No. 448
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 16, 2019

The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

The adultery case called "The Greatest Social Drama of Modern Times."
June 13, 2011
...
...

For Sommersett must love Essex faire wife by wich his deerest servant lost his life. losse upon losse, all things grow cleane contrary and thus our sinfull times themselves doe vary. –From a 17th century libel On this date in 1615, Anne Turner hanged at Tyburn for a shocking society murder remembered as the Overbury […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/15/2019

`
Lizzie’s Old School Chum, Augusta Poole (Mrs. Cyrus Tripp) Shelley M. Dziedzic, October 2019 (all rights reserved) During the hot …

Continue reading

More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 10/19/2019

Renoir, "Luncheon of the Boating Party" It's time for yet another Link Dump! Everybody dance! Loie Fuller's serpentine dance. Communal coffins and burial clubs. The face of a female Viking. This week in Russian Weird looks at a Napoleon expert's gruesome Waterloo.  Not to mention the flying cat understudy. The kind of thing that happened when you got on Queen Christina's bad side.
More...
Strange Company - 11/15/2019
Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
Scene of the Debbins murder Walter R. Debbins was shot twice in the back, in broad daylight, on Highland Street in Medford, Massachusetts, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 27, 1897. Though no one saw the murder or heard the gunshots, there was enough traffic on Highland Street that afternoon for the police to precisely pinpoint the time of the shooting to between 1:00 and 1:05. But
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 11/16/2019

No, not today’s MSG in the gritty West 30s. This is the second of the four versions of Madison Square Garden, the Moorish-Beaux Arts arena designed by Stanford White on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in 1890. At the time this postcard was made in roughly 1907, White’s Madison Square Garden was one of the […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 11/10/2019
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Terrible Struggle with Flame and Flood | Belles of the Bowling Alley

The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Brooklyn, New York, 1872 - This would have just been another run-of-the-mill case of a preacher loving his neighbor a little too much if the folks involved had not all been social reformers of the highest degree. The scandal tarnished the reputation of the most prominent cleric in America, highlighted rifts within the Women’s Rights movement, and climaxed with an adultery trial that was called "The Greatest Social Drama of Modern Times:"

Henry-Ward-Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher (abolitionist, women’s rights advocate) was the minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York which had over a thousand members. In the 1860s and 1870s, he worked together with Theodore Tilton (editor, poet, abolitionist) on a religious journal called the Independent. Tilton was often away lecturing, leaving his young wife Elizabeth alone. Around 1866, Reverend Beecher began to call on Elizabeth and the visits became increasingly intimate.

Elizabeth-Tilton

Elizabeth Tilton

In 1870 Elizabeth confessed to her husband, telling him that she had “surrendered” only after “long moral resistance.” Beecher had convinced her “with overmastering arguments” that theirs was “pure affection and a high religious love.” But it must be kept secret because the vulgar world would never understand such purity. Tilton forgave his wife and agreed to keep the affair secret.

But Tilton was not good at keeping secrets and during a chess game with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (abolitionist, early women’s rights leader) he revealed that his wife had been in a “free-love” relationship with Beecher. Ms. Stanton told her colleague, Victoria Woodhull (suffragist, spiritualist, free-love advocate.) This became a problem because Ms. Woodhull, together with her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin (suffragist, advocate for legalized prostitution, first woman stockbroker), published a popular weekly newspaper.

Theodore-Tilton

Theodore Tilton

Tilton did what he could to keep Woodhull quiet, even writing a biography of Victoria Woodhull, attempting to keep her in his debt. This worked until 1872 when Reverend Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stow (abolitionist, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) attacked Woodhull and her position on free-love in print. Soon after, a story ran in Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, which, without naming names, claimed that America’s most renowned preacher was practicing in private the free-love that he denounced from the pulpit.

Woodhull1871

Victoria Woodhull

The story was a sensation. Everyone knew who it was about and everyone wanted a copy. At the height of the frenzy, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly was selling for as much as $40.00 a copy. But postal inspector Anthony Comstock (author of the federal anti-obscenity, Comstock Law) was not amused. He arrested both Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin for sending obscene material through the U. S. Mail. This was especially inconvenient for Victoria Woodhull. In the1872 election she was the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights party and she would be spending Election Day in jail..

Tilton had no choice now but to sue Beecher for adultery. The trial which began in January 1875 divided the Plymouth Church as well as Reverend Beecher’s family. The trial lasted for seven months and received extensive newspaper coverage. It was followed closely by people throughout America. The jury took six days to deliberate but could not agree on a verdict. It was a hung jury. In the end, Beecher was acquitted. Through it all, his wife and most of the Plymouth church stood by him. Beecher resumed his career as if nothing had happened.

Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton fled to Paris and spent the rest of their lives there.


Sources: Goldsmith, Barbara. Other powers: the age of suffrage, spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998.

Altina Waller, Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America from Chapter One, "The Brooklyn Scandal" 1982

Pictorial History of the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. Its Origin, Progress and Trial. Illustrated with Fifty Engravings from Accurate Sketches.