Cult Study: Oneida Utopia 4/4

1868 photo of Oneida members, with Noyes seated in the center wearing a white coat

During these years of births and child rearing, the Oneida community expanded their business, acquiring and building manufacturing facilities. At their zenith, the commune employed 200 outsiders who lived in Oneida the town, not Oneida the commune. They maintained good relationships with their workers by offering relatively high wages and by contributing a schoolhouse and skating rink for workers’ families. The townspeople were more forgiving of their oddities because they benefited from the commune’s success.

But the state of New York was not so forgiving, and a warrant was issued for Noyes arrest, on charges of statutory rape in 1879. A well placed friend tipped him off, and Noyes fled to Niagara, Ontario just over the Canadian border. He never returned to the United States.

Noyes attempted to pass on direct leadership of the commune’s day-to-day activities to his eldest son, Theodore. This move was contested by member John Tower, who objected to Theodore’s agnosticism and saw himself as spiritually superior. This cemented an already growing divide in the cult over the stirpicults who were coming of age for complex marriage. Old men argued over who could first bed the young women, who they had communally raised since birth. Creepy.

Noyes penned a letter instructing the group to abandon complex marriage, and the risk of arrest for adultery, bigamy, and statutory rape. The community broke apart. John Humphrey Noyes II, the second stirpicult, oversaw the fair dissolution of the utopia. Their communal assets like the silverware company were put into a limited joint-stock company which former members received shares in. Those shares are still retained by Oneida descendants today.

Each child was returned to their biological mother, and most of those mothers entered into a traditional, legal marriage to one of the men (only sometimes the biological father). They left the Mansion House to the elderly single former members, and blended into the normal culture around them. A majority of children born at Oneida went on to college, including some of the girls.

John II found that he missed his half-siblings and friends, and in the late 1880s, he and several others raised in the Children’s Wing returned to Oneida. They did not practice complex marriage, male continence, group criticism, or Perfectionism, but renovated the Mansion House to have family apartments. Many stirpicults grew up to marry each other.

Today the Mansion House is owned by the Oneida descendants and is on the registry of National Historic Landmarks.  It houses a museum, residential apartments, meeting rooms, and guest suites where one can pay to spend the night in this place of history. Many former members wrote memoirs about their time as Perfectionists, including Noyes’ son Pierrepont who wrote My Father’s House. I encourage you to read more on this fascinating experiment in perfection, communalism, and breeding.

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One thought on “Cult Study: Oneida Utopia 4/4

  1. Thanks Angie that definitely is an interesting cult. I guess an obvious comparison is hippie groups and free love. Some people have these ideas and take them pretty far. I can just picture them conceiving that idea of “stirpicults”. It seems like of one of those “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if……?” moments.


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