Illustration at left stresses Henry Ward Beecher’s hypocrisy in his relationship with Elizabeth Tilton. Center drawing of Mrs. Tilton seated in Beecher’s lap; a reference in the bottom left to Beecher and a Mrs. Moulton, and other negative references to Beecher.
On May 22, 1871 the New York World printed a letter written by Victoria Woodhull. Without naming names, Victoria referred to the hyporcisy of a man who spoke out against her doctrine of free love while also privately engaging in the practice. Most readers did not know the subject of her attack, but more than a few did.
The morning her letter appeared, Victoria invited Theodore Tilton to her office and informed him that the man she accused of hyprocsy was Henry Ward Beecher, the famous pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights and one of Tilton’s long time associates. Victoria informed Tilton she knew of the affair between Beecher and Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. Tilton was not in a position to deny Victoria’s allegations, because he himself had pressured his wife’s confession to the affair in July 1870. In December, Elizabeth made a written confession in which she declared that Beecher had made ‘improper advances’ and tried to seduce her. After Beecher saw Elizabeth’s written confession, he pressured her to write a retraction, and then her husband forced Elizabeth to retract her retraction.
Initially, Beecher and the Tiltons were close friends. In fact, Beecher had married the couple in 1855. Beecher edited a religious newspaper called the New York Independent. In 1861, he stepped back as editor and gave the job to Tilton. All was well until the late 1860s when Tilton’s editorials became more radical, including support for the concept of free love. As Tilton’s career took off with lecture tours that took him away from home, Beecher continued to call, and Elizabeth Tilton received him without a chaperone. Beecher later said he came to support Elizabeth at a time when she needed religious guidance in the face of her husband’s increasingly unorthodox beliefs. She said she formed an emotional attachment.
Besides the three people most directly affected, others were aware of the situation. One was Martha Bradshaw, a deaconess at Plymouth Church and a friend of Tilton’s. Others included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Laura Curtis Bullard. All were friends of the Tilton’s as well as campaigners for women’s right to vote. It appears that when Henry Ward Beecher wavered in his support of women’s rights, Stanton shared information about Beecher’s affair at the 1871 National Women’s Suffrage Association in Washington, which may have been where Victoria heard the rumor.
When Theodore Tilton realized Victoria knew about the affair, he wrote about her in a journal he edited, calling Victoria a “gentle but fiery genius.”* Victoria enjoyed the accolade but was interested in more tangible benefits. With Tilton’s support, Victoria suggested that Beecher introduce her lecture at the Steinway Hall in Manhattan. As Victoria reported the conversation, Beecher “got up on the sofa on his knees beside me, and taking my face between his hands, while the tears streamed down his cheeks, he begged me to let him off.”* In the end, Tilton made the introduction.
Victoria’s animosity increasd when Beecher’s sisters attacked her. Catherine Beecher, the well-known author of the Treatise on Domestic Economy and other publications stressing the central role women played as mothers and educators, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, impugned Victoria’s character, as did other members of the women’s rights movement. Victoria also fell out with Tilton. At that point, Victoria made the scandal public on November 2, 1872 by exposing details on the front page of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.
On the one hand, Victoria wrote, she believed “in the right of privacy and in the perfect right of Mr. Beecher, socially, morally and divinely, to have sought the embraces of Mrs. Tilton”* Victoria went on to say that she “conceive[d] that Mrs. Tilton’s love for Mr. Beecher was her true marriage . . . and that her marriage to Mr. Tilton is prostitution.”
The scandal’s effect electrified the country. Victoria Woodhull and her sister were notorious for their views on free love, women’s rights, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and all manner of radical social causes. Henry Ward Beecher was a renowned abolitinist, preacher, and pillar of society. Legal reaction was swift. On November 2, 1872, Anthony Comstock arranged for Woodhull, her husband Col. Blood, and her sister Tennessee Clafllin to be arrested and charged with publishing an obscene newspaper that they distributed through the mails. That was the end of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. The sisters were held in the Ludlow Street Jail for a month, denying Victoria the chance to vote for her own candidacy as president. Six months after their arrest, the three were acquitted.
To the dismay of some and delight of others, the Tilton-Beecher scandal continued to escalate. Details in next week’s blog.
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*Quotations taken from Robert Shaplen. The Beecher-Tilton Affair. New Yorker. June 4, 1954.
Testimony in Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case by James E. Cook. 1875.
Henry Ward Beecher.
Henry Ward Beecher & His Sister Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Laura Hanft Korobkin. “The Maintenance of Mutual Confidence.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities. Vol 7. No. 1. 1995.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.