Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Beecher-Tilton Affair

What do women’s rights, religion, and sex all have in common?  The Beecher – Tilton Affair.

Photographer unknown.Henry Ward Beecher, ca. 1860. Museum of the City of New York. 33.153.1

Henry Ward Beecher was the first minister of the Plymouth Church, in Brooklyn, appointed in 1847.   Raised as one of thirteen children (including half-siblings) in a strict Presbyterian household in Litchfield, Connecticut, Beecher was somewhat reticent and bashful as a child,  but grew to be a charismatic  preacher.  Beecher was popular amongst his congregation, and according to some sources, especially so with young, attractive women.   Rather than preaching the harsh judgment of God, as his father had, Beecher spoke of the loving presence of God.  Beecher was known for taking stands against slavery and anti-Semitism; and championing women’s suffrage, temperance, and education.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly. “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!” Thomas Nast (1840-1902), 1872. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.22.

Despite Beecher’s belief in certain equal rights for women, such as the right to vote, Beecher was not in favor of complete equality for women.  He spoke out against Victoria Clafin Woodhull’s concept of “free-love,” or in other words, the right of women to marry, divorce, and bear children without the interference of the government, same as a man.  Woodhull and her sister Tennessee were both advocates of women’s rights, and an excerpt from One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin, states “if a male debauchee is allowed to circulate in respectable society and marry women with unsoiled robes, then the female debauchee should be allowed the same privileges and be treated in the same manner.  This is justice – not mercy, not charity!” (Museum of the City of New York.  F2011.16.7).

Woodhull accused Beecher of hypocrisy, claiming that he himself practiced the very sort of free-love principles he denounced to his congregation, and was in fact involved in an affair with a married woman, Elizabeth Tilton.   Elizabeth Tilton and her husband Theodore were both members of the Plymouth Church Congregation.   According to Richard Wightman Fox, author of Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, Theodore Tilton was once one of Beecher’s most committed devotees.  The two had a deep personal relationship, as well as a professional relationship through their work on the editorial content of the national religious journal Independent.   Beecher even presided over the Tiltons’ marriage.

(left) Photographer unknown. Theodore Tilton, ca. 1870. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1235. (right) Pendleton Photographers. Elizabeth Titlon, ca. 1870. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1236.

 The Beecher-Tilton Affair was alleged to have taken place during the 1860s,  when, due to conflict in the relationship and Theodore’s extended absences related to his work, Elizabeth sought the companionship of Beecher.   In 1870, Elizabeth confessed to her husband that she had engaged in an adulterous relationship with Beecher.  The confession was soon well-known among certain influential members of Plymouth Church, and eventually reached the ears of Woodhull, who then made the confession public.  Beecher and Theodore badgered Elizabeth to retract her confession, then retract the retraction, respectively.  By 1873, Theodore Tilton was no longer editor of the Independent, and in fact the journal came down hard against Tilton and in support of Beecher.  Tilton was also excommunicated from the Plymouth Church congregation.

Despite much published evidence of the affair, Plymouth Church exonerated Beecher, leading Theodore Tilton to bring suit against him in 1874 for “criminal intimacy” with his wife.

Admission card to “Tilton vs. Beecher,” 1875, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 32.287.6.

The trial was opened in January of 1875, and captivated the nation.  The significance of the trial was not lost on Beecher, as evidenced in the letter below, which states “But this poor note may have an extrinsic interest as being written at the climax of this remarkable trial.”

Letter from Henry Ward Beecher to Mrs. Southwick, June 24, 1875, in the Letters Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.3373.

At the close of the trial in July of 1875, the jury deliberated for six days, but could not reach a verdict.   Following the trial, Plymouth Church exonerated Beecher once again.  Theodore Tilton moved to Paris following the trial, where he lived out the remainder of his life.  Elizabeth Tilton remained a member of the Plymouth congregation until she, yet again, re-confessed to having an affair with Beecher in 1878.  At that point, she was also excommunicated from Plymouth Church.  Beecher remained a popular figure, though he never received quite the level of adulation he was accustomed to before the trial.

Oysters: From Rags to Riches

Today, it’s hard to find an oyster for less than $2 a pop, but until the turn of the 20th century, oysters were so plentiful in New York, rich and poor alike enjoyed them.  New Yorkers ate them raw, pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, and fried.  They were so abundant, their shells were used to pave streets (hence the name Pearl Street), as fertilizer, and as a cement-like substance used in construction.

A. B. Waud. Oyster Stands in Fulton Market, 1870. South Street Seaport Museum, Print Collection.

With over 350 square miles of oyster beds, oysters were always popular in the Harbor, dating back to the era of the Lenape Indians.  However, they weren’t  an unlimited resource–conservation efforts began in the mid 1600s, precipitated by fear of overfishing, and as with many disputes over a natural resource, tensions occasionally ran high.  The “Oyster Wars” of the 19th century saw bitter rivalries over fishing beds.  The rivalry was most heated between New Jersey and Staten Island fishermen, with arguments lasting into the 1890s.

Oyster Markets Near Christopher Street, 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 41.62.20.

Oystering in New York had its heyday from 1880 until about 1910, with “boat stores” popping up along the shore line.  From these “boat stores,” oysters would be carted off to various parts of the city to be sold; seemingly, you could find them anywhere, the Fulton Fish Market, restaurants, saloons, one’s own kitchen, and food carts throughout the city (they were sold on street corners, much as hot dogs are today).

Thomas H. McAllister. [Oyster Stand], ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.10037.

Berenice Abbott. Oyster Houses, 1937. Museum of the City of New York, 89.2.1.209.

At its peak, roughly 765 million oysters passed through “Oyster Row,” generating millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.   However, rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19thcentury polluted many of the beds in the New York area, causing a decline in numbers.  Furthermore, several outbreaks of typhoid fever and cholera were linked to polluted oyster beds, forcing the City Health Commissioner to close all oyster beds in the New York Harbor area in 1927.

Advertisement for F. T. Braman, ca. 1900. South Street Seaport Museum, Trade Card Collection, X2005.25.14.

Although it disappeared for a few decades, oystering is popping up again in and around New York.  The New York Harbor School and other New York organizations and government agencies are making efforts to restore the oyster population in New York Harbor.  For more about these efforts, come down to the South Street Seaport Museum this Thursday evening (October 18, 2012) for the premier of Shell Shocked, a new documentary film detailing the efforts to restore the city’s oyster population.

Photographing Our Painting Collection

Here in the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Department we have embarked on an exciting new project to digitize selected objects from our paintings holdings. This is the first time we have shot paintings and, while every object in our collection requires special attention while being photographed, when we start a new medium there are always new things to consider. In this case we had to think about how to deal with shiny surfaces that reflect light and create highlights that are hard to remove by merely adjusting the angle of our lights. We purchased custom filters for our Broncolor Lightbars fit with a polarized film and then attached a polarizing filter to the lens of our Hasselblad H4D. If you have ever worn polarized sunglasses then you know that looking through a polarizing filter greatly reduces glare and reflections from shiny surfaces. With the added polarizing film on our lights and the polarizing filter on our camera lens we are able to completely zero out all reflections coming off the painting and spilling into our camera. If you would like a complete breakdown of how polarization works read this.

Here is an example of New York politician and judge Gabriel George Ludlow, shot with and without the polarizing filter so you can see how really effective this method is. The artist of this beautiful portrait, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), was an influential painter in colonial America and is well-known for his portraits of prominent figures.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

We are very excited to make these paintings accessible to researchers and curators to view and study without having to make a trip to our storage facility. The portrait collection consists of prominent New Yorkers by many well-known artists from the early 1700′s through the 1980′s. Some of the real gems of our collection include portraits of DeLancey Iselin Kane and Eleanora Iselin Kane by the artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). The portrait of DeLancey Iselin Kane is considered his most famous portrait and has been published extensively. The painting is in its original frame, designed specifically for the portrait by Stanford White.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). DeLancey Iselin Kane. 1887. Museum of the City of New York. 40.417

Other paintings of note are the James Abercrombie Burden Family by Eastman Johnson; Cornelius and Sarah Bogart Ray by John Wollaston; and A Spanish Boy by Alice Neel.  Many of these paintings underwent restoration and cleaning prior to their digitization. Our painting collection ranges from the typical turn-of-the-century portraits as seen above to this dark and moody portrait of John Barrymore in the character of Hamlet painted by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) ca. 1923.

James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). John Barrymore as Hamlet. ca. 1923. Museum of the City of New York. 46.414.1.

We set up a temporary studio for three days in a temporarily empty gallery on our newly renovated third floor.  Here is a shot of our setup in action. Please check in with our collections portal in the near future to view this amazing collection in your own home.

Forbidden Broadway circa 1900: a look back at lampooning.

Forbidden Broadway is back again this Fall with a new “Alive and Kicking” addition gleefully lampooning the current offerings of the Great White Way.  A revue show first conceived in the early 1980s, Forbidden Broadway harks back to an earlier tradition: American burlesque shows at the turn of the century.

Unknown. [Weber and Fields], ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York, 36.440.1282

One of the most successful burlesquing teams was the duo of Joe Weber and Lew Fields who opened their Music Hall in 1896 to perform musical revues and burlesques of their own devising. (At the time the term “burlesque” described over-the-top parodies of popular theatrical productions and had less to do with the art of striptease.) One of Weber and Fields‘s most popular targets was the work of Clyde Fitch. Though his work hasn’t been performed on Broadway in decades, Fitch was one of the most prolific playwrights of early twentieth century.

Sarony. [Clyde Fitch], 1899. Museum of the City of New York, 43.430.533.

In 1909, the year he died, Fitch had four productions in Broadway theatres, three of which were new works.   He  saw over 60 productions of his work open on Broadway, often staged by him, and there have been over 30 feature film adaptations of his plays. (For more on Fitch’s life, check out the thoughtful bio at the The Clyde Fitch Report.)

Thanks to the efforts of the equitable photographers at Byron Company (and the Museum’s Digital Team), the Collections Portal contains images illustrating Fitch’s original intentions and the fun Weber and Fields had subverting them.

Fitch’s controversial play Sapho about a French seductress became the ridiculous Sapolio.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Olga Nethersole in "Sapho"], 1900. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.19676.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Plays, "Sapolio"], 1900. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.19684.

The very next year, in 1901, Weber and Fields took on Fitch’s The Girl and the Judge about the drama that ensues when a young woman faces her parents’ separation.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Annie Russell in "The Girl and the Judge"], 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 34.271.806D.

The Curl and the Judge was perhaps a more jovial look at parent/child relations.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Lew Fields and Fay Templeton in "The Curl and the Judge"], ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.18806.

The ship deck setting in Fitch’s 1902 dramatic work The Stubbornness of Geraldine morphed in to the S.S. Pneumonia set for The Stickiness of Gelatine which opened at Weber and Fields’s Broadway Music Hall less than 2 months after Fitch’s opening.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Marry Mannering as Geraldine Lang in "The Stubbornness of Geraldine"], 1902. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.19813.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Joe Weber and Lew Fields in "The Stickiness of Gelatine"], 1902. Museum of the City of New York, 48.210.1515.


One of Fitch’s most popular works (it launched the career of Ethel Barrymore) was Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, a title Weber and Fields felt no need adjust for their skit.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Ethel Barrymore in Act III of "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines"], 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 34.271.804Q.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [DeWolf Hopper, Fay Templeton and David Warfield in burlesque of "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines"], ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.18681.

Fitch’s plays weren’t the only ones parodied by Weber and Fields, and just as certainly, Weber and Fields weren’t the only company doing the lampooning. Both enjoyed popular acclaim in their day, the best influenced by the best.  Fitch received the compliment of caricature, and both may have benefited in box office receipts. After all, a parody is always funnier when you’re familiar with the original.