The Beecher-Tilton scandal is an example of a nineteenth-century sexual scandal that did not involve murder. The scandal demonstrates, however, the sort of life- and reputation-destroying events that not a few murders have been committed to avoid.
The scandal first erupted publicly in 1872, when women's rights advocate Victoria Woodhull published an article accusing Henry Ward Beecher, a well known and widely popular Brooklyn, New York, clergyman, of adultery. It was charged that, in the late 1860s, Beecher had conducted an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Theodore Tilton. Both Tiltons were members of Beecher's Plymouth Church, and Tilton was editor of the journal Independent, which Beecher had formerly edited.
In 1870, giving in to her husband's suspicions, Elizabeth Tilton confessed the affair to Tilton, and soon the incident was well known among a small circle of influential Plymouth Church members. Various individuals mediated the matter, succeeding in keeping it out of the public eye for some time. Elizabeth Tilton was badgered, successively, by Beecher, to write a retraction of her confession, and by Tilton, to write a retraction of that retraction.
In 1873, Plymouth Church withdrew Tilton's membership in the church, owing to his attacks on Beecher and relationship (of whatever nature) with Woodhull. By this time, various documents and letters relating to the matter had appeared in the press. Articles appeared in the Independent (with which Tilton was no longer associated) highly critical of Tilton and his attitude toward Beecher. Angered, Tilton published replies in several major papers, and the matter became the subject of intense public interest.
Beecher then directed a Plymouth Church committee to investigate the matter; despite much published evidence of the affair (supplied by Tilton and others), Beecher was exonerated by the committee of his close supporters. Subsequently, Tilton brought suit against Beecher, and the trial in 1875 became a became a national sensation. At the end of a six month trial, the jury could not agree, and Beecher was acquitted.
The following year, a second church committee again exonerated Beecher; in 1878 Elizabeth Tilton, in yet another reversal, admitted to the affair, and was dismissed from Plymouth Church. Theodore Tilton, unable to earn a living because of the scandal, ultimately moved to Paris. Beecher continued to be popular, but never again received the widespread uncritical adulation that had been his prior to the scandal.
The illustration is from The Beecher-Tilton war. Theodore Tilton's full statement of the great preacher's guilt. (New York: A Book of Reference, 1874?), in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays.
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