were formally united in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, on June 28, 1838. For a honeymoon they drove to Albany to buy a second-hand printing press, with more of Harriet’s money.
Thus began the Putney Community, which at first consisted only of Noyes and his wife, several of his brothers and sisters, and a small cluster of converts from the neighborhood. They lived in a group, sharing possessions and duties. Their chief occupations were spiritual exercises in pursuit of holiness and the printing of the Witness on their own press. Noyes had no great liking for sheer honest toil for its own sake; he wished to secure for all the freedom for spiritual development. The women prepared one hot meal a day —breakfast. Thereafter the hungry had to help themselves in the kitchen.
Noyes was restless in the monotonous peace of Putney. His wife inherited $g,ooo in 1844; Noyes was provoked to fantastic visions. He wrote his wife: “In order to subdue the world to Christ we must carry religion into money-making.” He proposed first a theological seminary for perfectionism, then agencies in Boston and New York to distribute their spiritual goods. “Then we must advance into foreign commerce, and as our means enlarge we must cover the ocean with our ships and the whole world with the knowledge of God. This is a great scheme, but not too great for God. … Within ten years we will plant the standard of Christ on the highest battlements of the world.”
Though allured by such shimmering visions, he had to deal with present problems. An urgent personal problem was that of sex. His wife was pregnant five times in six years. She endured long agonies ending in four stillbirths. The only surviving child was Theodore, born in 1841. John Noyes suffered with his wife, and he protested against cruel nature, perhaps against God. Surely women were not made to suffer so. Surely there was a better way. A perfectionist could not brook flagrant imperfection. Noyes’s habit was to seek and find a better way, and then sanctify it. The better way turned out to be male continence.
Noyes had been trained in the Puritan ethic, which did not regard marital sex as unholy. Nevertheless the consequences of male egotism horrified him. “It is as foolish and cruel to expend one’s seed on a wife merely for the sake of getting rid of it,” he wrote, “as it would be to fire a gun at one’s best friend merely for the sake of unloading it.” After his wife’s disasters he lived for a time chaste by her side. But chastity proving to be no solution at all, he embraced male continence, of which the definition embarrasses the chaste pen. When embarrassed, the chaste pen may decently quote. One of the community disciples, H. J. Seymour, thus defined the practice: “checking the flow of amative passion before it reaches the point of exposing the man to the loss of virile energy, or the woman to the clanger of undesired child-bearing.” Or, with Latin decorum, coitus reservatus ; or, more colloquially, everything but.
This was not actually the beginning of birth-control advocacy. In 1832 a Boston physician, Charles Knowlton, published The Fruits of Philosophy; or the Private Companion of Young Married People , pointing to the menace of excessive child-bearing and eventual overpopulation, and recommending contraception. Dr. Knowlton and his publisher were accused of blasphemy. Their case was carried to the Supreme Court, and they were condemned to several months in jail. Robert Dale Owen, the reformer of New Harmony, Indiana, supported by Miss Frances Wright, “the Priestess of Beelzebub,” carried on the work. In his Moral Physiology (1836), Owen recommended coitus interruptus , which Noyes scored as substituting selfindulgence for self-control.
“Amativeness is to life as sunshine is to vegetation,” wrote Noyes twelve years later in his Bible Argument Defining the Relation of the Sexes in the Kingdom of Heaven . “Ordinary sexual intercourse (in which the amative aucl propagative functions are confounded) is a momentary affair, terminating in exhaustion and disgust.… Adam and Eve … sunk the spiritual in the sensual in their intercourse with each other, by pushing prematurely beyond the amative to the propagative, and so became ashamed.” In the future society, “as propagation will become a science, so amative intercourse will become one of the ‘fine arts.’ Indeed it will rank above music, painting, sculpture, &c.; for it combines the charms and the benefits of them all.”
All this is very noble and high-minded; but we are trained to look for—and we usually find—a casuistical serpent in the gardens, who is able to transform impulse into ideals, even into new theologies. The serpent in this case was Mary Cragin, who with her husband, George, had joined the Putney Community. Mary was a charmer, and, to put it baldly, sexy. (Do not condemn her; some are, some aren’t. This is a wellknown fact.) Noyes feared that she might “become a Magdalene” if he did not save her. One evening in the woods, Noyes and Mary discovered that they were united by a deep spiritual bond. “We took some liberty of embracing, and Mrs. George distinctly gave me to understand that she was ready for the full consummation.” But Noyes insisted on a committee meeting with live respective spouses. “We gave each other full liberty, and so entered into marriage in quartette form. The last part of the interview was as amiable and happy as a wedding, and a full consummation … followed.”
This was Noyes’s first infidelity, according to the world’s idiom. He found a more grandiloquent term for it—complex marriage, to contrast with the restrictiveness of simple marriage. Heaven beamed on the participants. “Our love is of God; it is destitute of exclusiveness, each one rejoicing in the happiness of the others,” said Mary. The Putney Community, in general, applauded; some, under direction, adopted the new cure for marital selfishness. It appears that some puritan wives, as well as husbands, were secretly weary of the “scanty and monotonous fare” provided by monogamy.
But righteous Putney soon had hints of the goingson and uprose in anger. On October 26, 1847, Noyes was arrested, charged with adultery, and released, pending trial, in $2,000 bail. Noyes declared himself guiltless, insisting that in common law no tort has been committed if no one is injured. “The head and front and whole of our offense is communism of love.… If this is the unpardonable sin in the world, we are sure it is the beauty and glory of heaven.” But in fear of mob violence from “the barbarians of Putney” he thought it well to jump bail, following the counsel of the highest authority: “When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another.”
A refuge awaited the persecuted saints in the burnedover district of central New York, a region familiar to Noyes. A group of perfectionists offered the Putneyans a sawmill and forty acres of woodland on Oneida Creek, halfway between Syracuse and Utica. It was a bland, fertile, welcoming country, suitable for an Eden. By good omen, the spot was the exact geographical center of New York, if one overlooked Long Island.
In mid-February of 1848, “the year of the great change,” the pilgrims began to arrive. Defying the upstate winter, lodging in abandoned cabins, they set to with a will to build a community dwelling and workshops. Some of the neighbors looked at them askance; most welcomed these honest, pious, industrious newcomers, and some even were converted to perfectionism and threw in their lot with the colony.
The early years were the heroic age of Oneida. All worked together, cutting and sawing timber, digging clay for bricks, building simple houses, clearing land for vegetable gardens. Everyone took his or her turn at the household tasks. All work was held in equal honor, without prestige connotations. Noyes recognized that most American experiments in communal life had foundered because they were established on the narrow base of agriculture; his communism would live on industry. Thus Oneida marketed canned fruits and vegetables, sewing silk, straw hats, mop sticks, travelling bags, and finally, silver tableware. Its traps for animals, from rodents to bears, became famous as far as Alaska and Siberia. The cruelty of traps seldom occurred to the makers, who were frontiersmen as well as perfectionists. Sympathy with suffering beasts and the conservation of wildlife were concepts still undeveloped. To a critic, Noyes replied that since God had covered the earth with vermin, Oneida simply helped to cleanse it. Salesmen, known only as peddlers, were sent out to market the wares. On their return, they were given a Turkish bath and a sharp examination on faith and practice, a spiritual rubdown to expunge the stains of the unregenerate world.
The Oneida Community prospered. The numbers of the faithful rose. The great Mansion House, the community home, was begun in 1860 and completed a dozen years later. It is a far-wandering red-brick building or group of buildings, standing on a knoll amid magnificent fat trees. Harmoniously proportioned, with its towers, mansard roofs, and tall French windows, it is a superb example of mid-nineteenthcentury architecture. Its message is security, peace, and material comfort. The interior is graced with fine woodwork and decorations. The parlors, the excellent library, the lovely assembly hall, are redolent with memories, jealously preserved and proudly recounted. Here live a number of descendants of the original Oneidans, together with some lodgers, still regarded with kindly pity as “foreign bodies.”
The memories, second-hand though they are, are all of a happy time, of a golden age long lost. John Humphrey Noyes, affectionately referred to by his grandchildren as “the Honorable John,” was a cheerful person, and imposed happiness on his great family. The story is told of a visitor who asked her guide: “What is the fragrance I smell here in this house?” The guide answered: “It may be the odor of crushed selfishness.” There was no money within the Oneida economy, no private possession, no competition tor food and shelter, and hence little rivalry.
All worked and played together. Whenever possible, work was done on the “bee” system; thus a party of men and women would make handbags on the lawn, while a dramatic voice read a novel aloud. Classes were conducted in such recondite subjects as Greek and Hebrew. Dances and respectable card games, like euchre and whist, were in favor. Amateur theatricals were a constant diversion. The productions of The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor , and especially of H.M.S. Pinafore , were famous as far as Utica and Syracuse. Music was encouraged, with an orchestra and much vocalization. Music, Noyes mused, was closely related to sexual love; it was an echo of the passions. However, music contained a menace; it gave rise to rivalries, jealousies, and vanities, to what Noyes reproved as “prima donna fever.”
Noyes had strong views on dress. He called the contrast of men’s and women’s costumes immodest, in that it proclaimed the distinction of sex. “In a state of nature, the difference between a man and a woman could hardly be distinguished at a distance of five hundred yards, but as men and women dress, their sex is telegraphed as far as they can be seen. Woman’s dress is a standing lie. It proclaims that she is not a twolegged animal, but something like a churn, standing on castors. … Gowns operate as shackles, and they are put on that sex which has most talent in the legs.”
From the beginning at Oneida, a new dress for women was devised, loose skirts to the knee with pantalets below, thus approximating a gentleman’s frock coat and trousers. Some visitors were shocked, some were amused; few were allured. Indeed, the specimens remaining in the community’s collections and the representations in photographs hardly seem beautiful. But the wearers rejoiced in their new freedom of movement. They cut their hair, in despite of Saint Paul. It was asserted they looked and felt younger.
For thirty years the community, a placid island amid the stormy seas of society, lived its insulated life. It numbered, at its peak, three hundred members. It was undisturbed, except by invasions of visitors brought on bargain excursions by the railroads. As many as a thousand appeared on a single day, picnicking on the grounds, invading the workshops and private quarters. They were welcomed; but on their departure all the Oneidans turned to in order to collect the scatterings, to scrub out the tobacco stains on the parquet floors.
The structure, the doctrine, the persistence of Oneida made a unique social phenomenon. It was consciously a family, with Noyes as father. As Constance Noyes Robertson says, it substituted “for the small unit of home and family and individual possessions the larger unit of group-family and group-family life.” Its faith was “Bible Communism.” Though it held aloof from all churches and deconsecrated the Sabbath, it was pietistic in demanding the regeneration of society by rejecting competition, a money economy, and private ownership, whether of goods or persons. But it was not Marxian, for it made no mention of class warfare, of a revolution to come, of proletarian dictatorship.
The internal organization of the community was loose and vague, depending largely on the will of Noyes. Justice and discipline were administered informally, if at all. To provide correction, Noyes trusted chiefly to a procedure known as mutual criticism. Saint Paul had said: “Speak every man truth with his neighbor; for we are members one of another”; and the Apostle James: “Confess your faults one to another.” When an individual offered himself for criticism, or was designated from above, a committee prepared his “trial,” but any member might join in the proceedings. The trial was a game, though a serious one. The subject was informed of his secret faults, of shortcomings he had not suspected. He learned that his very virtues, on which he had nattered himself, were only disguised vices. The critics would pounce on an unpopular fellow-member with glee, seizing the opportunity to reveal to him some home truths, at the same time revealing their hidden rancors. A transcript of the proceedings was posted and often printed. The subject of this primitive psychoanalysis was likely to suffer dreadfully from his new self-knowledge. “I was shaken from center to circumference,” said one. “I was metaphorically stood upon my head and allowed to drain until all the self-righteousness had dripped out of me.” Afterward the subject felt enlightened, purified, happy. “Mutual criticism,” said Noyes, “subordinates the I-spirit to the We-spirit.” It also made the subjects, mostly brooding introspectives, for a time the center of interest and concern for the whole community. Mutual criticism, under the name of “krinopathy,” was even used as a therapeutic device to cure children’s colds, with, it was said, remarkable success.
Of the various Oneida institutions, the most fascinating to the prurient observer is the organization of sex behavior. Since the community was a single great family, there could be within it no marrying and giving in marriage. Each was married to all, Noyes insisted; every man was husband and brother to every woman. Love, far from being a sin, was holy, a sacrament; in the sexual experience one escaped from egotism and selfhood into the ecstasy of communion. Every effort must be to “abound”—one of Noyes’s favorite words. One must spend, not hoard. The human heart seldom realizes its possibilities; it “is capable of loving any number of times and any number of persons; the more it loves the more it can love.” One had only to look at surrounding society to recognize the evils of exclusive marriage, the chains binding unmatched natures, the secret adulteries, actual or of the heart, the hate-filled divorces, women’s diseases, prostitution, masturbation, licentiousness in general.
Noyes maintained that sexual love was not naturally restricted to pairs, that second marriages were often the happiest. “Men and women find universally (however the fact may be concealed) that their susceptibility to love is not burned out by one honeymoon, or satisfied by one lover.” The body should assert its rights; religion should make use of the senses as helpers of devotion. Sexual shame, the consequence of the fall of man, was factitious and irrational. “Shame ought to be banished from the company of virtue, though in the world it has stolen the very name of virtue.… Shame gives rise to the theory that sexual offices have no place in heaven. Anyone who has true modesty would sooner banish singing from heaven than sexual music.” Beware, said Noyes, of one who proclaims that he is free from sexual desire, beware of religious teachers with fondling hands. Beware especially of Dr. Josiah Gridley of Southampton, Massachusetts, who boasts that he could cany a virgin in each hand without the least stir of passion. In short, “you must not serve the lusts of the flesh; if you do you will be damned. You must not make monks of yourself; if you do you will be damned.”
One might suspect that these doctrines would have led to outright antinomianism and to general orgies. Nothing of the sort occurred, thanks to the watchful care of Noyes and thanks to the character of the Oneidans, devout and rather humorless seekers for perfection. The system of complex marriage, or pantagamy, begun in Putney, was instituted. A man might request the privilege of a private visit with a lady, or a lady might take the initiative, for “in all nature the female element invites and the male responds.” The request was submitted to a committee of elders, headed by Noyes, who gave the final approval or disapproval. The mate besought had the right of refusal. It was recommended that older women initiate young men, and vice versa. Thus the vountr men were expertly guided in the practice of male continence, while the maturer men undertook without complaint the education of the maidens. The committee was also concerned to break up “exclusive and idolatrous attachments” of two persons of the same age, for these bred selfishness. We are assured that complex marriage worked admirably, and that for many life became a continuous courtship. “Amativeness, the lion of the tribe of human passions, is conquered and civilized among us.” But the records are unwontedly reticent on the details of the system’s operation. Only one scandal is remembered, when an unworthy recruit tried to force his attentions on the women, and was expelled through a window into a snowdrift. One suspects that in spite of all the spiritual training, there were heartaches and hidden anger, and much whispering and giggling at the sound of midnight footsteps on the stairs.
The flaw in the system of continence was the threatening sterilization of the movement—the fate of the Shakers. Noyes recognized the danger, and in his Bible Argument of 1848 had proposed scientific propagation to replace random or involuntary propagation. But the time was not yet ripe. In the difficult early years of Oneida, Noyes discouraged childbearing, and his docile followers produced only forty-four offspring in twenty years. Then increasing prosperity permitted him to take steps for the perpetuation of his community. Early in 1869, he proposed the inauguration of stirpiculture, or the scientific improvement of the human stock by breeding. “Every race-horse, every straight-backed bull, every premium pig tells us what we can do and what we must do for men.” Oneida should be a laboratory for the preparation of the great race of the future.
The Oneidans, especially the younger ones, greeted the proposal with enthusiasm. Fifty-three young women signed these resolutions:
- 1. That we do not belong to ourselves in any respect, but that we do belong to God, and second to Mr. Noyes as God’s true representative.
- 2. That we have no rights or personal feelings in regard to ch’fcdbearing which shall in the least degree oppose or embarrass him in his choice of scientific combinations.
- 3. That we will put aside all envy, childishness and selfseeking, and rejoice with those who are chosen candidates; that we will, if necessary, become martyrs to science, and cheerfully resign all desire to become mothers, if for any reason Mr. Noyes deem us unfit material for propagation. Above all, we offer ourselves “living sacrifices” to God and true Communism.
At the same time thirty-eight young men made a corresponding declaration to Noyes: The undersigned desire you may feel that we most heartily sympathize with your purpose in regard to scientific propagation, and offer ourselves to be used in forming any combinations that may seem to you desirable. We claim no rights. We ask no privileges. We desire to be servants of the truth. With a prayer that the grace of God will help us in this resolution, we are your true soldiers.
Thus began the first organized experiment in human eugenics. For several years Noyes directed all the matings, on the basis of physical, spiritual, moral, and intellectual suitability. In 1875 a committee of six men and six women was formed to issue licenses to propagate. The selective process bore some bitter fruit. The eliminated males particularly were unhappy, unconsoled by the reflection that in animal breeding one superior stud may serve many females. Noyes relented in his scientific purpose so far as to permit one child to each male applicant. There was also some covert grumbling that Noyes, then in his sixties, elected himself to father nine children, by several mates. Eugenically, to be sure, he was entirely justified; there could be no doubt of his superiority.
The results of the stirpicultural experiment have not been scientifically studied, though an article by Hilda Herrick Noyes, prepared in 1921, offered some valuable statistical information. About one hundred men and women took part; eighty-one became parents, producing fifty-eight living children and four stillborn. No mothers were lost during the experiment; no defective children were produced. The health of the offspring was exceptionally good; their longevity has far surpassed the average expectations of life. The children, and the children’s children, constitute a very superior group, handsome and intelligent. Many have brilliantly conducted the affairs of their great manufacturing corporation; others have distinguished themselves in public service, the arts, and literature.
The integration of the children into the community caused some difficulties. The mother kept her child until he was weaned and could walk; then he was transferred to the Children’s House, though he might return to his mother for night care. Noyes, with his ideal of the community family, disapproved of egotistic, divisive “special love”; the mothers were permitted to see their children only once or twice a week. The children were excellently educated in the nursery school, the kindergarten, and the grammar school, by teachers chosen for their competence and natural liking for the young. If the children cried for their mothers, they were severely reproved for “partiality” or “stickiness.” One graduate of the Children’s House remembered that when he was forbidden to visit his mother he went berserk. Another recalled her agony when she caught sight of her mother after a fortnight’s enforced separation. The child begged her mother not to leave her—and the mother fled for fear of a penalty of an additional week’s separation from her child.
The atmosphere of the Children’s House was, in short, that of a friendly orphanage. If the disruption of the family units had any bad psychic effects on the children, they have not been recorded. Children accept their world as it is; they know no other. The memories of the Oneida boys and girls are mostly of happy schooldays under kind teachers, days of laughter, play, and delightful learning. The judgment of one eminent product, Pierrepont B. Noyes, is surely correct, that the community system was harder on the mothers than on the children.
The fathers were more remote from their children than were the mothers. Pierrepont Noyes admitted: “Father never seemed a father to me in the ordinary sense.” The system reflected indeed the character of John Humphrey Noyes. He was the Father of his people, the semidivine begetter of a community, and he loved the community communally. He saw no reason to encourage family bonds, “partiality,” among the faithful, at cost to the community spirit. He seems to have shown little personal affection for his sons after the flesh. No doubt a phrenologist would have noted that his bump of parental love was small. One is tempted to go further, to see in his disregard for his children a certain horror of paternity, a deepimplanted remembrance of his four stillborn babies, of his wife’s sufferings and his own.
The rumors of strange sex practices roused the righteous and the orthodox, already angered by Oneida’s nonobservance of the Sabbath and rejection of church affiliations. A professor at Hamilton College, John W. Mears, still the bogeyman of Oneida after a hundred years, began in 1873 a long campaign to destroy the community and its band of sinners. Though most of the inhabitants and newspaper editors of the region defended Noyes and his followers, though local justice could find no grounds for prosecution, the churches demanded action against “the ethics of the barnyard,” and sought enabling legislation from the state. The menace mounted until, in June, 1879, Noyes fled to Canada, as, thirty-one years before, he had fled from Vermont. From a new home in Niagara Falls, Ontario, he continued to advise and inspire his old companions until his death, on April 13, 1886.
With the Father’s departure the community system collapsed. In August, 1879, complex marriage was abandoned. Most of the Oneidans paired off and married, to legitimize their children. There were distressing cases of mothers whose mates were already taken, of the children of Noyes himself, left high and dry. In the reorganization into conventional families, it was necessary to establish rights of private property. As Noyes had foreseen, the demons of greed, selfseeking, jealousy, anger, and uncharitableness invaded the serene halls of the Mansion House.
The Oneida industries were converted into a jointstock company, the shares distributed to the members of the community. After a period of drifting and fumbling, the widely varied enterprises came under the inspired management of Pierrepont Noyes and became models of welfare capitalism, or the partnership of owners and workders. To the present day, high wages are paid, profits are shared, schools, country clubs, aids for home-building, are provided. Oneida is the leading producer of stainless-steel flatware, the second largest producer of silver-plated ware in the United States. It has ver three thousand employees in the Oneida plants, and many more in the factories in Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Its net sales in 1967 amounted to fifty-four million.
This outcome is not the least surprising feature of the Oneida story. Nearly all other communistic experiments in this country have a long since disappeared, leaving nothing more than a tumble-down barracks or a roadside marker. Oneida found a transformation into the capitalist world. It did so at the cost of losing its religious and social doctrines; but it has never lost the idealism, the humanitarianism, and the communitarian love of John Humphrey Noyes.