Cads, Casualties, and Free LoveThe Beecher-Tilton Affair
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.
Cast of Characters
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, a suffragist and associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She was pushed aside and silenced in the melee.
Very Long Story Made ShortPreach 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 on her 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.
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.