A storied New England family of authors, preachers and social reformers would be divided. And some legal eagles of the Mid-19th Century, including NYLI stalwart William M. Evarts, would win a little fame and earn some money as Beecher’s successful defense team.
Behind the eruption of this scandal and ensuing civil trial was the controversial advocate of free love and Presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull.
Henry Ward Beecher , popular Plymouth Church preacher and social reformer, advocated causes such as temperance and women’s suffrage. It was Beecher’s convincing oratory against slavery that gained him the most fame; His speeches raised so many funds for the Civil War that the guns bought were called “Beecher Bibles”.
But the famous preacher, brother to the equally famous author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and early suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, was shadowed by rumors of womanizing throughout his career.
Victoria Woodhull, annoyed at the Beecher family ridicule of her ideas, threatened to expose Beecher if he did not personally endorse her controversial pamphlet. Beecher refused, and Woodhull published her allegations with the intent that it would “burst like a bomb-shell into the ranks of the moralistic social camp”.
Some Burst !!
Two more church inquiries followed that censured Plymouth Church and eventually exonerated Beecher.
Tilton, whom many historians believe had a fling with Victoria Woodhull , long knew of his wife Elizabeth’s now ended affair with Beecher. Although he openly discussed details with friends, Tilton nonetheless decided against any legal action.
All that changed after Woodhull’s article, subsequent Church trials, and resulting press feeding frenzy — in 1874, Tilton took Beecher to court for “criminal intimacy”.
The six month trial included contradictory testimony from both Beecher and Tilton and over a hundred supporting witnesses testifying to Beecher’s good character. Evarts successfully argued that Elizabeth Tilton, because of spousal immunity, could not testify.
And three very different outcomes for the principals….
Henry Ward Beecher went back to preaching. A statue honoring him still stands in Brooklyn.
And the crime of adultery? Lest our dear readers think that adultery as a legal matter faded away with the fashion of spats, New York’s Penal code currently classifies Adultery as a class B Misdemeanor.
As of this blog’s writing, 2021 NYS Assembly Bill 100 is seeking to repeal the crime of adultery.