Henry Ward Beecher and the love triangle that gripped the public in the 1870s

April 30, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Civil War, history, journalism.

If your emotions we’re caught up in the swirl surrounding Meghan and Harry . . .

If your feelings were buffeted by the off-again on-again relationship of J.Lo and A-Rod . . .

Then you should have been alive in the 1870s when public domestic squabbles were very good.

A few weeks ago in this newsletter, I made reference to Victoria Woodhull, publisher of the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly and America’s first female presidential candidate. A major incident in her life involved putting into print for the first time rumors that had been twirling about in New York City circles concerning the infidelity of one Henry Ward Beecher, a Brooklyn minister and abolitionist who was one of the most famous non-politicians of his day.

Beecher came from a famous family. His father, Lyman Beecher, was an ardent and well-known evangelist of his generation, and his sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher was the senior minister at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a huge congregation that included many of New York City’s most powerful and influential people.

In the years before the Civil War, Beecher had raised money to buy freedom for slaves in the South and to send arms to abolitionists who were fighting in Kansas. Those guns were commonly referred to as “Beecher’s Bibles.” During the war, Beecher toured Europe speaking in support of the Union. When the war ended, Beecher championed social causes such as women’s suffrage and temperance. He was also an advocate of evolution, seeing no conflict between it and the gospel that he preached.

Beecher was against some new ideas, however. One of those was the “free love” movement espoused by Victoria Woodhull. Beecher denounced the movement and Woodhull from his pulpit, and Woodhull finally had enough. She knew from stories that had been circulating among the suffrage movement that Beecher was likely being hypocritical. Consequently, she ran a story about Beecher’s relationship with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of a good friend, Theodore Tilton, and a member of his church.

The story appeared in early November 1872, and Woodhull, her husband, and her sister were arrested on the charge of trying to send obscene material through the mail. Their arrests were demonstrations of Beecher’s ability to call upon powerful friends when he needed them.

But, of course, the genie could not be put back into the bottle, and what ensued among Beecher, the Tiltons, and their friends was a series of charges, counter-charges, rumors confirmed, rumors denied, confessions made, and confessions recanted. The situation split the Beecher family with Harriet Beecher Stowe defending her brother and another sister, Isabella, denouncing him. Plymouth Church stood solidly behind Beecher and excommunicated Tilton for slandering him.

Tilton believed that he had no other recourse except to sue Beecher on civil charges of adultery, which he did in late 1874. Beecher’s trial begin in January 1875 and lasted until July. It received daily coverage from the many newspapers in the New York area, and those reports or flashed around the country to hungry readers in every part of the nation.

A long New Yorker article by Robert Shaplen detailing many events of the trial can be found at this link.

The trial ended with the jury, after several days of deliberations, unable to reach a verdict.

That was followed by more investigations by Plymouth Church, all of which exonerated Beecher. The minister died two years later in 1877, and he was never able to completely blot out the stain on his character left by the controversy. Yet while he was active, Henry Ward Beecher was one of America’s most important voices for social reform and Christian ideals. His voice was thunder at a time in America when, it seems, only thunder could be heard.





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