Excelsior Beneath the Water: Spiritualism, Socialism, Flood and Tragedy in Utopia, Ohio 1847
John Otis Wattles was one of the most prolific participants in American communitarian socialist and reform movements of the antebellum era. The trajectory of his activist career is an example of the intersection between communitarian socialism and spiritualism.
Following the 1846 collapse of communities he guided in New York and Ohio, John followed his brother Augustus Wattles to Cincinnati and founded a spiritualist-socialist movement there called the Universal Brotherhood (UB). He quickly found converts among the radical Hicksite Quaker community in Cincinnati and by early 1847 was planning to start a spiritualist “community of property” with a core group of twelve individuals. Wattles bought the domain of the Clermont Phalanx, a failed community based on French socialist Charles Fourier’s teachings, in Clermont County, Ohio, to start Excelsior, a spiritualist community named for the Latin word meaning “higher.” In December 1847, under Wattles’s leadership, Excelsior tragically flooded and seventeen of its members died, some of them while dancing, in the main communal building. One contemporary historian described the event as “the most tragic event that has ever occurred in the county.”
American Communal Societies Quarterly
Available for download on Thursday, January 01, 2026