December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
The spinster thought she’d been proposed to; the young minister thought not. Their courtship and quarrel rocked devout New Haven
When we scan the newspapers of New England for the year 1847 we are inclined to marvel at what failed to constitute a scandal in those pre-atomic times. Inserted among notices of mortgage sales and advertisements for elixirs guaranteed to cure everything from the croup to a dropped womb, we come upon such stirring accounts as that of Eliza McCormick, a servant girl who masqueraded as a bank clerk on her Sundays off and attempted the seduction of several other servant girls. “She is thought to be,” remarked the journalist who covered the story, “the same person who figured at Galt a short time since under the disguise of a sick sailor.” Eliza figured no further in the public press that spring, although a number of eccentric cases succeeded her. Two fine baby boys in an expensive lying-in establishment were mixed up—so hopelessly that their distracted mothers were urged simply to pick a child and go home, since there was no possible way of deciding which infant was whose. A man in Florida paid out a grudge by capturing the object of his ill will, tying him to an alligator, and then setting fire to the alligator, with the unhappiest consequences for both man and beast. Princess Demidoff, dressed in a man’s clothes, horsewhipped her husband’s mistress. And a member of a highly respected New England family joined an Arab tribe and became notable for his war chant, “Old Hundred,” which he rendered with an invincible Yankee twang as he galloped with his Bedouins into battle.
Not one of these items, newsworthy as they may now seem to us, merited more than two inches of space in any Connecticut paper. The scandal of the year was the affair of Miss Delia Bacon and the Reverend Alexander MacWhorter.
At the time of this tribulation Delia Bacon had not yet become famous as one of the chief supporters of the theory that William Shakespeare was merely a pseudonym for Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. A highbred bluestocking of thirty-five, in 1845 she had met Alexander MacWhorter, a twenty-three-year-old clergyman, in the New Haven boardinghouse where they were both living; and in spite of the unfavorable disparity in their ages they fell in love, or so Miss Bacon ultimately asserted. MacWhorter for his part swore to the contrary. The consequences of their encounter turned out to be something that was bigger than both of them. Their lovers’ quarrel was absorbed into a wrangle for authority, intemperate and unseemly, between the parochial clergy of the city of New Haven and the faculty of the Yale Divinity School. The Congregational Church was touched on the quick; for MacWhorter was the protégé of Nathaniel William Taylor, professor of didactic theology at Yale and one of the most powerful men in Connecticut. Delia, on the other hand, was not only a celebrated femme savante but the sister of Taylor’s close friend, Leonard Bacon, pastor of the First Church of Christ (or Center Church), the fountainhead of Connecticut Calvinism and chief shrine of the Establishment in the commonwealth.
New Haven in the forties was a gay city and at that time one of the handsomest towns in New England. In defiance perhaps of its Cromwellian beginnings (it had been a refuge for regicides during the Restoration) and the monastic pattern of its university, it was proud of its newly formed Beethoven Society, its good taverns, and the beauty and wit of its women. Its chief commodity, however, was the Congregational clergy. Ministers served as the backbone of its society, its principal export and finest ornament.
In addition to its ghostly powers the priest caste of New Haven exercised considerable temporal ones, inasmuch as the clergy owned a large proportion of the land of the commonwealth. Churchmen were thus able to perform with scarifying audacity the roles of both yogi and commissar, governing a demesne whose limits stretched from the cradle to well beyond the grave. Of this the elders whose duty it was to license young divines were keenly aware. The church required that the character of any minister be unimpeachable. His scholarship, his morals, and his orthodoxy underwent the severest scrutiny before the Congregational hobbledehoy ascended the pulpit. Here and there a misfit occurred, such as the Reverend Azel Backus, who “could not keep his drolleries out of the pulpit” and “lived a life of questionable propriety” while the souls under his care tittered their way to perdition; but he seems to have been as odd as an owl trooping among chickens. Clergymen in general avoided levity, lived by the book, mastered the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew tongues, married blameless behavior to a set of stern beliefs, and graced it all with the uses and accomplishments of a gentleman. Such a man was Nathaniel Taylor, the Rhadamanthus of Delia Bacon’s ordeal, and such a man was his antagonist, Leonard Bacon.
A hundred years earlier New Haven had had no God but Yahweh, and Jonathan Edwards was his prophet. The brimstone perorations that sizzled from New England pulpits had caused women to faint and strong men to shudder in their beds at the mere recollection. But by 1845 a younger and more impressionable generation was bringing a Byronic sensibility to the exacerbated conscience of Calvinism. (Byron seems to have had great charm for the adherents of this savage creed: there was an unmistakable allure in one so militantly, not to say joyously, damned.)
The Old Calvinists were poulticing the bruises received from the Unitarians and the heretical Henry Ward Beecher, and though Nathaniel Taylor preached on infant damnation, one senses that he was not wholly for it. He had even made a strong case for free will in his controversy with Bennet Tyler twenty years previously. But now from “bawling and quarreling about the Trinity” the parsons and their parishioners had fallen victim to a fit of salvation by works, while the salvation-through-grace-alone faction smouldered in the ascendant within the university, free will notwithstanding. But the rank-and-file preacher continued to boom with reforming zeal, replacing the totemic deity with something that closely resembled a kindly social worker. Antislavery was a hotter issue than antinomianism. Yahweh suffered further from the rising cluster of scientists who ignored him and from women—intellectual women, such women as Lyman Beecher’s wives and daughters—who simply regarded him as a frightful mistake. The doctrinaire Calvinists had heard themselves roundly refuted by Delia Bacon’s mentor, Catharine Beecher, in 1836. Delia’s assault upon MacWhorter look on the character of a thumping blow delivered at the infallibility of the Establishment, while his misuse of her confirmed the opposition in its suspicion that predestination made for poor preaching and worse practice. New Haven split over the matter like a melon in the sun.
In a city less remorselessly dynastic so ragged a rent in the garment of civic unity might not have shown so threadbare. But here, where Days married Shermans and Blakes married Thachers and Bacons married Wisners and the issue married their kith, while Taylors stood godparents to first-born Bacon babies, it was clear that death could not sunder the family party but, shockingly, Delia Bacon could.
The Bacon family were of the church churchly, and what they lacked in earthly goods they more than made up for in spiritual dignities and prestige. Leonard and Delia were the children of a missionary, David Bacon. Leonard had been born in that outpost of the Connecticut empire now known as Detroit. After Delia Salter’s birth in 1811, David gave up his attempt to establish heaven on earth at Tallmadge, Ohio, and died heartbroken and debtridden, leaving his widow, Alice, with six children to rear. By various shifts she managed to educate all six. Leonard graduated from Yale at the age of eighteen, finished his theological studies at Andover, and entered on his pastorate at Center Church at the age of twenty-three. Delia, the youngest and most promising of the girls, early began to raise both hopes and apprehensions in the bosoms of her relatives. Clever, mercurial, and ambitious, she did not seem to know the meaning of the word moderation. When she caught the mumps, her sister Alice wrote to Leonard in real consternation that “Delia has a swelled face and has lost her reason.” Delia’s faculty for mislaying this article continued to be a source of genuine anxiety, but when in possession of her wits she showed herself industrious as a spider and ready to attack almost any difficulty if she glimpsed the possibility of a reward.
“Delia will do anything for money,” wrote the hardpressed Mrs. Bacon to her son in a letter that contains little else of an encouraging nature.
The little girl’s natural liveliness was tempered with spasms of religious melancholy, common among children as measles or chicken pox in those days.
“Your sister has resisted the Holy Spirit and He has departed from me,” she wrote at the age of ten to Leonard. “When I think of it I tremble. … oh, what will become of me when I leave this vain, transitory world and rise before my God in judgment? Cease not to pray for me. I have neglected the offers of salvation; I have despised my dear Redeemer but there is still mercy with Him who is able to save.”
When Delia was about eleven, some friends of her mother’s took her under their charge and enrolled her as a pupil at the female seminary in Hartford, recently established by Lyman Beecher’s eldest daughter, Catharine. Here the volatile, bright-eyed youngster became a favorite not only with her teachers but with a fellow pupil, Catharine Beecher’s droll, exquisite, and spirited little sister, Harriet.
Here is the child Delia as her twenty-two-year-old headmistress saw her: “An agreeable person, a pleasing and intelligent countenance, an eye of deep and earnest expression, a melodious voice, a fervid imagination and the embryo of rare gifts of eloquence.” Miss Beecher’s affection for the child did not blind her to Delia’s flaws. She longed to excel, but more for the sake of applause than for any devotion to excellence. Love, recognition, and literary notoriety were far too dear to Delia in her teacher’s estimation. She aimed for prizes, and when these eluded her, her disappointment was out of all proportion to the value that should have been placed on such trifles. Catharine describes her as a brilliant improviser but deficient when it came to organizing her material and getting it down according to the rules of unity, coherence, and emphasis. Worse, she was only intermittently pious, performing her religious duties sketchily enough to cause some concern as to the state of her soul. Catharine candidly admits that Delia was a handful. Fiercely competitive, she could not endure to see the work of others valued above her own, and when, as frequently happened, some other student gained the first place in class, her jealousy was so keen that her schoolfellows, who seem to have been a good-natured lot, were forced to forget their own triumphs in an effort to comfort and encourage her.
“Her keen sensibility,” continues Catharine, “her transparency, sincerity and impulsiveness, the dangerous power of keen and witty expression … would make her an object of unjust depreciation. … The persons … who were the objects of her regard would almost immediately become enthusiastic admirers while those who in any way came into antagonism would be as decided in their dislike.”
Only one likeness of Delia Bacon exists, a daguerreotype taken when she was in her forties. By all accounts it does not do her justice. The rich eye, the fine mobility of feature, the translucent complexion which though pale yet seemed to glow, are all absent. The woman whom Hawthorne described as “majestic … graceful,” full of vivacity, dignity, and charm, has nothing in common with the strained and cynically smiling personage of the picture. It is a portrait of a sardonically tilted head, a warped mouth, two veined hands, a poke bonnet, and a cashmere shawl. Little is revealed of the creature who caught the attention of Emerson, Carlyle, and Hawthorne, and of whom Elizabeth Peabody wrote in a kind of rapture, as though there were something mesmeric in Delia.
“A beautiful being,” declared Miss Peabody in a letter to Leonard Bacon after Delia’s death. “A glorious and wonderful work of nature, most unhappily environed by uncongenial circumstances in many respects. Her entire unworldliness, her childlike character inspired me with a tenderness without bounds.” But Miss Peabody strikes a dissonance in her paean. Unbounded tenderness did not prevent Hawthorne’s shrewd sister-in-law from knowing that Delia “suffered … from the fear that I would steal her secret [the Shakespearean cipher] and publish it myself.”
In her twenties and early thirties Delia’s character partook apparently of the Victorian image of a perfect lady. She was a virtuous daughter and sister, religious, nice to the point of prudishness in her relations with the opposite sex. Had it not been for her almost excessive refinement she might have earned a reputation for strong-mindedness through her evident indifference to male admiration. Throughout her youth she gave no sign of having any interest in men at all, save those included in her immediate family. At fifteen she had decided to become a teacher, but she soon discovered that classroom instruction did not promise the kind of rewards that she wanted. She attempted a school of her own as Miss Beecher had done so successfully, but the venture failed and she wavered to writing. She had an errant fancy, could tell a tale with spirit, define a character and summon up a landscape with poetic immediacy. She tackled historical romance and did not scruple to write drama in verse. Tales of the Puritans and The Bride of Fort Edward were published and brought her neither fame nor fortune, but they led ultimately to the lecture platform. Delia had a remarkable propensity for oratory and was, like her brother, capable of haranguing an audience for hours together without tiring either it or herself.
The wives and daughters of her brother’s colleagues were in transports about her. She lectured on classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and English letters in Boston, Hartford, and New Haven; her select audience of wellborn, well-endowed ladies paid highly for the privilege of hearing her. As she stood before two statues of Diana and Apollo (tributes from admiring listeners), fragile and fiery, dressed always in black which set off her delicate style of beauty to perfection, she struck the spectators as a Tennysonian princess, an enchanting priestess in the courts of the muses.
While Delia was in the way of accumulating, if not a fortune, a pretty good living and the literary fame that she had so passionately longed for as a schoolgirl, she was not the only woman in New Haven aspiring to literary eminence. At 77 Elm Street a young rival was putting the polish on a series of lustrous attainments. Henrietta Blake was at this time in her early twenties, a tall, dark girl of formidable achievement. She was a good classical scholar and is reliably reported to have thrown over an eligible parti for sending her a Greek ode disfigured by false quantities.
Unlike Delia Bacon she was born rich, one of the ten children of Eli Whitney Blake, inventor of the Blake stone crusher. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin also loomed in her background. According to one of her admirers, James Hadley, she “avowed and gloried in a delightful perversity of taste.”
The Blakes shared with the Bacons, the Taylors, the Days, the Baldwins, the Woolseys, and others a comfortable eminence in the New Haven hierarchy, and it was toward this company that the Reverend Alexander MacWhorter, the only son of a doting widow from New Jersey, directed his innocent footsteps. Possessing a good income, a good profile, and an engaging address, the gentle youth made a charming impression. Nathaniel Taylor took him under his special protection, and Leonard Bacon’s signature was one of those adorning the articles licensing him to preach. He had won a reputation as scholar during his undergraduate days at Yale and was considered to have a pretty, if slightly condescending, wit. Beyond these attractions he seems to have had, in common with Delia Bacon, an indefinable allure. People flocked around him, especially men, although women liked him too. He claimed an extreme naïveté where women were concerned, but he took pains that no false quantities should mar his interchange with Henrietta Blake.
On becoming a licentiate in the Congregational Church, he moved into the same boardinghouse where Delia Bacon lived, fixed his large eyes on her, and breathed a longing to know her. The recipient of this confidence was a classmate, Robert W. Forbes, for whom Delia had conceived one of her celebrated dislikes. She considered him flimsy and quite unfit to attend the levees that she was in the habit of holding in her rooms for the benefit of her students and their parents. She had, however, nothing against MacWhorter, and with the arrogance of a de Staël and without waiting for a formal introduction she sent him a note, indicating her willingness to receive him but pointedly excluding Forbes.
Delia’s initial objections to Forbes remain mantled in mystery. Catharine Beecher, Delia’s staunchest defender, admits that she cannot account for them. But it was enough that she did not like him and would not have him on the premises, although she had known him since childhood and had even been a guest of his family. The slight cankered him vilely. The flirtatious licentiate applied a certain balm by reading the note of invitation aloud to his neglected friend and making good fun of a maiden lady, old enough to know better, unabashedly scurrying after a rich young man. MacWhorter also wrote a most entertaining letter to his friend, the Reverend Alexander Clapp, parson of the Congregational Church at Brattleboro, Vermont, describing the whole amusing episode and, without precisely saying so, hinting that Miss Bacon’s behavior had been unbecomingly forward.
He concealed this state of things from Delia, however, and having finally gained admittance to her levees, rather rapidly cemented the friendship, which under this treatment shortly flowered into a love which was “pure,” “fervent,” but to Delia’s annoyance and her family’s incredulous scorn, “fraternal.”
Victorian courtships were things of sighs and glances, of half-uttered exclamations, blushes and pallors, pleasing confusions, and devoted and particular attentions, signs as cloudy as the symptoms of typhoid fever but as decided and contagious as the disease itself. This one was no exception and was moreover carried on at one time in the full glare of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose affidavit makes it clear that MacWhorter pressed his suit as zestfully as any pouter pigeon. “The most open, direct, above-ground, positive and explicit piece of wooing that was ever performed under my own particular observation. … such as nothing but a positive engagement would justify any gentleman and Christian in pursuing.”
To do her justice it appears that Delia had doubts as to the wisdom and propriety of this courtship. She found MacWhorter’s attentions disconcerting. When she appeared at the boardinghouse breakfast table, he would leave his seat to join her and pledge her in his second cup of coffee. His eyes followed her wherever she went. Other ladies in the boardinghouse rallied her on her conquest. Like Mrs. Stowe, they had never seen such unmistakable signs of devotion. Clearly MacWhorter was incapable of giving his thoughts to anybody but Miss Bacon. Children noticed it, servants noticed it, and, with some distaste, the Bacon family was forced to notice it. Delia was flustered. She feared that MacWhorter, taking advantage of the difference in their ages, “had chosen to insult her with unmeaning expressions of regard.”
Common sense had a premature triumph, and Delia shifted her quarters to her brother’s house, where MacWhorter took the earliest opportunity of calling and was as assiduous as ever. Delia’s little nephews were employed as messengers between the lovers. Delia’s mother expressed dissatisfaction with the turn of events. She asked her daughter what she had in mind. The answer was not very reassuring.
“She assured me again and again that nothing would induce her to marry him and that she much desired and must have the opportunity of telling him so.”
Delia had, in short, maneuvered herself into the position of being forced to sue for a proposal of marriage in order to refuse it. In her mother’s presence she wrote to MacWhorter, who had gone to Saratoga, and sent the letter off. He replied at once, and Delia dutifully handed the letter to Mrs. Bacon.
“It contained a declaration of warm, eternal, undying affection,” declared Mrs. Bacon. “I distinctly remember the expression: ‘I have loved you purely, fervently.’ He assured her … that his love for her was a love which no change of circumstances could alter and that even though she should hate him it would make no difference: that he should love her in life and in death and beyond it.” But there was a further unfortunate allusion to loving her “as a brother.” Mrs. Bacon had never heard of such a thing as fraternal love between grownups, believed it to be an impossibility of nature and repugnant besides. Delia was reduced to telling MacWhorter that she could not be a sister to him, and he countered : “Was not another relationship possible?” What other he did not say.
With her mother’s views so painfully clear, and mindful that her brother was diverted from antislavery legislation, the colonization of Africa, the annexation of Nebraska, and the conversion of China by his now thoroughly disapproving view of his sister’s case, Delia decided to try a change of air. She set out for Brattleboro, Vermont, and MacWhorter came tumbling after.
For ten weeks Delia and MacWhorter remained at Brattleboro. During that time he danced constant attendance. His thoughts, his looks, the very slant of his shoulders, were all directed toward her. They walked together, talked almost exclusively to each other—in fact so absorbed were they in their liaison that the other guests in the hotel where they had lodgings made themselves scarce when Delia and MacWhorter took possession of the parlor, rather than intrude upon them. To all of this the people who ran the inn testified exuberantly.
One person who was not convinced was MacWhorter’s friend, Alexander Clapp, the minister of Brattleboro. He and his giddy young wife refuted the whole notion of a love affair between the elderly Miss Bacon and the young minister as absurd. Mrs. Stowe, however, had arrived in Vermont with her sisters and was satisfied that what she saw must lead to marriage. She reported her findings to her sister Catharine, and shortly after doing so she encountered Robert Forbes. Rumors of the “engagement” had reached him, and he was seething like a kid in its mother’s milk. His friend MacWhorter was a helpless pawn in a series of nefarious moves by Miss Bacon. She was a woman of talent; MacWhorter was a man of property; she was of an unsuitable age. She must be a schemer. She had written him a note without benefit of a prior introduction, had lain in wait for him at other people’s houses where he had not thought to find her. Her immodest behavior justified MacWhorter in amusing himself at her expense to his heart’s content.
Mrs. Stowe was bewildered and distressed. “It displeased me to hear that you had written a note prior to the introduction,” she wrote Delia later.
It seems little enough now—a display of reciprocal interest on the part of a lady and a gentleman in the restrained atmosphere of a family hotel, a few letters containing lofty sentiments couched in the ornate language of the era. The whole ritual seems so stylized that it carries about as much conviction as the antics of the figures in a willowware plate. But to the people of the year 1846 the parson and the bluestocking were chief actors in a drama as compelling as a bullfight, and New Haven society wanted its moment of truth.
It did not come. Catharine Beecher asked Delia point-blank what her matrimonial prospects were. When questioned, Delia proved as unmanageable at thirty-six as she had been at eleven.
“What shall I say if people ask me if you are to marry him?” inquired Miss Beecher.
“Say what you please,” was the reply.
“Shall it be called a Platonic flirtation?” pursued Miss Beecher.
“Say whatever you think best,” evaded Delia. She had been jilted, and she knew it. MacWhorter had returned to New Haven, and Leonard Bacon had tackled him with an excited request for an explanation of the attentions paid to Delia.
“What attentions?” asked MacWhorter. He vehemently denied that he had courted Delia Bacon. He would not have his friends think him such a fool, he told Forbes. There had been no sentiment on his side, “not a thimbleful.” He had lent himself to the affair only to help Delia save face. She had shown a preference for him. She had actually proposed to him. In the circumstances he had behaved exactly as he ought.
Alexander MacWhorter defies interpretation. There is really no explaining him. If Delia had proposed to him on one occasion, why did he not thank her for the offer and be off? And if, as he now told Roger Baldwin, the ex-governor of Connecticut, she proposed not once but five separate times, he must have been insatiable for punishment to have remained in Brattleboro for ten weeks, conspicuously devoting himself to her, while perfectly able to leave town. Baldwin, who had submitted to MacWhorter’s disclosures with reluctance, thought the fellow a rare fool and said as much.
The gossip in New Haven had by now, thanks to the misprized Robert Forbes and the Clapps, reached scurrilous proportions. Delia was totally compromised. Either she had been caught in a serious breach of decorum, or she was the victim of a shameless intrigue at the hands of that “clerical Lothario,” Alexander MacWhorter. The Bacon family began to buckle on the armor of righteousness, and Leonard Bacon raised his hatchet-head like a tomahawk for the scalp of the licentiate. The young man was guilty of slander, libel, and conduct unbecoming a clergyman and a gentleman and should therefore be declared unfit to preach.
It was not to be supposed that MacWhorter and his friends would accede to this solution to Delia’s vexations. He announced that he could produce evidence that Delia had been the active party throughout the whole affair and that if the Bacon family did not refrain from its persecutions, he would be forced to defend himself by making Delia’s correspondence public. Robert Forbes and his cousin, Jane Fitch, claimed to have seen it already. In that case, argued Leonard Bacon, an investigation was imperative. Either a man was fit to be a minister or he was not, and if MacWhorter was innocent of the conduct imputed to him by Delia and her friends he must prove it.
No, said MacWhorter and his partisans. The licentiate would prove nothing. Let the Bacons prove their case.
Delia at first had hoped to close the chapter in the classic manner with the burning of letters and the remission of gifts. When she failed to receive her letters and learned that they had fallen into the hands of Forbes, Clapp, and such girls as the satirical Henrietta Blake and the despised Forbes’ cousin, malicious little Jane Fitch, she rose to a falcon’s fury that momentarily shook even MacWhorter’s leaden poise. Her ultimatum to him announced that she had seen the whites of his eyes and was prepared to shoot.
You certainly cannot but be aware … that the representations which are generally made here with regard to my relations to you are wholly and basely untrue. … You know that my regard for you was one which such a devotion as yours could hardly fail to inspire in a heart not wholly insensible to kindness. Need I remind you of that devotion? … The whole vocabulary of poetic feeling has been exhausted to convey it to me; not in writing indeed for you have been quite careful not to commit yourself in this way. … You have read my letters to your friends. Did you read them all? Were there no suppressed passages? Did you tell them of the circumstances that originated them? Did you tell them of those professions of impassioned sentiment without which they would not have been written? Did you tell them that I had distinctly declined the honor to which I am represented as having aspired? … Representations, the most humiliating to me, the most degrading that were ever fastened on a woman of reputation are referred to you as their author. … You have made it necessary for me to make statements on this subject in my own defense. … I had once some influence here and weakened and wasted as it has been, such as it is I will use it to the utmost. You may read [this letter] to as many of your acquaintances as you please. I do not wish for any answer … All I ask of you is to send me my letters .
The beleaguered MacWhorter received this letter at the house of Nathaniel Taylor, where he was staying. When his reply to it was returned to him unopened he glimpsed an alarming threat to his career. The Bacons were implacable, and if Nathaniel Taylor should take their part impeachment was virtually certain. In desperation he threw himself on the mercy of Mrs. Taylor and her daughter, Mrs. Noah Porter. He must have had stupendous powers of persuasion. In spite of their long friendship with the Bacons, which included Delia, and notwithstanding their undisguised disapproval of MacWhorter’s protracted sojourn in Brattleboro, his protestations of innocence won them over. They promised to warn him of any impending crisis, by crisis meaning the moment when the business should come to the attention of his friend and patron, Dr. Taylor.
The crisis came that afternoon in the interval between tea and dinner, and gallantly MacWhorter met it, shielded by the crinolines of the Taylor ladies.
Doctor Taylor heard MacWhorter out sympathetically. Having endorsed the young man in the community, he chose not to take sides but rather to make peace between the parties and hush things up. With this purpose Taylor called on Delia, bearing with him MacWhorter’s peace terms. Quite simply they were as follows: if Delia would abstain from defending her “delicacy” and withdraw her accusations, MacWhorter would suppress his “evidence” against her. If not, he would be forced to vindicate his honor by bringing a charge of slander against her.
The Bacon family, as one man, indignantly rejected such a course. Taylor’s olive branch might as well have been gunpowder thrown on the conflagration. The Bacons would not hold their tongues, would not bargain, and would have the case tried.
The hearing was convened in Jeremiah Day’s house (he had just resigned the presidency of Yale in the hope of spending his last days in peace). Twenty-three exasperated divines met together to try one of their own in a case of ill-considered coquetry. The parish clergy, headed by Bacon, lined up for Delia; the university theologians, for Taylor and MacWhorter.
Ponderously the inquiry lumbered on its way while the Day parlor shivered under oratory bedizened with classical allusions and ominous references to the Old Testament. Henrietta Blake, from the perspective of Cornwall Bridge, whither she had discreetly decamped following the receipt of a severe letter from Doctor Bacon raking her for having let her eyes fall on Delia’s letters, fairly glistened with moral indignation as the mails brought her almost daily accounts of the trial.
“Poor Mr. MacWhorter!” Miss Bacon had remarked, among other things, that “Hettie Blake is doing her prettiest to obtain Mr. MacWhorter,” Henrietta wrote her sister, Mary. Then came, one supposes, a Dickensian toss of curls, an enchanting moue .
“Now I think it very likely that I was doing my prettiest to Mr. MacWhorter. I’m sure I hope I always do to everybody and if I wasn’t doing it to him I was making an exception which I don’t suppose I did.”
Sarah Thacher, Hettie’s cousin, added a postscript: “All that I have to say is !!!!!!! ??????? … What is Miss Bacon made of? If I were a medical student I should wait anxiously for her demise in order to procure a post mortem analyzation. As to Mr. MacWhorter, his evidence seems to come out strong enough but I am not prepared to swallow whole all his simple negations. What a disgusting concern … Do you seriously believe that anybody tells the truth nowadays?”
The committee ruled that in view of Leonard Bacon’s demand for impeachment, the burden of proof lay with him. His faction resorted to comparing Taylor to John King, the London blackmailer of women, while the defense retaliated by hinting that Delia had tampered with the correspondence made available to the court. Further, a witness was heard from who testified to the happiness of also having received proposals of marriage from Delia. Benjamin Silliman, Sr., who had seen her letters, saved her from the imputation of forgery. In the matter of the second charge Delia was able to prove that the surprise witness had proposed to her some years earlier and had been rejected.
Delia trembled and wept when giving her testimony; MacWhorter maintained an ineffable calm. He did not attempt to deny what could not be denied. He merely stuck to his original story. He was not responsible for Delia’s misconstruction of his intentions. His behavior was perfectly consonant with that appropriate to a minister of the gospel. The issue was clear enough. Justinian himself could not have tried either Delia or MacWhorter for going to stay at a resort in Vermont, although both were guilty of doing so.
The decision when it came showed frenzied footwork. Eleven of the members found for Delia, twelve for MacWhorter. On the one hand it was agreed that the licentiate had been “in a greater or less degree imprudent in his conduct.” “But,” rumbled the clergymen, “by which we do not intend to imply that what the aforesaid licentiate has reported of the relative of the complainant is true.” They further advised that a committee of three should be appointed “to give with Christian and paternal kindness such admonition to him as in their view the case may require.”
MacWhorter’s Pyrrhic victory was a rout for Delia. Nothing short of his impeachment could have saved her mangled fame. She felt herself ruined.
“God does not need my labor,” she cried. “He appoints me to suffer.” In her outrage and frustration she turned to the attack on William Shakespeare, a subject that she had discussed with MacWhorter in happier days. Her journey to England, made with the purpose of proving her thesis, ended in the church at Stratford on Avon, where the sexton found her, mad as the baker’s daughter, shuddering at the sight of Shakespeare’s unopened tomb. She was briefly confined in the asylum in the Forest of Arden until her family, with whom she had quarreled bitterly, brought her back to Connecticut. She died in the Hartford Retreat, lucid and reconciled to her friends, and asking for a last look at the picture of her father, who had grieved himself to death because he could not bring the kingdom of God to the wilderness in his generation.
Alexander MacWhorter continued to preach the gospel and to bother his friends with his theory of the infinite indivisibility of magnitude and to puzzle them with the Baconian heresy to which he remained (perhaps sentimentally) attached.
In 1852 Henrietta Blake gave rein to her delightful perversity of taste and married him, to her father’s unconcealed dismay. After holding a teaching post for a year, MacWhorter returned with Henrietta for a visit to Eli Blake and further infuriated the old gentleman by staying for twenty years. Mr. Blake, as one of his granddaughters put it, “was too honest to pretend a cordiality he did not feel.” He was never known during those twenty years to have addressed his son-in-law directly. MacWhorter’s own faction had come to regret the committee’s decision. Vindicated, he lived to cause the Divinity School perpetual embarrassment because of his pusillanimous mode of life and the crashing dullness of his occasional sermons.
Leonard Bacon wholeheartedly forgave Nathaniel Taylor, and Eli Blake reaped the reward of his extended silence when MacWhorter concluded his visit to 77 Elm Street with his mortal span in 1880. Henrietta was inconsolable. She dutifully kept house for her father, however, until his death. With that event, which was long in coming, she shook the dust of New Haven from her sandals and ended her days merrily in a pensione in Siena, in 1901.
The investigation which had blacked the newspapers and wagged the tongues in 1847 was so far forgotten that people growing up ten years after had never heard of it. Delia, alone of its chief performers, is memorable. Her love affair was a badly managed farce, her life work, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded, is a marvelously contrived gargoyle, a monument to misapplied scholarship; and yet she emerges with dignity, a pathetic, even an engaging spectacle, like Ophelia, wearing her rue with a difference.