- Historic Sites
Dynamic Victoria Woodhull
Her past was shady but her conscience was excellent, and all in all she played a big part in the emancipation of women
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
The result was the rise of a profession not exactly matched by anything in existence today. The nearest parallel, perhaps, is the radio or television commentator, whose first job is to be interesting. If he can at the same time be truthful and intelligent, so much the better, but he must be interesting, or he is quickly off the air.
The popular preacher of 1872 was under the same necessity, but he had another commitment from which the commentator is free. He had to establish some relation, however tenuous, between his discourse and religion. Frequently that relation was tenuous indeed; the preacher might devote 55 minutes out of the hour to politics, sociology, economics or whatever topic might be engaging public attention at the moment, but if he put in five minutes on religion his sermon was regarded as satisfactory.
In 1872 the most eminent member of this profession was the Reverend Dr. Henry Ward Beecher, preaching at Plymouth Church, in Brooklyn, an enormously expensive real-estate venture that was paying off handsomely. He was sturdy, full-blooded, tremendously vital. As a theologian he was not impressive, but as an exhorter he had few equals and no superior on the continent.
He was, needless to say, an immensely valuable property to the financial backers of his church. He was also a hypocrite in the eyes of some and a holy martyr in the eyes of others. In 1872 no third evaluation was deemed possible, but we have learned much about how the emotions operate and in the light of the knowledge gained since Beecher’s day a judgment less extreme is possible. The sermons of Henry Ward Beecher were intensely emotional, and if that emotion occasionally became more carnal than spiritual, it was to be expected and is no proof that the man deliberately planned any deception.
The Tiltons, warm supporters of Beecher, were also emotionally intense and presently the preacher was involved with Tilton’s wife. Mrs. Tilton made a confession to her husband and an unsavory mess developed. There was a conference among the three that resulted in the drawing up and signing of a weird document in which Tilton virtually condoned his wife’s misconduct and Beecher, without explicitly admitting that it had happened, promised that it should never happen again.
A thing like that can seldom be hushed up under any circumstances, and when the three people involved are all emotionally unstable it is flatly impossible. The facts soon came to be known to an increasing number of people, Victoria Woodhull among them. Her interest at first was perfunctory. She was on friendly terms with Beecher and he had done no more than apply her doctrine of free love. She had no interest either in exposing the affair or in covering it up.
The thing had been stewing under cover for a year or more and the lid might have been kept on longer had Beecher had no sisters. But he had, and they were strong-minded women. One sister, Catharine, was a strong anti-suffragist and a prominent advocate of education for women; the other was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1872 they brought organized pressure to bear on one landlord after another to evict the Claflins from their premises. Eventually they even turned the heat on the keepers of public hotels, promising to make trouble, not for the Claflins but for anybody who treated them decently.
Then Victoria lost her temper and in some measure her judgment. She decided to teach the Beechers that two could play at that game, and therefore issued an ultimatum to their reverend brother. He would either call off his sisters—preferably by standing up for Victoria publicly—or she would let him have it with both barrels, and she wasn’t fooling.
It was bitterly unfair. Henry Ward Beecher may have been a power in the pulpit, but in private life he was basically an abject creature, and Harriet and Catharine were battle-axes. He had no more chance of controlling them than Mr. Caspar Milquetoast would have of taming a pair of Numidian lions, and Victoria should have known it; but rage probably blinded her to reality.
So in its issue of November 2, 1872, the Weekly broke wide open the whole story of the Beecher-Tilton connection.
The deluge was beyond belief. The first insanity was perpetrated by the supporters of Beecher, morals, and religion. They clapped the Claflins in jail on the charge of issuing an obscene publication. The Claflins were soon released, but their arrest brought into action on opposite sides two of the most fantastic figures in American history, Anthony Comstock and George Francis Train.
Comstock was anti-Claflin and his activity in this case gave him the start on his long career of harrying and harassing in the name of purity every writer or artist who presented to the American public an original idea. Train was pro-Claflin, an eccentric genius who had been growing more erratic every year, and who seems to have been completely knocked loose from his moorings by the Claflin affair.