No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 17, 2021

The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

The adultery case called "The Greatest Social Drama of Modern Times."
June 13, 2011
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The following tale comes from that classic collection of mostly first-hand accounts of supernatural encounters, "Lord Halifax's Ghost Book."  It was related to Lord Halifax in 1920 by his nephew, Charles Dundas.  Dundas had recently heard the tale from a renowned Royal Air Force pilot named Edward Villiers.  (Later Sir Edward Villiers.)  It is one of the briefest stories in the "Ghost Book," but
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Strange Company - 5/17/2021

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LOOK OUT FOR "SOAPY" SMITHSt. Louis DispatchSeptember 23, 1897(Click image to enlarge) e reported himself in good health and money."   New information showing that Soapy Smith did go to St. Louis to check up on his ailing wife, Mary, after leaving Skagway.  Below is the transcription of the article from the St. Louis Dispatch, September 23, 1897. LOOK OUT FOR “SOAPY” SMITH ― The Smooth Man
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

Born in 1870 and completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths), the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday this week. What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/17/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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The crack of gunfire startled the residents of 88 Merrimack Street, a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 10:00, the night of  August 31, 1876. The boarders rushed to Lulu Martin’s room on the third floor, where the shot was fired. The door was locked; they heard a man inside shouting, “Go for the police! She has shot me! I will hold her! Break open the door!”A group of men broke in
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Along with Bertie Whitehead, Abby’s half-sister, May 13th was also the birthday of Helen Craig, famous stage actress best-remembered for Johnny Belinda. Helen Craig, who played Abby in The Legend of Lizzie Borden was born May 13, 1912, a month after Titanic sank. Helen Craig was not a great beauty by Hollywood standards, but a very fine actress. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0185871/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Her portrayal of Abby Borden as a mean, greedy glutton, more than any other thing, has affected the way most people think of Abby Borden. Sadly it was not an accurate portrayal. Helen did some television in her later career, most notably The Waltons. She died in New York City in 1986. She was married to stage and film actor John Beal who played Dr. Bowen in Legend of Lizzie Borden. They are seen together in the publicity photo below.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/13/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Terrible Struggle with Flame and Flood | Belles of the Bowling Alley.

The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Brooklyn, New York, 1872 - This would have just been another run-of-the-mill case of a preacher loving his neighbor a little too much if the folks involved had not all been social reformers of the highest degree. The scandal tarnished the reputation of the most prominent cleric in America, highlighted rifts within the Women’s Rights movement, and climaxed with an adultery trial that was called "The Greatest Social Drama of Modern Times:"

Henry-Ward-Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher (abolitionist, women’s rights advocate) was the minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York which had over a thousand members. In the 1860s and 1870s, he worked together with Theodore Tilton (editor, poet, abolitionist) on a religious journal called the Independent. Tilton was often away lecturing, leaving his young wife Elizabeth alone. Around 1866, Reverend Beecher began to call on Elizabeth and the visits became increasingly intimate.

Elizabeth-Tilton

Elizabeth Tilton

In 1870 Elizabeth confessed to her husband, telling him that she had “surrendered” only after “long moral resistance.” Beecher had convinced her “with overmastering arguments” that theirs was “pure affection and a high religious love.” But it must be kept secret because the vulgar world would never understand such purity. Tilton forgave his wife and agreed to keep the affair secret.

But Tilton was not good at keeping secrets and during a chess game with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (abolitionist, early women’s rights leader) he revealed that his wife had been in a “free-love” relationship with Beecher. Ms. Stanton told her colleague, Victoria Woodhull (suffragist, spiritualist, free-love advocate.) This became a problem because Ms. Woodhull, together with her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin (suffragist, advocate for legalized prostitution, first woman stockbroker), published a popular weekly newspaper.

Theodore-Tilton

Theodore Tilton

Tilton did what he could to keep Woodhull quiet, even writing a biography of Victoria Woodhull, attempting to keep her in his debt. This worked until 1872 when Reverend Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stow (abolitionist, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) attacked Woodhull and her position on free-love in print. Soon after, a story ran in Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, which, without naming names, claimed that America’s most renowned preacher was practicing in private the free-love that he denounced from the pulpit.

Woodhull1871

Victoria Woodhull

The story was a sensation. Everyone knew who it was about and everyone wanted a copy. At the height of the frenzy, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly was selling for as much as $40.00 a copy. But postal inspector Anthony Comstock (author of the federal anti-obscenity, Comstock Law) was not amused. He arrested both Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin for sending obscene material through the U. S. Mail. This was especially inconvenient for Victoria Woodhull. In the1872 election she was the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights party and she would be spending Election Day in jail..

Tilton had no choice now but to sue Beecher for adultery. The trial which began in January 1875 divided the Plymouth Church as well as Reverend Beecher’s family. The trial lasted for seven months and received extensive newspaper coverage. It was followed closely by people throughout America. The jury took six days to deliberate but could not agree on a verdict. It was a hung jury. In the end, Beecher was acquitted. Through it all, his wife and most of the Plymouth church stood by him. Beecher resumed his career as if nothing had happened.

Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton fled to Paris and spent the rest of their lives there.


Sources: Goldsmith, Barbara. Other powers: the age of suffrage, spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998.

Altina Waller, Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America from Chapter One, "The Brooklyn Scandal" 1982

Pictorial History of the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. Its Origin, Progress and Trial. Illustrated with Fifty Engravings from Accurate Sketches.