Cult Study: Oneida Utopia 3/4

1887 photo of some Stirpicults, via Oneida Community Mansion House Museum digital library

In the early years of Oneida, the commune was poor so most pregnancies were avoided, though there were a number of approved and unplanned pregnancies during this time. The group focused on a variety of business ventures like basket making and fur trapping. By the 1860s the group was experiencing financial success and began hiring outside workers for some tasks. This was also when Noyes began reading Charles Darwin’s Principles of Breeding and scientific papers on eugenics.

Noyes conceived of a new type of spiritual eugenics he named “stirpiculture”. He believed that mating two ” spiritually superior” members could produce a more spiritual and perfect (sinless) child. A committee was formed to pick parents for a group stirpiculture experiment, but Noyes was the final arbiter. Noyes wrote several articles for the commune’s newspaper outlining which traits prospective parents should possess.

The 53 mothers chosen for the experiment ranged in age from 20 to 42. The 38 fathers selected were primarily older men, considered to be more spiritual within the group. Noyes and his son Theodore fathered 13 “stirpicults” between them. (Of course the cult leader thought his sperm was spiritually superior. Of course.) His eldest daughter Constance (born at Oneida herself) had two stirpicults of her own.

The children were raised communally in a newly constructed Children’s Wing of the Mansion House. Childcare duties rotated among members, and caretakers reported “excessive” parental attachment to the appropriate committees. Babies spent the first fifteen months of life with their mothers for the purpose of breastfeeding, but once they weaned they spent more time with each other than their parents.

Only one of 58 eugenics children was born with a physical disability. Their steady access to good food, clean air and water, and isolation from city germs meant they had a physically healthy childhood. Boys and girls were educated, not just in the ways of the group but in science, mathematics, and languages. As a whole, they lived longer and healthier lives than many of their contemporaries, although some did die in early infancy.

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