Utopia, Clermont County, Ohio


“All of the land and phalanx buildings were sold to John Otis Wattles, leader of a group of spiritualists. Against the warnings of locals, Wattles had his followers move the main building, brick by brick, to the water’s edge. They had all gathered inside for a party on the evening of December 13, 1847, but the dancing was interrupted when a flash flood collapsed the walls, drowning 150 of the 156 people present.

“In 1845 John O. and Esther Wattles moved to Cincinnati. Up the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Clermont County was a failed Fourierist phalanx known as Utopia. Several communitarian sympathizers from Cincinnati—Moses Cornell, Lucius A. Hine, Hiran S. Gilmore, Pascal B. Smith, and Wattles—had begun to meet in 1846 to discuss reform. Gilmore was the principal of a black high school in Cincinnati. Hine was a lawyer and editor of the Quarterly Journal and Review, which in January 1847 had merged with the Herald of Progression. Smith was a well-to-do merchant. Together, they and other sympathizers formed what they called the ‘Universal Brotherhood.’ In Smith’s words, its intention ‘was to establish a Christian Church, on the broad principles of the gospel of Christ, with a view to remedy the great evils of society.’

“An ill fate pursued the community, which took the name Excelsior. The group, with Smith’s money, began to put up a large brick building to house the residents. In December 1847, however, a flood destroyed the entire community. Cornell and sixteen others, over half of the residents, drowned, and the Wattles barely escaped. The survivors, after the waters receded, tried to begin again, but when the frame building where they lived burned in May 1848, the group broke up.

“After Utopia, John and Esther found themselves in conflict. ‘We have been tried by water, by whirlwind and by fire. I would like to try something else,’ Esther told him.”

Thomas D. Hamm, Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform