Happy 197, Henry Ward Beecher

Happy 197th birthday, Henry Ward Beecher! Once The Most Famous Man in America, Plymouth Church’s Beecher was Brooklyn Heights first rock star preacher.  Known as an abolitionist and strong advocate of women’s rights,  Beecher’s legacy was almost derailed by scandal:

Brooklyn Eagle: On August 21, 1874 Rev. Beecher was sued by newspaper editor Theodore Tilton for $100,000 for alienation of his wife’s affections. Tilton claimed that his young wife, Elizabeth, grieving over the death of their son, had gone to her pastor’s house for consolation and there “she had surrendered her body to him in sexual embrace; that she had repeated such an act on the following Saturday evening at her own residence … that she had consequently upon those two occasions repeated such acts at various times, at his residence and at hers, and at other places …”

On trial, the Rev. Beecher admitted platonic friendship, denied adultery. After a 112-day trial, the jury balloted 52 times and then gave up (with a vote of 9 to 3 for Beecher). The hung jury saved Beecher and restored him to his worshipful flock, although the Louisville Courier-Journal branded him “a dunghill covered with flowers.”

Plymouth Church elected a committee to investigate the adultery charges. The committee found in Beecher nothing to impair the confidence of the church in his “Christian character and integrity.”

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  • http://www.PoetsUSA.com D Gioseffi

    And I mention Henry Ward Beecher at some length in my new novel, WILD NIGHTS, WILD NIGHTS: The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master, http://www.plainviewpress.com/–because Beecher was from Amherst and a good friend of Dickinson’s family. His anti-slavery stance was much admired by all who were part of the 19th century anti-slavery movement. Plymouth Church in the Heights was a big center of the movement with its underground railroad, and “Beecher’s Bibles,” guns shipped to the Union Army hidden under Holy Bibles in shipment boxes. Beecher is too much remembered for his adultery scandal, but he was a very decent humanitarian and gave the most moving sermons in his day on the subject of ending slavery. He would finish his sermons against slavery by throwing down and stomping on the chains that had held John Brown in prison, in great dramatic zeal to emphasize the inequity of those persecuted for their humane stance. Beecher was a marvelous character, and a statue of him much like the one at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, stands of the campus of Amherst College, founded as a seminary by Emily Dickinson’s grandfather Samuel Dickinson. Indeed, both Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and her father, Edward Dickinson served as treasurers on the Board of Directors of Amherst College where Reverend Beecher is venerated with a statue standing proudly to this day in Amherst, MA.
    Daniela Gioseffi, Heights American Book Award Winning Author
    Editor: http://www.PoetsUSA.com

  • T.K. Small

    Of course they were getting busy at the church residence and at her house, the Promenade hadn’t been constructed yet!

  • AEB

    Thanks for the…infomercial, D. Gioseffi! What’s a village without its explainer?

  • ashton

    I think “da fix wuz in”
    Henry had liasons with several Brooklyn ladies.
    But he brought in too much money to sack. He was a gold mine for the church.
    His celebrity was only enhanced by the scandal and I believe the lady in question and her husband had to get out of Dodge.

  • marquise

    Yep, Tilton went to live out his last years in Paris, writing bad poetry and playing chess. He and Elizabeth separated during the trial. Elizabeth Tllton stayed in the Heights, and retreated into religion– she’s actually buried at Greenwood. Also, Beecher assuredly did have other liaisons– he was accused of seducing the wife of his promoter at one point. There’s reason to believe he had at least one illegitimate child. Juicy, dirty, awesome stuff. The trial was a complete circus– a truly excellent read on this subject is Trials of Intimacy, by Richard Wightman.

    Happy birthday, Mr. B!

  • ashton

    “The most famous man in America” by Applegate is also a great read. Who knew these old Puritans were such sex hounds?
    Evidently after stints in Cincinatti and other western boondocks, Brooklyn Heights was like the promised land to him. Rich, generous, and in need of good old-fashioned redemption.

  • nabeguy

    Sheesh, why can’t we have juicy, salacious stories like this today? Judy Stanton would have to be caught inflagranti delicto with Homer to rise to the worthiness of this affair. I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with stories of the flaming-domes-o-death.