November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
The Beecher-Tilton Scandal
Among the entrants in the presidential election of 1872 was Victoria Woodhull, the most flamboyant, outspoken, and uncompromising feminist of her day. Woodhull, running on her own Equal Rights ticket, was an Ohio-born faith healer who had moved to New York City in 1868 with her sister Tennessee Claflin, on advice, she said, from the spirit of Demosthenes. They quickly became Wall Street’s first female stockbrokers and began promoting radical causes. In 1871 they tried to vote in a municipal election and were rebuffed, but in 1872 they never even got the chance. On Election Day the sisters were in jail because of a story they had published in their political journal/scandal sheet, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly .
The paper’s November 2 issue charged that Henry Ward Beecher, the nationally revered minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, had committed adultery with the wife of a respected parishioner. The high-spirited sisters applauded the married minister’s support of free love and called on him to acknowledge his actions. Soon after the issue appeared, Woodhull and Claflin were arrested at the behest of a twenty-eight-year-old dry-goods clerk and morality crusader named Anthony Comstock. As it turned out, the federal obscenity statute then in force did not apply to newspapers, so the sisters were acquitted the following June. By that time Comstock had secured passage of a much tougher indecency law. In the meantime most of the public had disregarded the Beecher story because of its unreliable source and the eminence of the parties involved. The scandal soon died down.
It did not stay dead. In 1874 a minister publicly accused Theodore Tilton, the alleged cuckold, of besmirching Beecher’s name. Everyone involved was trying to hush the scandal up, but this charge was too much for Tilton to bear. He struck back by suing Beecher for “criminal conversation"—adultery. The ensuing mudfight resembled the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, except that in Beecher’s case people were surprised. He was the most admired and esteemed minister of his day, known across the country as a pillar of Christian rectitude.
In the course of Beecher’s sensational trial, which began in January 1875 and lasted six months, Elizabeth Tilton admitted and then denied committing adultery, for at least the second time in each case. (In 1878 she would publicly declare that the charges were true after all.) Testimony showed that Theodore Tilton, once extremely devout, had developed an interest in free love after his marriage went sour and an attractive female boarder moved into his house. Beecher did not come off well either. From his cover-up attempts to his generous “gifts” to Tilton and his anguished letters, it was clear he had committed some act with Elizabeth Tilton that he felt ashamed of. But in the Victorian age it was entirely possible to do that with one’s clothes on.
A hung jury split nine to three for Beecher, and on that inconclusive note he returned to preaching, his reputation somewhat soiled but his popularity only slightly diminished. Woodhull and Claflin, with their rabble-rousing act wearing thin but their lively personalities and celebrated beauty intact, abandoned their radical beliefs and native country to marry wealthy, highly respectable British men. Comstock built a new and successful career harassing publishers of racy and not-so-racy material until his death in 1915. Only the Tiltons, who split up during the trial and never reconciled, were permanently hurt by the affair. Theodore, broken by legal bills, scratched out a living by writing and lecturing until he died in Paris in 1907. Elizabeth taught school for a while but was shunned by her old friends and retreated into seclusion. She eventually went blind and died at her daughter’s Brooklyn home in 1897.