The Beecher family of Litchfield, Conn. – the children of Rev. Lyman Beecher and his two wives Roxanne and Harriet – each made their mark on history to lesser or greater degrees. The author Harriet Beecher Stowe was the best known of the 10 siblings, a brood of scholars, ministers, authors, and teachers. But in the 1800s, Henry Ward Beecher was probably more influential than his famous sister.
Henry was born in 1813 in Litchfield and at 14 moved with his family to Boston, where he developed a young boy’s fascination with the ships that visited the busy port. By adulthood, Henry had become a minister after attending Amherst College and, perhaps most impressively, he had beaten a stutter that vexed and embarrassed him as a child.
The Rev. Henry Beecher
With a fiery command of the pulpit, Henry became an ardent abolitionist and newspaper editor. As pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., the world came to hang on Henry Ward Beecher’s pronouncements. No one was more impressed than young Theodore Tilton, 22 years Henry’s junior.
Beecher first noticed his soon-to-be protégé when he saw him in the congregation taking notes to report on his sermon for his school newspaper. When Theodore left school, Beecher arranged got him a job as an assistant at his newspaper, The Independent. Henry also officiated at Theodore’s wedding to Elizabeth Richards, another of his congregants.
Beecher was somewhat unconventional for his time. While his church had thousands of members, he did much of his preaching through the newspapers – both his and others. Many of his parishioners rarely physically came to his church. But his fame was outsized. His church was a major stop on the underground railroad, and he led a vigorous anti-slavery campaign.
Abraham Lincoln had sent Beecher to England to lobby to keep the British from siding with the South in the Civil War, and he had been invited to give a ceremonial sermon at Fort Sumter following the end of the war.
When Beecher stepped down from his editor’s role, it seemed natural enough that Theodore Tilton should take over, and crowds began go queue up to listen to Theodore Tilton speak on the affairs of the day.
Tilton, however, soon began refining his political beliefs in ways that didn’t align with Beecher. Tilton became an outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage, socialism and the free love movement. For a time, the two butted heads. Eventually, however, they rekindled their friendship in an agree-to-disagree mold.
The friendship was soon to implode. On Dec.26, 1870, Elizabeth Tilton wrote a letter to her husband, confirming what she had told him previously – she had had a long-running affair with Henry Ward Beecher. Theodore wrote a letter to Beecher demanding he step down from the pulpit at his church and leave Brooklyn.
Henry declined and the matter came to a standstill. But Beecher had made enemies who didn’t believe he was progressive enough in his views toward women. Beecher preached a “gospel of love.” He preached women were godlier than men and therefore closer to God, but their gentle natures made them more susceptible to victimization. They should be protected.
Victoria Woodhull, Freelover
Victoria Woodhull was an outspoken feminist and a supporter of the “free love” movement, which advocated that consensual sexual relationships should not be regulated by law.
She declared in a speech: “Yes, I am a freelover. 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.”
Woodhull was probably practicing a little free love with Theodore Tilton. Elizabeth had taken steps to prevent her from visiting their home, and Theodore had been seen kissing ‘Vicky’ and with his arms around her.
Henry opposed the free-love movement, in word if not deed. This struck Victoria Woodhull as just a little hypocritical. There were rumors for years about Henry’s affairs with women from his congregation, many of them true, but Elizabeth Tilton’s letter was the first firm accusation.
Woodhull published a newspaper with her sister, the Woodhull and Clafin Weekly, and in May of 1871 she fired a shot across Henry Ward Beecher’s bow in an article about hypocrisy of some free love opponents: “For example, I know of one man, a public teacher of eminence, who lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence.”
She followed up with an article later that named Henry Ward Beecher and accused of being unfit to be a minister. Woodhull was in many ways remarkable. In addition to publishing and speaking, she was a stockbroker and a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, she spent election day in 1872 in jail. Beecher and his powerful supporters had Woodhull arrested for slandering him.
For a wide-open scandal, it remained well contained for several years. Francis D. Moulton, a New York businessman and a friend of Tilton’s, became a mediator of sorts. He held the various documents – charges and denials – in his possession and for four years he brokered a peace. Beecher would pay Tilton roughly $7,000 to establish a newspaper and Tilton would keep his allegations to himself and withdraw the demand that Beecher resign.
But Tilton wouldn’t keep quiet. Privately, he told of Beecher’s extramarital adventures to anyone who would listen. Many women who were friendly with Beecher got tarred by rumors, deserved or not. Beecher’s defense was essentially that Elizabeth had fallen in love with him, but that nothing physical ever happened. Elizabeth had both accused Beecher and recanted numerous times.
In 1874, Tilton sued Beecher, seeking $100,000 for alienation of affection. Beecher fired back that Tilton was simply a blackmailer. That charge prompted Moulton to threaten to horsewhip Beecher.
This story was updated in 2021.