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  • Mike Martinez

Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton

Henry Ward Beecher was a prominent nineteenth century preacher and social activist, one of the most famous men in America, when the wife of his friend Theodore Tilton charged in 1870 that the famous man of God had seduced her. After he heard the charge, Theodore Tilton acted in a peculiar way. Rather than confront his wife’s paramour privately, or shout his outrage from the rooftops, he sat on the tale for years. I discuss this episode in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.

Beecher knew Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth, and the trio frequently socialized during the 1860s. To all outward appearances, it was a strong friendship. For his part, Tilton looked to Beecher as a mentor, and he greatly admired the minister. Yet, as the years progressed, their relationship changed. Theodore Tilton became more radical in his moral and religious views. He championed the concept of “free love,” a doctrine at odds with traditional views of marriage. Free love supporters believed that standard mores were destructive because they confined men and especially women to loveless relationships that trapped them economically and harmed them emotionally. Most free love supporters were not against monogamy, but they recoiled at prudish and silly Victorian values that deemed marriage the penultimate institution in human life. If a marriage was unhappy, free love proponents urged couples to dissolve the union and seek companionship elsewhere. It was hardly the hippie “flower power” promiscuity of the 1960s, but free love was a radical concept at the time. Beecher did not support free love, and he said so from his pulpit.

According to the reverend, Theodore Tilton’s evolving views on free love greatly upset Tilton’s wife. By 1868, she was meeting regularly with Beecher, who provided solace by way of religious counseling and moral support. What happened during these long hours of comforting became a matter of no small controversy. Beecher might have been innocent of any untoward behavior—he was a charismatic man, and such figures attract all sorts of hangers-on—and Elizabeth Tilton changed her story repeatedly. Yet allegations of affairs and sexual escapades had dogged the minister for years.

It was difficult, then and now, to assess the charge. After his wife told him her version of events in July 1870, Tilton hesitated to respond. He had worked for Beecher in various posts, and, undoubtedly, he feared for future employment prospects if he passed along rumor and innuendo about one of the nation’s most esteemed public figures. If true, the tale placed both men in an ironic position. Tilton, the avowed free love supporter, was confronted with a wife who apparently had practiced what he preached. Beecher, the more traditional minister and an opponent of the free love doctrine, had ignored the supposed sanctity of marriage. How much hypocrisy could each man afford to acknowledge?

Tilton was bothered privately by the allegations, despite his public silence. He made no public comments, but he did tell Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a famous women’s rights advocate. Stanton had shared Reverend Beecher’s abolitionist politics before the Civil War, but she also had spoken of the destructive male who sought to have his way with women privately while also dominating business, politics, and religion in public. The idea that such a powerful public figure could abuse his position of trust was sickening.

After Stanton passed along the story to her fellow activists, including the notorious feminist Victoria Woodhull, it was only a matter of time before the incident became public. A proponent of free love, Woodhull was incensed that Reverend Beecher, a frequent opponent, was such a hypocrite. He denounced lax moral behavior from his pulpit, yet he had seduced his friend’s wife. If true, the story highlighted exactly the sort of male domination and abuse of power that Woodhull, Stanton, and their fellow women’s rights advocates had attacked for decades.

Woodhull was a public figure with both admirers and detractors in almost equal number. As a self-proclaimed spiritualist, she alarmed many Americans suspicious of such quackery, and yet others found her oddly appealing. She and her younger sister, Tennessee (sometimes spelled Tennie C.) Claflin, who marketed herself as a “spiritual healer,” had become financial advisers to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the renowned railroad and shipping magnate. The commodore insisted that he had earned vast amounts of money from the sisters’ tips. The women became the first female stockbrokers and amassed an enviable fortune, which they parlayed into a newspaper enterprise, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, an outlet to promote their controversial views on feminism, free love, and various progressive causes.

At first, Woodhull remained silent after she learned of the Beecher-Tilton affair. The Reverend Beecher had been the subject of much speculation over the years. It was wise to proceed with caution. She met with Theodore Tilton to discuss the matter—they did more than discuss the matter, some wags suggested, implying that Woodhull and Tilton practiced their own form of free love—before offering Beecher an opportunity to admit the affair publicly.

The notion that Beecher would willingly call attention to his own misbehavior was absurd. He knew of Woodhull’s reputation, and his inclination was to ignore her entreaties. His disagreements with Woodhull and her ilk were no secret. He did not see how he could declare himself a hypocrite without destroying his career.

Woodhull never seriously expected the reverend to accede to her demands. Nothing short of Beecher’s full public confession would have mollified the suffragette, in any case, and even that acknowledgment likely would have failed. As it was, when Beecher refused to bow to her demands, Woodhull dispatched a tantalizing letter to the New York Times and the New York World hinting at the secret she held, thus far, close to her vest. “Because I am a woman, and because I conscientiously hold opinions somewhat different from the self-elected orthodoxy which men find their profit in supporting, and because I think it my bounden duty and my absolute right to put forward my opinions and to advocate them with my whole strength, self-elected orthodoxy assails me, vilifies me, and endeavors to cover my life with ridicule and dishonor,” she wrote, obviously delighting in the power that comes from possessing damaging information on a rival. “Let him that be without sin cast the stone…. My judges preach against ‘free love’ openly and practice it secretly; their outward seeming is fair [but] inwardly they are full of ‘dead men’s bones and all manner of uncleanness.’” It was a sanctimonious opening salvo.

Now came the promise of more news to follow: “For example, I know of one man, a public teacher of eminence, who lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence…. I shall make it my business to analyze some of these lives…. I have no faith in critics, but I believe in justice.”

Whether it was justice that fueled her demands, or her anger at Beecher’s failure to support women’s rights—at least support them to the extent that Woodhull deemed appropriate—is a matter of debate. What is not disputed is Woodhull’s propensity for releasing information in her own time, and on her own terms. She believed that Beecher’s large family had attacked her in print, which caused her to leak bits and pieces of the story even as she corresponded with Reverend Beecher. To his dismay, he recognized that Victoria Woodhull was akin to a ticking bomb, but he did not know how to smother the fuse.

Woodhull finally published the entire story in her magazine on November 2, 1872. “I am impelled by no hostility whatever to Mr. Beecher, nor by any personal pique toward him or any other person,” she wrote. A skeptic could be forgiven for not taking this admission at face value. “Every great man of Mr. Beecher’s type has had in the past, and will ever have, the need for, and the right to, the loving manifestations of many women,” she continued, both implicitly attacking him and advancing her free love doctrine at the same time.

If ever the term “bombshell” applied to news, it applied to Woodhull’s article. She was eventually arrested for sending an obscene newspaper through the mails when she sent out copies of her article in Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. In the meantime, many Americans who knew nothing of Beecher’s reputation for womanizing were stunned. His public persona had elevated him far above mere mortals with their petty, salacious problems. That this well-known man of God would so blatantly contradict the values he had espoused throughout a long career almost defied belief. He was a larger-than-life character. How could he have done such a thing?

It was not as inconceivable as it initially appeared to the public. Throughout Beecher’s long public career, talk of his indiscretions had circulated. In most cases, the women chose not to speak or, if they did, they confined their remarks to a small circle of friends and acquaintances. It was an open secret among all who knew him that Beecher was a libertine, at least in private. The Tilton charge was different, though. Most of the women with whom he supposedly had affairs were acquaintances. Elizabeth was his good friend’s wife. Moreover, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull involved in the affair, ongoing newspaper coverage was all but assured.

With the charges now public, Beecher that knew that he must clear his name. After Woodhull published her 1872 article, he demanded an investigation. As pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, it was only natural that he turned to his congregants for assistance. Church members assembled an investigatory committee and launched an inquiry that lasted two months. To no one’s surprise, the committee’s report exonerated their preacher, finding that he had always lived “a life of great Christian usefulness and incessant work.”

The committee’s findings, so blatantly sympathetic to Reverend Beecher and so insultingly dismissive of Elizabeth Tilton’s allegation, infuriated Theodore Tilton. Anticipating the result, he had already filed a lawsuit against the minister, charging that Beecher had alienated his wife’s affections. Tilton demanded $100,000 in damages, a princely sum. Given the shocking nature of the allegations during the repressive Victorian era, the legal proceedings promised to be explosive.

The case came to trial in the Brooklyn City Court in January 1875. It lasted six months. Tilton presented a dozen witnesses, and Beecher offered 95, most of whom were not fact witnesses. They vouched for his sterling character and Christian piety. To ensure his victory, Beecher retained six prominent lawyers, including William M. Evarts, a former U.S. attorney general, and future secretary of state and United States senator from New York. Evarts was widely heralded as the foremost trial lawyer of his time. Tilton’s five lawyers included William Fullerton, known for his skillful cross examinations. With these lawyers attached to such a high-profile case, it was little wonder that the opening and closing statements lasted for two months.

Both Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton testified, but Elizabeth Tilton did not. The interspousal immunity rule prevented one spouse from testifying in a case involving another spouse because the witness might be placed in an impossible position: forced to choose between committing perjury or providing information that harmed the marriage. The husband could testify with the stipulation that he not reveal “privileged communications” with his wife.

These limitations on the Tiltons’ testimony meant that much of the first-hand information required to get at the facts was absent. Moreover, both Beecher and Tilton contradicted themselves repeatedly on the stand. Questions about Theodore Tilton’s relationship with Victoria Woodhull—maybe they were lovers, and maybe they were not—also muddied the waters. By the end of the trial, everyone was exhausted. It was clear that someone, or everyone, was lying, but as to who the culprits were and what motivated them, no one could say with certainty.

After all the press coverage and jockeying for position, the Beecher-Tilton trial reached an anticlimactic conclusion. The jury deliberated for a few days before deciding that no verdict could be reached. Nine jurors thought Beecher was innocent, and three were convinced that he had engaged in the affair. On July 1, the judge dismissed the case. Although a retrial might have been possible, Tilton did not pursue another round of proceedings.

The minister told all who would listen that he was vindicated, but that conclusion was far from true. His parishioners cheered his return; teary-eyed, they watched, enthralled, as he read a hymn. The following Sunday, they piled into the pews to hear a powerful, fiery sermon on the meaning of the New Testament.

Yet the rest of the world viewed Beecher with suspicion. His public image was forever tarnished, and he even became a figure of ridicule in some quarters. One popular ditty, occasionally chanted by smirking children, included this refrain:

Beecher, Beecher is my name,

Beecher till I die!

I never kissed Miss Tilton,

I never told a lie!

Recognizing that he must rehabilitate his reputation, Beecher excommunicated critics from among his congregants. He also hit the speaking circuit, relying, as he often had, on the power of his oratory to raise him to a higher plane. He wanted for no audience, but the old luster was missing. Some of the flock turned out to see the fallen idol more out of curiosity than reverence, unafraid to hoot and call out insults when the mood struck them. Beecher commanded hefty speaking fees, but his name was greeted with amusement as much as anything. The legend had been reduced to a life, and a sorry one at that.

None of the principals escaped damage. In 1878, Elizabeth Tilton published an open letter in the newspaper. It was notable primarily for its pitiful tone. She lamented her suffering as a fallen woman, reiterated the adultery charge, and confessed to “mental anguish” at the outcome of the trial. In her dotage, she went blind and became a recluse, living with a daughter until she died of pneumonia in Paris in 1907.

For his part, her husband remained a strange figure, an odd, ungrateful little hack who had attacked a beloved public man but could not bring him down. Beecher’s adherents viewed the supposedly aggrieved husband as a crank who surrendered to his neuroses and discontents as he manufactured the entire affair for reasons that were never clear. Theodore Tilton would always be a pathetic footnote in history, they charged.

Beecher went to his grave in 1887 having recovered some, but not all, of his former stature. When he learned of Beecher’s passing, the mayor of Brooklyn declared a public holiday. The state legislature adjourned out of respect for the dead. Beecher’s body lay in state in his church as 50,000 people filed past to glimpse the old lion one final time. Despite the diminution in his reputation, he remained in death what he had been in life: a compelling, charismatic figure who commanded attention from all who knew of him.

As for the 1875 trial, it demonstrated the sheer absurdity of the interspousal immunity rule. If a key participant in a trial—the woman at the heart of the adultery claim—could not be brought into court, the legal system contained a major flaw. In a later century, lawyers and judges assailed the rule, arguing that it was the useless relic of a bygone era—the Victorian period—where repressive preconceptions of sexual relations between men and women led to infuriatingly illogical outcomes. Perhaps the only positive legacy of Tilton vs. Beecher was its contribution to the modernization of an antiquated evidentiary rule.

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