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 1975, 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.

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