The Beecher-Tilton scandal involved Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton. Henry was a well-known and popular New York clergyman and Elizabeth was the wife Theodore Tilton. In addition, both the Tiltons were members of Henry’s Brooklyn congregation and in fact, Theodore and Henry were good friends. Theodore had served as Henry’s assistant from 1860 to 1872 and Henry had presided at Theodore’s marriage to Elizabeth.
The Beecher-Tilton Scandal first broke in 1870 when Theodore became suspicious that his wife and Henry were having an affair. It happened after he returned from a long lecturing tour in the West. According to the Spirit of Jefferson:
“He questioned his little daughter privately, in his study, regarding what had transpired in his absence. ‘The tale of iniquitous horror that was revealed …was,’ he said, ‘enough to turn the heart of stranger to stone, to say nothing of a husband and father.’”
Theodore then approached his wife who eventually confessed that she had had an affair in the late 1860s with Henry. Theodore claimed that it was not just the affair that tore at his heart but the fact that the pair had been bold enough to conduct their illicit romance at his house in front of his innocent children. He claimed he became so upset when he learned the details that he “stripped the wedding ring from her finger. I tore the picture of Mr. Beecher from my wall and stamped it in pieces.”
Despite the devastating revelation, Elizabeth, Theodore, and Henry decided to keep the affair private. They had several good reason to do so. It protected Tilton’s pride, avoided moral censure of Elizabeth, and preserved Henry’s good name. Nonetheless, their pact did not last because Elizabeth confessed the affair to her friend Paulina Wright Davis, who then told three people: women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, Henry’s younger half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker, and the leader of the women’s rights movement Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had also already heard about the affair from Theodore.
As word spread and some of the more influential parishioners within the Plymouth Church congregation learned of the affair. Henry became concerned and prompted Elizabeth to retract her confession. When she did Theodore became upset and demanded that his wife retract her retraction, which she did the same evening. Still, everyone thought news of the affair would go no further. However, that was not the case because Stanton repeated the story.
Another women’s rights leader, Victoria Woodhull, heard it. She was a proponent of free love, a social movement whose goal was to separate the state from sexual matters and the idea of free love. Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for presidency in the U.S., also became known as “the high priestess of free love” after she delivered a speech at Steinway Hall on 20 November 1871 where she stated:
“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
When Henry heard of Woodhull’s advocacy of free love, he denounced her from his pulpit. Once Woodhull learned of his affair with Elizabeth Tilton, she was outraged and claimed he was being hypocritical. She then published a story titled “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case” in her paper Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly in which she related “certain whisperings,” alleged that Henry was practicing the doctrine of free love, and opened her article with:
“I propose, as the commencement of a series of aggressive moral warfare on the social question, to begin in this article with ventilating one of the most stupendous scandals which has ever occurred in any community. I refer to that which has been whispered broadcast for the last two or three years, through the cities of New York and Brooklyn, touching the character and conduct of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher in his relations with the family of Theodore Tilton. I intend that this article shall burst like a bombshell into the ranks of the moralistic social camp.”
Woodhull had broken the Beecher-Tilton Scandal wide open. Because it was highly publicized and because it involved Henry, who was considered practically god-like, everyone was busy gorging on every salacious detail that newspaper reported. Readers also soon learned that the first person to get in trouble was not Henry or Elizabeth but rather Woodhull.
Sometimes referred to by her critics as a “she devil,” Woodhull was charged with publishing and sending obscene literature through the mail. Moreover, her critics claimed that the only reason she was making such allegations against Henry was that he would not support her free-love doctrine. They also noted that she approved of the crime she was alleging against him and Elizabeth.
Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin, distributed her article about the Beecher-Tilton affair and were arrested on 2 November 1872, the same year that Mark Twain published Roughing It. Colonel James Blood, Woodhull’s second husband, was also arrested later that same day and charged with being involved. All were locked up at the Ludlow Street jail where according to The Daily Memphis Avalanche:
“The Express says the arrest of the feminine firm of Woodhull & Claflin for circulating obscene literature was to be expected, for nothing more obscene in the way of words and atrocious charges ever obtained currency in any community, than the attacks of these women on distinguished and honest clergymen. The scandalous and libelous article of the twain consists of gross attacks on Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton.”
When the case for the distribution of obscene literature went to trial in June of 1873 Woodhull and her sister were acquitted and released. Their case also resulted in the passage by Congress in 1873 of the Comstock Laws, which suppressed trade in, and circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use. However, despite Woodhull’s release, no one seemed particularly happy that the Beecher-Tilton scandal had come to light. This was expressed by Vermont’s Argus and Patriot who seemed to sum the public’s general feeling when it stated:
“The subject is ventilated, in a spread-eagle and bombastic way, by a sheet sold in the news-rooms, and called The Thunderbolt. … It is a disgusting mess – the whole of it – Woodhull’s Weekly, Bowen, Tilton, Beecher, The Thunderbolt, and all; though everybody wants to read all about it. It shows the practical fruits of ‘free-love-ism.’”
The Beecher-Tilton Scandal also resulted in a fissure between Henry and some of his relatives. Although his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, supported him, his half-sister Isabella did not. She believed Elizabeth would not lie and she knew that the state of Henry’s marriage was not good. In addition, she found the evidence presented against Henry to be so overwhelming that it showed her without a doubt that he had indeed committed adultery.
Besides being on the outs with his half-sister, Henry also had to deal with the cartoons and caricatures that poked fun at everyone involved in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. For instance, there was an off publication with a cartoon titled, “The Humors Brooklyn Scandal: Funny Side of a Serious Subject” that satirized those involved in the affair. There was also Puck Magazine, whose articles regularly ridiculed Henry’s womanizing ways in both word and graphics while also attempting to safeguard the morality of their readers.
When the accusations that Henry had committed adultery broke, the Plymouth Church and its congregation to want to protect their beloved pastor. They therefore decided to excommunicate Theodore on 31 October 1873 for “slandering” Henry. Theodore balked and his excommunication was then investigated by the Council of Congregation Church, which then censured the Plymouth Church for acting against Theodore without examining the charges of adultery against Henry.
A committee of supporters from Plymouth Church then investigated the matter and unsurprisingly exonerated Henry. That in turn outraged Theodore and he filed a lawsuit against Henry for “criminal conversation,” which was code for adultery, and also sued Henry for $100,000.
The trial began in January 1875 and ended seven months later in July. It was salacious and sensational. Newspaper headlines went nationwide and the public was both mesmerized and appalled by all the juicy details. The Beecher-Tilton Scandal also resulted in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle stating:
“The controversy between Mr. Tilton and Mr. Beecher has attracted the attention of the entire country, and run lines of distinction among the people as clearly marked as any every projected by political discussion. Rightly or wrongly, the question has assumed national dimensions, and will, when all the evidence has been put in, be passed upon by a jury composed of the entire reading and thinking public of America. From Maine to California the newspapers are full of the subject, and it is safe to say that the charges of Mr. Tilton and the unqualified denial of Mr. Beecher, have been discussed at every tea table in the land.”
Other remarks were also published during the trial such as what the New York Times reported:
“As the Beecher case seems likely to be the cause of stormy words and bad feeling in all directions – a strong attack of it being about as inconvenient a thing to have as the bite of a mad dog – we will endeavor to divert the attention of our contemporaries today to another subject. It is quite clear that if the present row goes on much longer, a good deal of crockery of one sort and another will be smashed, and as it is no part of our duty to try either Mr. Beecher or Mr. Tilton – for which piece of good luck we are profoundly grateful – we leave the further discussion of the rights and wrongs of the case to our excited friends over in Brooklyn, and to the Herald and the World, which are naturally deeply interested in the cause of piety and morality. For our own parts, we frankly acknowledge that we have had enough of the subject, and should be glad … if we were never to hear another word about it. We may however, be led to consider some point not directly connected with the merits of the case, as we do below this morning. That there is an immense quantity of lying being done over in Brooklyn, somewhere or other, and that a good many persons have lost their tempers, and that if Mr. Beecher is right, Mr. Tilton is a very bad man, and if Mr. Tilton is right, Mr. Beecher is not what we always supposed him to be – so much we may say without driving the partisans on either side into a strait jacket. But we would rather not be drawn into the ring where the fight is going on, if the Brooklyn Eagle can manage to get along without us – and it makes so much noise over this affair itself that we are quite sure that it can dispense without assistance.”
The case raged on until ultimately the jury deadlocked over Henry’s guilt or innocence and no verdict was rendered after eight days of lively deliberation. The twelve men who heard the case apparently had “conflicting views.” Some of them believed the prosecution’s case was proven, others insisted Henry was innocent, and some maintained the only just verdict was that the case could not be “fully proved.”
After the trial, Elizabeth reversed herself again admitting in 1878 that she had indeed had sexual relations with Henry while married to Theodore. The Cincinnati Enquirer then reported:
“Mrs. Tilton has confessed, and it was common for a few weeks to hear it said in Brooklyn circles that the confession had ‘fallen flat.’ But in the immediate circles of Plymouth Church and among Mr. Beecher’s strongest personal champions, the effect of the confession has been that of a slow antidote creeping up on the poison long resident there and counteracting it and leaving a certain blankness and doubt every-where.”
This admission also resulted in her being excommunicated from the Plymouth Church on 16 April 1878. She later joined the Plymouth Brethren. In addition, because she had left her husband and because he was unable to earn a living due to the scandal, she and her children were left without support. She died on 13 April 1897 after two paralytic strokes.
As to Theodore, he was disgraced by the lack of verdict against Henry in his civil case and it ruined his reputation. Further, he was often cited as the “accuser of Beecher.” Unable to find reliable employment, he finally moved to France in 1883. Double pneumonia complicated by heart problems brought about his demise when he died in Paris on 29 May 1907. He was buried in the Cimetiere de Cahill en Biere.
As to Henry, a second church committee investigated the events that resulted in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal and Theodore’s civil suit of 1875. They again exonerated Henry of any wrongdoing. Stanton was outraged that Henry yet again was vindicated and called it a “holocaust of womanhood.” Although he thereafter remained a popular clergyman and was able to redeem his reputation, he never again garnered the praise, respect, or widespread approval that he had received before his affair with Elizabeth.
-  Spirit of Jefferson, “A New York Scandal,” November 12, 1872, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  V. C. Woodhull, A Speech on the Principles of Social Freedom (New York: Woodhull, Claflin & Co., 1872), p. 23.
-  Spirit of Jefferson, 2
-  The Daily Memphis Avalanche, “Latest News,” November 3, 1872, p. 1.
-  Argus and Patriot, “Beecher-Bowen-Tilton Scandal,” May 29, 1873, p. 1.
-  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The Press of the Country on the Controversy,” July 24, 1874, p. 2.
-  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Tired of the Subject,” July 24, 1874, p. 2.
-  The Cincinnati Enquirer, “Henry Ward Beecher,” July 1, 1878, p. 5.