Monday, August 12, 2013

Sensational Cases: The Case of Theodore Tilton vs. Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher
Tilton vs. Beecher was one of the most famous scandals of the late 19th century. With New York as the backdrop, it involved American newspaper editor, abolitionist, and cuckold Theodore Tilton, his wife, Elizabeth, and the famed Congregationalist clergyman, abolitionist, and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher. Reverend Beecher, also known as the father of author Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and women’s rights leader Isabella Beecher Hooker, was accused by Tilton of adultery. Beecher’s personal history was riddled with rumors of extramarital affairs that had begun circulating since the early to mid-19th century. In 1870, Elizabeth Tilton confessed her affair with Beecher to her husband, who then made it known to women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Stanton subsequently told fellow activists Isabella (Beecher’s daughter) and Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull, enraged by what she viewed as flagrant hypocrisy practiced by the popular religious leader, who himself held a public stance against such free love, wrote an article about the affair in her newspaper Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly in 1872. The article sparked massive national interest. Beecher was successful in having Woodhull arrested on the grounds of distributing obscene materials through the mail, which split the allegiances of the clergyman’s two daughters; Woodhull, given her own trial, was eventually released on a technicality. 
Elizabeth Tilton
After an inquiry conducted by his church, he was exonerated of all charges and Tilton was excommunicated from the church. In 1875, Tilton then brought a civil case to the city court, which could not arrive at a verdict; this prompted the Congregational church to hold a final hearing that, to the anger of many, resulted in Beecher’s 2nd exoneration.

The 3 volume set titled Theodore Tilton vs. Henry Ward Beecher, action for crim. con. tried in the city court of Brooklyn … verbatim report by the official stenographer (1875), which can be found in our library’s collections, is an important and in depth record of this civil trial. It includes court proceedings, affidavits, the opinions of judges, transcriptions of arguments put forth by the attorneys representing each party, the testimonies delivered by witnesses, witness cross-examinations, and sketched portraits of important figures in the trial.

If you are curious about the current legalities of adultery in Massachusetts, you can search the Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) online by entering “adultery” into the keyword search bar.

Theodore Tilton
Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Dept.