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 (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.
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.
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.
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.