Being A Mother in the Oneida Community

Charlotte Miller Leornard

Charlotte Miller Leonard gave birth to John Humphrey Noyes II on November 18, 1869, the 44th child born in the Community and the 2nd eugenics child.  Charlotte Leonard was 23.  The father was John Humphrey Noyes, who was 58.

Charlotte and Her Son

On October 1, 1870, Charlotte started making entries in a diary.  She recorded her experiences as a new mother of a Community child fairly regularly throughout the remainder of 1870, and continued writing in her diary off and on until the end of 1877.

At first, her diary entries focused almost exclusively about her struggles over living within the principles of raising children communally.  But over the years, as she adjusted to the separation from Humphrey, as she called her son, she wrote about the critical events and issues in life in the Community, and she even wrote about the election of John Humphrey Noyes’ cousin, Rutherford Hayes, as President of the United States.

She began her diary with the following entry:

“October 1, 1870 ~ Myron (Kinsley) got this little book for me at Utica yesterday.  Hope I shall make good use of it.  It is long since I have recorded any of my experience and I have not cared to do so.  God knows what experience I have been through the past year and though it has been the most trying part of my life, I thank God for it all.”

The following entries are typical expressions of her feelings about giving Humphrey up to be raised in the new Children’s Wing of the Mansion House.”

“I thank Him (God) for a good little boy as Humphrey is.  And I pray that he may always be a Community boy.  I wish to give myself to him anew to God and the Community.  I believe the Community is the best mother a child can have, and I confess my confidence in it.”

“October 3 ~ Went to the Children’s House today.  Miss Pomeroy is to continue taking care of Humphrey for the present.  Cannot tell what may happen, perhaps I shall not have him anymore to take care of at all.  But if it be God’s will that I should be so, I know that He will not only make me reconciled but thankful.  I wish to enter into my work at the Children’s House with a new purpose to serve the Community and give my child to the Lord… He will care for him.”

Charlotte Leonard

But within a couple of weeks, the situation had changed, and we can see from the following passages the swings in moods that Charlotte experienced, brought on by her desire to take care of her child and at the same time her belief in God and the principles of the John Humphrey Noyes.

“October 20 ~ Commenced to-day taking care of Humphrey again.  The Lord is good to me — very.  Father Noyes is so kind and good to me too.  After returning last evening from a ride to Mr. Leet’s with the children, Mother (Harriet) Skinner said that she had some good news to tell me, and that was that Father Noyes proposed to have me take the baby again.”

“This was indeed good news, and I could not keep back the tears.  I felt so thankful, and it seemed to me I did not deserve it.  She said Father Noyes had been talking about weaned love, and about Abraham’s having a weaned love for Isaac after he offered him for sacrifice.  He thought that weaned love was healthy and good, and he did not care how much we loved our children if we loved them with weaned love.  He thought that I had a weaned love for Humphrey now, and he thought I was ready to take him back again.”

“I feel like taking care of Humphrey as one of God’s little children, and not as though he was mine.  I do not feel at all like claiming him for he belongs to God and the Community, and I am appointed to take care of him for them.”

A week later, Humphrey is ill, and Charlotte fears for his life, but she is comforted by Noyes.

“October 27 ~ Father Noyes said to me a day or two ago, in speaking of Humphrey, that, ‘We must consider that he lives by faith — remember that.  Just as you do — you thought he was going to die, and now you live by faith.  He lives by our faith.  He is God’s boy.  Let us set a good example to the rest by having faith about our child, and giving him to God.  I pray that God will keep you from idolatry and give you wisdom in taking care of him.  These things I guess will bring you and me together.  Every now and then you have your trials about the baby and about your health and about his.  But you come off victorious every time, don’t you?’  I answered that I did.  ‘Well, you must have that same faith now about him.  You must take a strong function here (putting his hand on his heart) with Christ and with me and you will help him in that way.”

By the time of Humphrey’s first birthday, her son has recovered his health.

“November 18 ~ Little Humphrey just one year old today.  It hardly seems possible that I have a little boy a year old.  Mrs. Sears and I got up a little party for him, first for the fun of it, and as he is so fond of baked apples and milk, we had them for the main dish.  Father Noyes and Aunt Harriet were among the company, with several others.  Father Noyes seemed to enjoy it real well.  Humphrey enjoyed it mightily, sitting in a high chair between his father and me and eating his bread and milk from a tin basin.”

Charlotte Leonard

Such a touching family scene that would seem familiar to us today, except for the simple nature of the party, and the fact that this was no ordinary family.

Charlotte ends her entry for Humphrey’s birthday by thanking God and praying for wisdom and desiring “to be watchful and earnest, and keep in the spirit of ‘weaned love.’”

The Oneida Community had begun its eugenics program the year before, determined to show the world that they could selectively breed superior children, both physically and spiritually.  Charlotte’s next entry describes “a baby shower.”

“November 21 ~ First, all the mothers were seated on the stage with their babies, also all the expectant mothers.  Then the curtain rose, and John Lord proceeded to weigh each baby, beginning with the oldest.  Humphrey’s weight was twenty pounds four ounces — same as Blanche.  Richard’s weight was twenty-one pounds fifteen ounces.  Rutherford’s nineteen pounds two ounces, etc.  This was quite an interesting performance, and the babies appeared to enjoy it as well as the audience.  Humphrey was constantly creeping to the edge of the stage and throwing his rattlebox down to the band, which sat first under the edge of the stage.  After the weighing, Richard and Humphrey were undressed and placed on the stage.  The little fellows hardly knew what to make of it, and Humphrey was so frightened we had to take him off the stage.”

By early January 1871, Charlotte seems to have come to terms with giving Humphrey over to the “Mother and Father” of the Children’s House.

Oneida Community Children

“January 18, 1871 ~ Humphrey has finally entered the Children’s House.  We put him in Monday the sixteenth.  I have moved into another room, smaller but very pleasant, and am to keep on sleeping with him for the present.  He seems to take to the change very well, and will, I expect, get along nicely there.  Of course I miss him some.  But I find my experience in giving him up last summer was very good for me, and is quite a help tom me now.  It is quite a comfort to sleep with him still. “

“I guess Aunt Harriet misses him full as much as I do, as she has been with him more or less ever since he was born.  But by being away from him so last summer makes it comparatively easy for me.  I confess faith about him under all circumstances, and confess my trust in God, and shall expect that he will do well and be a good boy.”

Charlotte with Stephen and Humphrey

Charlotte Leonard had one more child, Stephen Rose Leonard, on November 18, 1872.  She worked as a silk-spooler and later as a bookkeeper.  She had a good voice and performed a prominent role in the Community’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Mansion House in July 1880.  She is described as having a quick mind and unusual memory, and was self-taught in mathematics and French.  She worked in the business office of Oneida Community Limited after the break-up.  She died in Kenwood September 29, 1928.

Charlotte’s son, Humphrey, would grow up to become John Humphrey Noyes II.  He would join his cousin, Pierrepont Noyes, in transforming the joint stock company ~ Oneida Community Limited, which was created in 1880 at the dissolution of the Community, into the world’s largest manufacturer of silverware. Humphrey would become the secretary of Oneida Ltd.  He would marry Dr. Hilda Herrick, the daughter of Tirzah Miller and James Herrick, and build a house in Kenwood, near the Mansion House among other former Community members in what was once the Community apple orchard.  Humphrey died in Kenwood on May 3. 1940.


Tirzah’s 1869 Diary

Tirzah Miller In Her Room

Tirzah’s back.

She started writing again in her 1869 diary on March 6, after an absence of two months (Tirzah’s Posts ~ 1869)

Tirzah returned to the Oneida Community in the spring of 1868 to work on The Circular (the Community’s periodical) in the rooms that we now occupy in the Tontine.  She edited it for a short time.  Her latest diary entry begins like many from this period in her life ~ “Last night I slept with J.H.N., and he talked with me for more than an hour.”  J.H.N. is her uncle, John Humphrey Noyes.  She would often record in her diary about their sexual encounters, not with lurid details, but recounting what Noyes had to say to her, to teach her as she navigated the complexities of life in the Oneida Community.

John Humphry Noyes 1860s

In her entry for March 6, 1869, Noyes was agitated about German and Boston writers who were infecting literature with “German atheism,” unlike the English authors who had an “honest intention to entertain people.”  Noyes cited Shakespeare as an example.  Noyes was determined that Tirzah and his sister, Harriet Skinner, “read magazines, and find out all (they) could about the leading novel literature, with analysis and criticism in view.”  He wanted Tirzah and Harriet to become literary critics and attack “these Boston and German writers (who) try to influence their readers with their atheism and hatred of revivals”.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

He predicted that Tirzah would become a better critic than Margaret Fuller, the American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate who was friends with one of the “Boston writers” Ralph Waldo Emerson, and edited his journal, The Dial.  Emerson was a severe critic of utopian experiments like the Oneida Community.  He once wrote ~ “What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!  Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.  One apostle thought all men should go to farming and another that no man should buy or sell; another that the mischief was in his diet, that we eat and drink damnation.  Others attacked the system of agriculture, the use of animal manure in farming, and the tyranny of man over brute nature.  Others attacked the institution of marriage as the fountain of social evils.”  It was to combat the influence of such writers as Emerson that Noyes instructed Tirzah to become a literary critic.

But for Tirzah to become Noyes’ agent in the literary wars he imagined instigating, she would have to put off becoming a mother in the eugenics program.  Tirzah’s response was typical of her loyalty to her belief in Noyes ~ “I told him I was in no hurry to have a child, and had had a kind of impression that I should not for two years.  He said he thought that was probable.”

Charlotte Noyes Miller

Despite what she predicted, Tirzah would have a child the following year, December 13, 1870.  She would give birth to George Wallingford Noyes.  The father was another uncle, George Washington Noyes, John’s younger brother.  The pregnancy caused some problems for Tirzah within the Community, since it was not sanctioned.  Her mother, Charlotte Noyes Miller, would write to her brother ~ “Dear John, I am tempted to criticize and blame George about the affair with Tirzah.  When I first heard of it, I asked, ‘Does John like it?’  I saw that he had not consulted with you or really with anyone.  I have felt bad that in such a serious move he did not consult my wishes and feelings.”

George would refer to her pregnancy as “free stirpiculture” and write to Tirzah ~ “I will say that I hold myself amenable to any censure from Mr. Noyes or others at O.C.  I desire nothing but the fullest light.  I told mother Noyes about it some weeks ago.  Please show this, if you think best, to Mr. Noyes.  I would write to him the whole story if he wishes it.”

George Washington Noyes had had a major influence on Tirzah while she lived in the Wallingford Connecticut community between 1864-68.  It was under his guidance that Tirzah began to work on the Community’s periodical, and as she wrote upon returning to Oneida in 1868 ~ “I owe to my acquaintance with Uncle George during the past three years a thousand blessings.  From him I learned that it is truly the glory of a woman to love and be receptive to good men; he taught me that pride is despicable; he led me to the knowledge and love of God.”

George Washington Noyes

George Washington Noyes would not live to see the birth of his son, George.  He died from malaria on July 23, 1870 at the age of 47, five months before the birth.

Tirzah’s diary is an intimate portrait of life in the Oneida Community from the perspective of a woman who was sexually active and was at the center of the major events in the history of the Community.  It is a window into the price that individuals, especially women paid to live up to the principles of her uncle, John Humphrey Noyes.

For Tirzah, it came down to a struggle between desire and duty, as she said later in her diary ~ “I sometimes wish I could be less under the scrutiny of Mr. Noyes’s almost omniscient eye, but when, after trying to hide myself, he reaches out for me, and hunts me up, my heart goes toward him with that passionate devotion, inspired not only by his being the one man on earth whom I absolutely trust, but also by the fact that he is the only father I have known since childhood.”

She would write in her diary almost continually up to the Break-up of the Community in 1880.

Original Joiners ~ Harriet Mathews

Oneida Community Work Bee

On February 4, 1848, John Humphrey Noyes decided to move his small group of followers from Putney, Vermont to Oneida, New York.  The move was not exactly voluntary.  The previous November an arrest warrant had been issued for Noyes charging him with adultery with two women ~ Fanny Leonard and Achsah Campbell.  They were members of the Putney Association, Noyes’ first attempt to create a Bible Communist community.

Fearing mob violence from the citizens of Putney outraged to discover a group of people practicing” free love” within their village, Noyes fled to New York seeking refuge and a new start among his supporters in Oneida.  By the following year, 1849, there would be 87 members of the newly established Community along the Oneida Creek in what is now Madison County.  It would be called the Oneida Community.

These members and individuals and families that joined the Oneida Community in the first years of its existence are considered the “Original Joiners.”  They were persuaded to give up their former lives and live in the “wilderness,” at the edge of what was considered civilization in the 1840s and 50s, in what is now Central New York.  Noyes attracted many of his followers through the publications of his writings and accounts of the progress of the religious communities he was creating.  Harriet Matthews was one of the original joiners.  She was born on February 21, 1820 in North Brookfield, Massachusetts.  At 15, she joined the Congregational Church, but it was thirteen years later that she would make a spiritual decision that would determine the course of her life.

Here are excerpts from a diary account of Harriet Matthew’s spiritual journey into the wilderness.

Harriet Matthews

“I went to New York City in March 1848.  Mr. Cragin met with me at the residence of Mr. Horace Greeley, the Editor of “The Tribune,” and after becoming acquainted somewhat with Mr. Noyes and learning something of the nature of the Association, I concluded to join.”

She decided to join the Oneida Association on March 23, 1849, and moved to Oneida five days later.

Harriet Matthews, like many women in the Oneida Community, kept a diary to record her thoughts and experiences as she struggled with her faith.  Her account captures feelings of being tested and at the same time liberated while attempting to live according to the principles of Bible Communism.

“August 12, 1855.  I feel as if I were indeed born again.  It seems as if during the past summer I had been going through an emptying process, till I was entirely emptied of everything and had a deep consciousness of my own weakness, nothingness and entire inability to do anything of myself.  And this I realized was favorable to Christ’s taking possession of me.   As Paul says, ‘when I am weak then am I strong.’”

Harriet Matthews joined as an individual, leaving her family behind.  However, the relative security of living among an extended family of hundreds was attractive to many Community members and their families facing the uncertainty of life in the world outside the Oneida Community.

“October 2, 1855.  I received a letter from my father.  He has at last and much against his will taken refuge in the poorhouse.  He also stated that sister Hannah’s husband is in the hospital hopelessly insane leaving her with three little children to support; and that Sarah’s husband, who was rich, has failed and she has buried her two youngest children this summer.  My youngest brother James is in very feeble health, not able to take care of himself.  The whole family is in great tribulation.  There is a great pressure on every side from those in distress wishing to join us, to get out of trouble at the present time.”

It was not an easy task for Harriet Matthews and the other members to live under constant scrutiny by the Community, expressed by individuals in regular criticism sessions, where one was expected to sit quietly as your faults were told to you.  One member described it as having your skin peeled before your eyes.  Harriet recorded the criticisms of her character by the Community in her diary.

“December 31, 1855.  Today, I received a sincere criticism, and in a way I felt that it came from God, in regard to my relations to my brothers.  I was criticized for lack of meekness and respect, for assuming superiority and making them feel small. I believe it has been a quality of my spirit that I have been nearly unconscious of it.  I think I inherited it from my mother.  I think it is a hateful spirit & contrary to the will of God.”

Early on in the history of the Community, women broke with social constraints and customs – cutting their hair short and wearing pantaloons or bloomer dresses, as they came to be called.  It was part of their struggle against vanity and part of their effort to liberate themselves from the cumbersome dresses and corsets that kept women from participating fully in work usually reserved for men.

“April 29, 1856.  I commenced working in the garden as a regular hand.  Yesterday I had my hair cut short.  Both of these things are answers to prayers offered long ago.  I have worked all day in the garden with the men and was considerably tempted to be tired, stiff and lame, yet by opening my heart to faith I am not so, but feel bright and good tonight.”

Picnic at the Cascades

What made her struggle worthwhile was her trust in Noyes,  a strong belief in Christ and in the family of the Oneida Community.

“May 22, 1856.  I have had a good day, worked out nearly all day.  We ate supper under the tree and then marched round and round the yard and flower garden.  I thank God for trials and temptations, for experience, which humbles me, turns me inward, makes me poor in spirit and makes me feel my need of Christ, in Him alone is salvation.  How vain is any arm of flesh to lean upon.  O that I may love Him and trust Him as I ought.”

Harriet worked as a dressmaker and a housekeeper in the Community.  She had one Community child with Charles Olds, whom she married at the breakup of the Community in 1880.  Her daughter, Shirley, was born on March 23, 1859, and died the same day.

Harriet Matthews died at the age of 85 on December 9, 1905, and was remembered as a woman of untiring faith, hearty spirit, and as a “charming writer of diaries.”  She has no descendants in the Community.

Tirzah Miller Avatar

Tirzah Miller Writing In Her Diary

The image above was created by the artist Emmanuel Bazin from Artifex Animation Studios in Montreal for our NEH proposal.  It is concept art, an early step in creating Computer Generated characters or Avatars to be used in the Oneida Community Digital Media Project.  The sources for this image are an archival photo of Tirzah from the 1860s, and digital images that we took in the preserved bedroom in the Oneida Community Mansion House.

We will use this and other images to create a virtual Mansion House in the 3D immersive world, Second Life.  The Mansion House will be recreated in Second Life based on blueprints, archival photos, written descriptions, and digital photography of the 93,000 sq ft Mansion House that exists today in Oneida, NY.

Characters like Tirzah Miller will be recreated in Second Life based on concept art like the image above.  We will create a website where a visitor will be able to watch the PBS documentary, called Heaven on Earth ~ Love and Conflict in the Oneida Community, with interactive features available, or by watching a trailer that introduces the visitor to the Oneida Community and provokes the viewer to explore the virtual Mansion House on their own, discovering expanded vignettes from the documentary, as well as new scenes and historical information not included in the PBS program.

Tirzah Miller wrote a very intimate diary, which Dr. Robert Fogarty edited and published as Desire and Duty at Oneida.  We will use this diary and numerous letters preserved at the University of Syracuse Library to recreate key scenes in Tirzah’s life in the Community.

We will use the same process to present ten other members of the Oneida Community, offering the visitor to the website an opportunity to learn about the history of the Oneida Community from multiple perspectives.

Images like the one of above will be a starting point to communicate to our team of artists in and out of Second Life what we wish to create in order to bring the characters and their stories of the Oneida Community to life.

And so winds up 1868! Come on New Year!!!

With these words ~  “And so winds up 1868!  Come on New Year!!!” ~ Harriet Worden concluded her 1868 Journal, and we log the final entry for 1868 in Harriet’s Posts ~ 1868 in sync with 2010.  Tomorrow we will post the start of Harriet’s posts for 1869.

It has been an interesting daily ritual, reading Harriet’s entries on the corresponding day in 1868.  For instance, comparing the weather they were having in 1868 to ours in 2010; they had more snow.  We have enjoyed following the daily comings and goings of Community members as they moved from apartment to apartment, job to job, shifting from living in the Mansion House to the satellite Community at Willow Place, a mile a way.  And in the case of poor Uncle Horace (Burt) who wandered off from the Community one day, Harriet reported, “Mr. Burt had a letter from Uncle Horace this evening. It was dated at Schenectady. Said he left without purse or script – without two coats & two pairs of shoes. Whither bound or what his plans are not plain. He is far from being in his right mind.”

Harriet’s accounts of the nightly meetings and entertainments provided a window into the creative, resourceful and often amusing ways and lives of Community members.  They gave lectures on Entomology, Chemistry, Babylon, Egypt, The Greeks and Persians, and the history of Roman times and Constantinople, and a course of lectures for the children on the “Providence of God.”

Harriet Worden with Guitar

They had “scandalous” dances that showed, for some, too much of a “woman’s bottom,” and an amazing  variety of musical performances  and dramatic interpretations, including promenades, skits mimicking “a goodly number of Oneida Community personages,” and even a “practical illustration of Shaker life.”   A mock-funeral for their bag business ended this way ~ making fun of the size of their Oneida Community handbook, and celebrating with a surprise magic act, their new project – Stirpiculture ~ selecting parents to give birth to the next generation of Oneida Community children.  Harriet wrote,

“Then followed a little scene in which Mr. Kelly as an agent offers the “handbook” of two thousand pages to his customers.  He goes out and in comes John Lord & George Allen; each carrying a large leather bag & to all appearances very heavy – and upon setting them down out comes, what do you think – two children, Harold & Temple!  They each exclaimed, “Hurrah for Scientific Propagation!”  and the curtain fell.”

These were just some of the informative and entertaining performances the Community presented at their regular 7PM meetings.

With their habit of keeping records of everything, the last days of the year were devoted to taking inventory.  Harriet reported that John Humphrey Noyes requested on December 8 that the Community “take an inventory of the labor of each individual during past year.”  During the last days of December, Community members took stock of what they had labored at and what they had achieved.  On the final evening meeting of the year, Theodore Noyes read the inventory.  Unfortunately, we do not have that report, but the Oneida Community archives at Syracuse University contain various inventories of their possessions, food stocks, business income and expenses, itemized costs for sustaining each member at Oneida, Wallingford, and Willow Place, and a record of each Community member, listing their name, age, height, weight, birth place and date,  the age and date when they joined, and how much property they brought into the Community.  The Oneida Community considered themselves to be living under scientific principles, and to do so they needed data.

And so Vicki and I are taking an inventory of our labor for the past year.  We began the year in Montreal, living under the shadow of the great Basilica, L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal; me working on completing the animated documentary on the explorations of Samuel de Champlain – Dead Reckoning ~ Champlain in America, and Vicki keeping her American intellectual property clients happy from Canada.  In January, we decided to investigate living in the Mansion House and producing a media project on the Oneida Community.  In early April, we moved back to Cumberland Head on Lake Champlain as I began work on the Cirque du Soleil PBS special, Flowers in the Desert. Within weeks of returning to the US, we visited the Mansion House and fell in love with our future home, Tontine 255.  Since the end of June, we have been living in the Mansion House, in an apartment furnished with furniture from throughout the great house and dishes and silverware from Oneida Ltd.  And except for three months when I was up to my eye balls with work producing Flowers, we have been consumed with the lives of the three hundred or so religious pioneers in the 19th Century.  We have made many wonderful new 21st Century friends here among the people who work for or live in the Mansion House.  Vicki has been exploring the cooking and baking philosophy of the Oneida Community described so well by Harriet Skinner. And early next year, she will be publishing a new version of this wonderful glimpse into the food produced and consumed in the Oneida Community.

Oneida Community Web Doc

January 12th is the deadline for our proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for support for the Oneida Community Media Project.  We didn’t think we would make this deadline due to the amount of time taken up with the Cirque project, but it looks like we will make the deadline!  I have nearly completed the proposal requesting support for an innovative interactive media project that will include: a documentary broadcast on public television; the same film streamed on the internet with interactive features available to allow a viewer to access additional historical information, context, analysis and commentary by our scholars; and an interactive web documentary that will allow the viewer to discover multiple narratives, historical information, tour the Mansion House in a virtual environment, trace the history of the Community through an interactive timeline and map, view Mansion House exhibits online, and discuss ideas with our panel of scholars.

And so winds up 2010!  Come on New Year!!!

The Sin of Eve

Harriet Worden

On December 2, 1868, Harriot Worden wrote in her daily journal that Tirzah Miller submitted herself to criticism at the evening meeting.  Tirzah confessed that while she had “freed herself from special love long since, she herself was a tempter to others.”  Harriot sees something of herself in Tirzah.  She remarks in her journal, “Oh, my God, give me strength to see, conquer it and hate it. It is this that separates me from righteousness.”

We know from a close reading of Tirzah’s diary that she and Harriet Worden would later become rivals for the love of two men, Edward Inslee and Henry Hunter.  But at this moment, at least from Harriet’s perspective, they were sisters in sin.  Harriet’s explanation, and certainly Noyes’ belief, was that women were the tempters of men, enticing them to sin by desiring exclusive sexual relations.

Harriet traces this flawed character to the original woman, Eve.  It is hard to know whether Harriet held this same view of her sex in later life, as she continually challenged the patronizing attitude of Noyes and the elders of the Community towards the women’s ability to assume leadership roles.

She would later write sarcastically, “If it were right to envy, I should envy the men.  They are so wise and strong, and so confident in their wisdom and strength.  They form such great plans, and are able to talk about them in such a large, disinterested way, that their opinions pass for what they are worth each time.  But woman is such a creature pf feeling she can scarcely give her views entirely free from personalities, and hence her judgment is received doubtfully.”

Tirzah Miller

As for the cause of Tirzah’s confession, she is silent in her own diary for all of November and most of December 1868.  She did write about visits in the spring and summer by George Noyes, her uncle.  He confessed to her that they could not be lovers any longer “until I don’t trouble him in the least.”  Tirzah wrote that Georeg was “fascinated by me, so he was unable to see my faults.”  Tirzah will later have an unauthorized child with her uncle.  Tirzah may have been referring to her relationship with George Noyes or with a tendency on her part to enjoy being a much sought after sexual partner in the Community.  In the following years, she would write extensively about her temptress ways, seeking guidance from John Humphrey Noyes to rid herself of the sins of Eve, with varying success.

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.

Homer’s Confession

Homer Barron

The November 6th post  from Harriet Worden’s 1868 Journal has a remarkable confession by Homer Barron.  He had just been criticized for poisoning Myron Kinsley’s mind.  They had planned to leave the Oneida Community,  and if the Community did not give them the money they asked for to help them set up a life in the outside world, they would go to Connecticut and start-up a trap shop there and enter into competition with the Oneida Community trap works.

Harriet Worden recorded Homer’s confession in the Willow Place Community, which was a mile from the Mansion House and served as a satellite community for members who worked in the Trap and Silk factories.  What is remarkable about the confession is that it exists at all.  We have few examples of such self-criticisms and almost none from men in the Community.

Edward Inslee

Homer Barron appears prominently in Tirzah Miller’s diary, as her lover and a severe critic of her for harboring special love for other men, especially Edward Inslee.

A gifted musician and a key figure in the manufacturing of the traps,  Edward Inslee withdrew from the Community in 1875, after a tumultuous battle of wills with John Humphrey Noyes.  And unlike Homer Barron, there is no record of a confession of his sin of special love for Tirzah Miller.

Homer Barron married Tirzah’s sister, Helen, at the break-up of the Community in 1880.

Back In The Mansion House

After three months of producing  a PBS special on Cirque du Soleil’s  Las Vegas shows:  Cirque du Soleil ~ Flowers in the Desert, I am back living full time with Vicki in Tontine 255 in the Mansion House.  After months of working with an “impossible” deadline to deliver the 2-hour special for broadcast nationally starting November 27, 2010, I am once again attempting to integrate my work into my daily life.

(Here is a link to a clip from the PBS special on You Tube:

I am celebrating my return to life in the Mansion House by posting excerpts from the daily entries that Harriet Worden wrote in a journal she kept in 1868 and 1869, of the daily events that occurred in the Oneida Community beginning on November 1, 1868.  I will post each day the corresponding entry from her journal for that day one hundred and forty-two years ago.  The entries will appear each day in the page for Harriet Worden’s Journal – 1868 Entries.

Her journal was begun as an “improving exercise …  and useful as a reference.”   This is the same spirit that Vicki and I embrace as we create this blog.

Harriet Worden’s writing is lively and creates a vivid canvas of changing images from the daily life in the Oneida Community during a critical year in its history.  Through her journal entries, we can follow the evolving stories of the individuals that made up the Oneida Community in 1868-69.  We glimpse the complexity of their lives and relationships through Harriet Worden’s engaging descriptions.  After transcribing and editing this journal, I have come to appreciate the genius of the Community – collectively integrating work, play, sex and religion,  continually in movement, searching for better ways to live a perfect, sinless life.  Lessons to be studied today.

New Discoveries

We have lived in the Mansion House for three weeks.  For nine of these days, we have sought refuge from the July heat wave (high 90s and heavy air) in the Syracuse Library Special Collections Room.  This is where the Oneida Community papers are kept.

Cool Researching

It is a treasure of diaries, letters, Community records, poems, novels, plays, sketches, and articles and essays.  The Special Collections room is also refrigerated, which feels very refreshing in the midst of the heat wave outside.

We have examined letters, diaries and journals from 16 of the 77 boxes of materials from the Oneida Community.  It is exhausting work, trying to decipher handwriting that was written in pencil and is now faded or ink soaked pages that are on the brink of disintegration.  But every day of work produces rewards that makes it all worthwhile.  One such discovery was Harriet Worden’s 1868-69 Journal.

I first heard of Harriet Worden in the 1980s, when I read her son’s account of growing up in the Oneida Community ~ My Father’s House, An Oneida Boyhood by Pierrepont B. Noyes.

PB Noyes as he was called as an adult, was born in 1870; his father was John Humphrey Noyes, and Pip (as he was called as a child) was one of the children born during the eugenics program, what the Community called “Stirpiculture.”  In his twenties, PB Noyes took control of the joint stock company that emerged from the dissolution of the Oneida Community in 1880, and built it into the world’s biggest manufacturer of flatware, Oneida Ltd.  I recall Pip’s mother admonishing him not to cry or cling to her when it was time for him to return to the Children’s House, where he was raised together with the other children by “a mother” and “father” chosen by the Community.

Reading Tirzah Miller’s diary, published as Desire & Duty at Oneida ~ Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir edited by Robert S. Fogarty, Harriet makes several appearances, but as a rival to Tirzah for the love of Edward Inslee and Henry Hunter.  Both Tirzah and Harriet were writers and took turns editing the Community newspaper, The Circular.  Harriet Worden wrote a memoir of her own, but much less personal than Tirzah’s ~ Old Mansion House Memories, which were public memories of the first Mansion House that was replaced in 1862 by the present building, and published in The Circular in 1870-71.

Harriet Worden

The journal we found in Harriet’s folder was written contemporaneously between November 1868 and May 1869.  It is very exciting to find this journal.  It records daily events in the life of the Oneida Community.

For example:

  • the changes in living and working arrangements between and within the three “families” at Oneida, Wallingford Ct., and Willow Place (the location a few miles from the Mansion House where the traps were manufactured)
  • the visitors to the Community
  • the births and deaths within the Community
  • the weather (a critical factor in this part of the world)
  • the sales and other business trips by members of the Community
  • the orders for traps and silk thread
  • the appeals by people in the outside world to join the Community
  • the accounts of members who decided to leave the Community
  • the criticisms of individuals by criticism committees
  • the ideas expressed by the leader of the Community – John Humphrey Noyes  – and the subsequent discussion by the Community
  • the plans for new buildings and changes in the organization of work
  • the evening meetings and the entertainment that was almost a nightly occurrence

Anything that was unusual or extraordinary, Harriet wrote about it.  It is a wonderful account of the daily life of the Community when it was at it’s zenith.  It was a time of confidence, of business success, of plans to produce scientifically superior children, of showing the way to perfection to the outside world by the manner in which they worked, lived and loved.

Today, we begin posting excerpts from Harriet’s Journal, which will provide a sense of the rhythm of life at a critical time in the history of the Oneida Community.