Fighting Irish and Women’s Bottoms

Entertainment in the Hall

Last week in her 1868 journal, Harriet Worden wrote of events that caused problems for the Community with the outside world and among its members, the nature of which would be repeated in one form or another until the break-up in 1880.

The first “crisis” began with a dance.

On Sunday night, November 13, the Community held a “soiree” in which Tirzah Miller and Frank Wayland-Smith and others played and sang concluding with a waltz.  Harriet wrote, “It all went off well indeed, unless the display of petticoats in the waltz might be considered a drawback.”  Nothing more was said about the petticoats for several days.  But at an evening meeting on November 17, Erastus Hamilton announced that “the spirit about the “dancer’s petticoats” was unpleasant to him.”  Hamilton mostly led the evening meetings.

Erastus Hamilton

John Humphrey Noyes was more likely to meet with members of the Community in the Upper Sitting Room, where he could speak softly without straining his voice.  He suffered from throat ailments and deafness, which didn’t allow him to lead the evening meetings.  However, he did weigh in on the spirit of the petticoats.  Hamilton read remarks made by Noyes.

John Humphrey Noyes

John Humphrey Noyes

“There might be some unpleasant remarks about the way the girls’ skirts flew up in the dance. But I don’t think there was the least harm in it. I didn’t care about it at all. Men like to see up there, and it is right they should some time; do let them. It was a pleasant sight. I liked it very much. There is no need of being at all squeamish about it. It wasn’t near as bad as what is going on the stage in the world all the time. I like to see women’s bottoms once in a while; it is one of the legitimate sights.”

The assembled group laughed and that was the end of the petticoat crisis.  Many years later, the Community would be torn apart by conflicting attitudes about Noyes’ role in the sexual system and the justification for the system itself, but in 1868, such tensions could be relieved by the words of Noyes and laughter.

The real “crisis” of the week was much more serious.

On the next night’s meeting, November 18, an incident was discussed that occurred earlier in the evening.  Two of the Community young men including James Vail were involved in a fight with a drunken Irish railroad worker.   Vail would later father a child with Harriet Worden, and be arrested and convicted for attempting to burn down the Mansion House and successfully destroying a horse barn, killing several horses trapped inside.  The arson was said be caused by a dispute between Vail and Community at the time of the break-up over a team of horses he claimed belonged to him and not the Community.

James Vail

The Irish workers were camped near by the Mansion House as they built the line of tracks that would run very near the rear of the Tontine.  Including a stop-over at the Mansion House would allow thousands of 19th Century tourists to visit the Community in the 1870s.

In the evening meeting, the fight was described as being provoked by the Irish worker, who said he could  “beat a Community man.”  The two young men defended themselves from the worker’s attack and struck him.  But it was the young men who were criticized for their behavior and asked to consider “what a dangerous thing it would be to bring on a collision between us (the Community) & the Irish.”  They were also asked to think about ” their disadvantages and our great advantages.”  At previous meetings, the Community had spoken about the terrible working conditions that the Irish workers endured digging through the swamp-like terrain to lay tracks by the Mansion House.

Albert Kinsley

Over the next two days, Mr. Albert Kinsley (from the Community) spoke with the foreman of the railroad crew and later with the Irish worker involved in the fight, and apologized for the young men’s actions.  The Irish worker said, “He was “tight” and was great deal to blame and seemed glad enough to call it all straight.”  Further troubles with the Irish would be avoided.


Throughout the Community’s history, the good will of neighbors would be relied upon for their survival when they would come under attack for its sexual practices, whether from a campaign in the New York City press by Charles Guiteau, former member and future assassin of President Garfield, who charged that the Community’s sexual system was deforming young girls, or from Professor John Mears from nearby Hamilton College, who led a movement among the local clergy to prosecute Noyes for adultery, which would provoke Noyes to flee to Canada in 1879.  But during 1868, the Community had no intention of coming into conflict with anyone in their neighborhood, even workers who were there temporarily.



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