Roseland Cottage

Cads, Casualties, and Free Love

The Beecher-Tilton Affair

Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society

It was known as the Trial of the Century. The New York Herald declared that “no event since the murder of Lincoln has so moved people.” Newspapers as far away as Rome and Marseilles ran regular reports. Three thousand people were turned away from the courtroom every day. Scalpers sold the few available tickets for five dollars apiece . From July 1874 to July 1875, the public was fixated on the civil trial brought by Theodore Tilton against the famous Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Plymouth Church and one of the most well-loved and respected figures in America. Beecher was accused by his friend and former associate at Bowen’s Independent, Theodore Tilton, of “criminal conversation,” or of having an affair with his wife Elizabeth. Accusing him of adultery was shocking. It was also deliciously salacious and entertaining to many. The details are confusing and complicated. Much of the story remains murky, with conflicting accounts that still confound historians.

Testimony Illustrated

No One Spared

The image to the left is a commercially-produced souvenir of the trial, probably offered for sale to the general public. The illustrator takes no side in the controversy, lampooning everyone equally in vignettes representing the more outrageous details of the story.

Much of the meaning and iconography depicted in the scenes has been lost, including that of the scene in the lower left-center—a racial caricature of a type found in some publications of the time. It demonstrates ingrained racism which is wrong today and was wrong at the time. Rather than hide images like these, we hope that by calling attention to them we can all be made aware of the perniciousness of systemic racism, its presence in our history, and with that knowledge work towards a more equitable future.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

Cast of Characters

The Seduced

Elizabeth Tilton confessed an adulterous relationship with Beecher to her husband Theodore. Adding to the confusion, over time she admitted, renounced, renounced renouncing, and unrenounced her rerenouncing. Elizabeth was a parishioner of Beecher’s, a suffragist and associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She was pushed aside and silenced in the melee.

The Exposer

Victoria Woodhull, advocate of free love, hater of Beecher’s hypocrisy: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.” It was Woodhull who revealed Beecher’s perfidy to the public. She was also the first woman candidate for presidency of the United States.

The Fixer

Frank Moulton, long-time friend of the aggrieved husband Theodore Tilton, self-appointed manager of the scandal. He drew up the “Tripartite Covenant,” which swore each signer–Bowen, Beecher, and Theodore Tilton–to secrecy, and to refrain from spreading rumors about each other. Mark Twain, who spent a day observing the trial, was mistaken for Moulton by spectators in the courtroom.

The Husband

Theodore Tilton, husband of Elizabeth Tilton,  sued Beecher for adultery based on Elizabeth’s confession. Theodore, who was himself a philanderer, was the editor of Bowen’s newspaper, and a close friend and parishioner of Beecher’s. Photo from Carolyn Tilton Cunningham Family Collection, courtesy of Nyna Cunningham Dolby.

The Moralist

Henry Bowen, employer of both Theodore Tilton and Beecher, also a victim of Beecher—his own wife Lucy had confessed to an affair with their pastor on her deathbed. Bowen signed Moulton’s Tripartite Covenant along with Beecher and Tilton, swearing himself to secrecy. When the scandal broke in Woodhull’s newspaper, Bowen dropped a copy in the mail, thus making Woodhull guilty of smut-peddling, guilty of publishing obscene material that was sent through the mails.

The Preacher's Wife

Eunice Beecher, wife of the accused, attended the trial every day and remained steadfastly loyal to Henry, her husband, despite all the rumors of his faithlessness. She was an author of a book on the life on the Indiana frontier, “From Dawn to Daylight,” and several books about housekeeping.

The Reverend

Henry Ward Beecher, highly esteemed and renowned man of the cloth, accused of an adulterous affair with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Theodore, Beecher’s close friend and editor of Bowen’s paper. Beecher was pastor at Plymouth Church, and a close associate of the Bowens. Rumors circulated that he had affairs with many women parishioners. There was widespread gossip that when Beecher faced his congregation, he was looking at seven or eight of his mistresses. Years later, he was characterized by Hamilton Holt, Henry’s and Lucy’s grandson, as “that sinful, amorous, lusty Preacher.”

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Very Long Story Made Short

Preach What You Practice

 

Elizabeth Tilton confessed to her husband Theodore that she and their pastor the Rev. Beecher, were involved in an affair. In order to keep knowledge of the affair private, Frank Moulton, friend of Theodore, brokered the Tripartite Covenant, swearing Theodore Tilton, Beecher, and Henry Bowen (who had been told of the affair by Tilton, his editor at The Independent) to secrecy. For years, the cover-up worked. Bowen continued to work with both and to attend Beecher’s church.

Enter Victoria Woodhull, proponent of Free Love. Fed up with Beecher’s hypocrisy and tired of his attacks from the pulpit, Woodhull, who had learned of the affair from Theodore Tilton, revealed the scandal in her newspaper in 1872. In her opinion, Beecher should preach what he practiced.

After a church investigation which exonerated Beecher despite damning documentation including his own letters, Tilton was excommunicated from Plymouth Church. This was the last straw. Tilton sued Beecher for “criminal conversation,” or adultery.

The Beecher-Tilton case came to trial in January 1875. Although Elizabeth Tilton’s reputation and future life were at stake, she was not a party to the litigation, nor was she allowed to address the jury. The trial lasted for six months, and resulted in a hung jury.

Bowen’s willingness to participate in the cover-up, or Tripartite Covenant, made him look like a hypocrite. Elizabeth Cady Stanton theorized that he was protecting financial interests of his newspaper, where Beecher’s column and sermons appeared. It is also possible he was protecting his beloved  Lucy, who, her father Lewis Tappan reportedly stated, had confessed on her deathbed to an affair with Beecher.

After the celebrated trial, which resulted in a hung jury, Beecher retaliated by initiating a highly public church trial where Bowen testified that he knew Beecher to be “a libertine and a seducer.” Bowen was excommunicated for his role in the proceedings, causing a public and venomous break with Beecher, the man whom he had brought to prominence in the church he had helped to found.

With the tumult of the Brooklyn scandal, Woodstock and Roseland Cottage became even more important to Bowen as representations of his personal success and values, and as a refuge from public recriminations.