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Henry Ward Beecher, the eighth son of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on 24th June, 1813. The brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, he was educated at the Lane Theological Seminary before becoming a Presbyterian minister in Lawrenceburg (1837-39) and Indianapolis (1839-47). His pamphlet, Seven Lectures to Young Men, was published in 1844.
Beecher moved to Plymouth Church, Brooklyn in 1847. By this time he had developed a national reputation for his oratorical skills, and drew crowds of 2,500 regularly every Sunday. He strongly opposed slavery and favoured temperance and woman's suffrage.
Beecher condemned the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska bill from his pulpit and helped to raise funds to supply weapons to those willing to oppose slavery in these territories. These rifles became known as Beecher's Bibles. John Brown and five of his sons, were some of the volunteers who headed for Kansas.
He supported the Free Soil Party in 1852 but switched to the Republican Party in 1860. During the Civil War Beecher's church raised and equipped a volunteer regiment. However, after the war, he advocated reconciliation.
Beecher edited The Independent (1861-63) and the Christian Union (1870-78) and published several books including the Summer in the Soul (1858), Life of Jesus Christ (1871), Yale Lectures on Preaching (1872) and Evolution and Religion (1885). Henry Ward Beecher died of a cerebral hemorrhage on 8th March, 1887.
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Difficult Childhood. Henry Ward Beecher overcame several obstacles in his early life to become one of the best-known preachers in American history. He did miserably in school and he stuttered, an inauspicious sign in someone whose father wanted him to join the ministry. (His father was the famous conservative Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher.) Nevertheless, after receiving a bachelor ’ s degree from Amherst College, he received a divinity degree from his father ’ s Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He then obtained a license to preach from the Cincinnati presbytery in 1837, where he developed such a popular preaching style that he soon attracted offers from prestigious churches.
Permanent Home. Brooklyn was gaining a reputation as a “ city of churches. ” People purchased lots, erected brownstones, and created the institutions that supported middle-class nuclear family life. Two of these people were Henry C. Bowen and John T. Howard, Republican and Democratic newspaper publishers, respectively. They helped to organize Plymouth Church and hired Beecher, hoping he would preserve the Orthodox Congregational traditions of their youth and attract many new church members. Beecher took up his duties on 10 October 1847 and, for a while, exceeded everyone ’ s expectations. On Sunday mornings Manhattanites boarded ferries to Brooklyn, and at Plymouth Church they entered a theatrical setting, with three thousand ground-floor and balcony seats arranged in a semicircle. The focal point was not a pulpit but an easy chair located on a stage. The congregation joined in the rousing hymns, accompanied by an organ, enjoyed the flowers that decorated the church, and watched as Beecher addressed his audience informally from his easy chair or strode about the stage. The content of Beecher ’ s preaching was even more novel.
New Assurance of Salvation. Beecher agreed with his Calvinist forebears that God had given Scripture and social institutions to teach sinners the right way and to control them. However, not everyone still needed to be burdened by such constraints. By living a virtuous life one acquired good work habits which in turn gave him material success. Beecher told his parishioners that they should work to be persons of culture and refinement, sensitive to the gentle guidance God offered them through the beauties of nature and through the opportunities that wealth brought their way. They should strive to be good not out of a sense of duty toward God but because they were so full of love that they would not willingly do wrong.
Scandal. On 21 June 1874 Theodore Tilton published a letter accusing Beecher of seducing Tilton ’ s wife, Elizabeth. Tilton ’ s divorce suit against his wife, and a Congregationalist investigation into Beecher ’ s activities, disclosed that Beecher ’ s popularity with his flock obscured the harsher judgments of close associates. Bowen had asked Beecher to write for the newspapers he published, but the minister was so late with his essays that the publisher hired Tilton to be his editor and ghostwriter. Tilton ’ s career had taken off from there, and soon he was on the lecture circuit, which gave Beecher the opportunity to visit his helper ’ s wife. The case against Beecher looked bad. However, Mrs. Beecher took her husband ’ s side, and Elizabeth Tilton took the blame for the affair. The court awarded Tilton a divorce from his wife without requiring him to pay her alimony, and the Congregationalist investigation ended with a vote that Beecher was innocent of the charges against him.
Current Events. Beecher kept perfectly in step with historical trends. Like many people in nonslave states, he opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Kansas became open for settlement, he advised those opposing slavery to claim it for freedom, by force if necessary. He opposed immediate abolition, but once the Civil War started, he urged President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the slaves. He was one of the first to advocate lenient Reconstruction measures and a quick return to state government in the South. Beecher supported black voting rights but not social equality, and women ’ s voting rights but not the radicalism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The work of Charles Darwin intrigued the preacher, and he applied the British scientist ’ s theories to economics. Beecher continued to preach almost to the end of his life, appearing on his platform for the last time on 27 February 1887 nine days later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Beecher Surname in America
Most people in America with surname Beecher will trace their ancestry back to one of the two major family lines that arrived in America. These lines are not related because their Y-DNA is different:
- Connecticut Beechers: In 1635, arriving by ship with the English colonists that came to found New Haven, Connecticut was John Beecher, his wife Hannah, and their son Isaac Beecher. John died within a year of arriving, but Isaac survived and from him descend most of the Beechers found in New England, who migrated throughout America in later years. This family includes the famous abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Connecticut Beecher’s Y-DNA haplogroup is type R1b (in particular R1b1a2). R1b is the most common Y-DNA haplogroup in Western Europe and therefore common to immigrants who founded America. It occurs in about 40% of men in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Britain, and Holland and even higher in Spain and France.
- Pennsylvania Beechers: In the 1700’s German-speaking immigrants arrived by ship in Philadelphia, seeking the promise of religious freedom, whose descendants mostly have surnames Beecher with some others adopting spellings Beicher, Biecher, Beacher, and Bicher. We have a separate web page explaining Pennsylvania Beecher Family History. Their Y-DNA haplogroup I1, more specifically I-M253. I1 was spread by the Vikings as they conquered the Baltic and North Sea coasts. As many as 33% of men in Denmark and Sweden are I1, and about 15% of men in England, the Netherlands, and Germany.
In addition to these two major Beecher family lines, we have discovered through Y-DNA testing and genealogy research several other unrelated Beecher lines in America, and we continue to identify more as additional men with Beecher etc. surnames participate in the Y-DNA research.
Both the Connecticut and Pennsylvania Beechers have the Beecher surname originating from a German surname, Bücher, as explained below.
Henry Ward Beecher’s Hoosier Years
Although his Indiana years were darkened by financial woes and family tragedy, Beecher later recalled his Hoosier period as the foundation of his career.
In the 1830s, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, was a bustling trade town located on the banks of the Ohio River. It boasted two brick churches and could almost rival Indianapolis in size.
Son of an acclaimed Boston preacher and brother of the woman who would write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry Ward Beecher arrived in Lawrenceburg in 1837. Unaffected by his prestigious family name, the congregation of Lawrenceburg’s First Presbyterian Church had unanimously called Beecher as their preacher after a brief trial period.
Beecher used his two years in Lawrenceburg to refine his pulpit practices and nurture his small family before moving to Indianapolis in 1839. In that city’s Second Presbyterian Church, the minister held his first revivals, and solidified his antislavery stance.
The work that would define his career and boost him to national prominence would be done later. Beecher accepted a call to New York in 1847, hoping that by moving back East his wife might escape the illnesses that plagued her in the wilderness. At Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, Beecher drew immense crowds to his mock slave auctions. Still later, President Abraham Lincoln would call Beecher to serve as a Union ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War.
Although his Indiana years were darkened by financial woes and the deaths of several infant children, Beecher later recalled his Hoosier period as the foundation of his career.
This script draws from the following source:
Elsmere, Jane Shaffer. Henry Ward Beecher: The Indiana Years 1837-1847. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society, 1973.
History 301: Henry Ward Beecher’s fame launched from Indy pulpitHenry Ward Beecher was once called “most famous man in America.”
By CONNIE ZEIGLER
In the modern era Indianapolis’s most famous minister would arguably have been William H. Hudnut, who, after serving Second Presbyterian Church for several years became the city’s four-term mayor, then a member of the Hudson Institute, and later still Mayor of Chevy Chase, Md., author of five books, and a chair holder at the Urban Land Institute in Washington D. C.
Sure, Hudnut, who died in 2016, was pretty famous. But almost two hundred years ago Henry Ward Beecher, who started his career as a young minister in this city, far surpassed the fame of Hudnut.
As it happens, Beecher built the congregation that Hudnut later came to pastor. But when Beecher and his wife arrived in Indianapolis in 1839 to pastor the newly formed Second Presbyterian Church, that congregation didn’t yet even have a permanent church building to house it.
Beecher, the son of a famous minister, Lyman Beecher, and brother to a set of intellectual mover and shaker siblings that included Harriett Beecher Stowe, who would publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, brought a definite pedigree to the burgeoning frontier city in the wilderness when he arrived here.
Under his ministry, Second Presbyterian gained the highest attendance in the city and moved to permanent facilities in 1840.
Beecher was not a radical abolitionist, but he was against slavery and preached a famous anti-slavery sermon 1843. Not long afterwards he published Lectures to Young Men, a collection of advice on morality. His fame quickly grew and he began a speaker’s circuit that took him across the Midwest. He preached in the little village of Waverly in Morgan County in the 1840s, for instance.
Beecher’s preachings were popular in part because, while extolling heaven and a Gospel of God’s love, he spoke with humor and empathy. In a lecture given at Yale, he told the audience: “In preaching, never turn away from a laugh any more than you would a cry.” A book of Henry Ward Beecher’s Humor includes the following pithy Beecherism: “We all say ‘Blessed be the poor,’ and yet, if there be one blessing which we would prefer not to have more than another, it is that of poverty.”
Eventually Beecher became so popular that he was decidedly too popular to remain in the relative obscurity of Indianapolis. In 1847 he accepted an offer to minister to the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Deep in debt, Beecher welcomed the higher paying, not to mention more prestigious, position and off he went to share himself with a new congregation, and really, the nation.
While in New York, Beecher became the most famous man in America, according to Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America, a biography of Henry Ward Beecher.
Beecher preached against slavery, and he put his money where his mouth was. In 1848 he learned of two escaped young women slaves who had been recaptured. When their owner offered their freedom in exchange for a ransom, Beecher raised over $2,000 (a princely sum in those days), with which their father bought them, according to Applegate.
Beecher preached in favor of temperance, men’s right to enjoyment and women’s rights to vote and hold property. But he butted heads with women’s suffrage activist and author Victoria Claflin Woodhull, when she wrote that she and all women should be allowed the “inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
Beecher vocally opposed those strong revolutionary sentiments, which might lead to all sorts of sordid activities, according to him. But, unfortunately for him, Ms. Woodhull happened to know that Beecher was engaging in a little “free love” of his own.
Woodhull accused Beecher of being involved in an affair with Elizabeth Tilton – a married woman and one of his Congregational Church flock. She was wife of another member of the congregation, Theodore Tilton, who up to that point was Beecher’s good friend. According to Richard Wightman Fox, author of Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, Beecher had also worked with Tilton producing editorial content for Tilton’s national religious journal, the Independent. What’s more, Beecher had even presided over Elizabeth and Theodore’s marriage.
The ensuing scandal rocked the nation.
Although there was quite a bit of evidence, including Elizabeth’s confession of the affair, Beecher denied it. His congregation stood by him and him within the church.
Plymouth Church then excommunicated Theodore Tilton in 1873. But Tilton took Beecher to court for “criminal intimacy” with his wife in 1874. After the sordid evidence was presented the jury deliberated for six days, but ultimately didn’t reach a verdict. Following the trial, Plymouth Church publicly exonerated Beecher again.
The cuckolded Theodore Tilton moved to France, without his wife. Elizabeth Tilton remained a member of Beecher’s congregation until 1878, when she re-confessed to the affair and the church kicked her out.
The still popular Beecher then turned his extramarital lemons into lemon cake by touring across the country in a speaking circuit.
He died in 1887 in his sleep and was exalted in newspapers across the country.
Connie Zeigler is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm. She’s currently jet-setting between the Indianapolis metropolitan area and a little cabin on the Flatrock River in Shelby County.
Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ward Beecher Hall and Planetarium
Nothing like an astronomy class at 2 pm in the afternoon during your first quarter at Youngstown State to catch you napping. That was me. The reclining seats in the planetarium combined with the dimmed lights was the perfect recipe for an afternoon snooze. You just hoped nothing was said that would go on the test.
I had many classes in Ward Beecher during my years at Youngstown State (1972-76). I can’t say that I gave a thought to the name of the building at time. Only later did I realize that generally, college buildings bear the name of people (or their family) who gave large sums of money toward the construction of the building.
I’ve written about others whose names are on YSU buildings: Kilcawley, Beeghly, Maag, and Jones. But never Ward Beecher. Like many others I’ve written about, I discovered a family that has invested deeply in Youngstown. And I was left with an unanswered question.
Ward Beecher’s family traces back to Connecticut, where his father Leonard, and mother, Ruth Webster Beecher lived. She was the daughter of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame. Their son Walter came to Youngstown at age 19, around 1864 and became involved in a number of community enterprises including the Ohio Powder Company and the Mahoning Bank. He married Eleanor Price, whose family owned a large farm extending along South Belle Vista from Mahoning Avenue to Bears Den Road. Price Road is named after the family and their homestead is now part of the Franciscan Friary on South Belle Vista.
Ward was born September 27, 1887 and graduated from the Rayen School in 1907, going on to study metallurgy at Carnegie Institute of Technology followed by war service with the 309th Engineers in France in World War 1. He returned to Youngstown and in 1923 married Florence Simon, a granddaughter of Col. L. T. Foster, after whom Fosterville is named. He worked for a time as an auditor with Republic Rubber Company, as secretary and treasurer of the Lau Iron Works, and treasurer of Powell Pressed Steel. From 1922 on, he occupied a number of positions at Commercial Shearing and Stamping Company, ending up as Vice President of Finance. He also followed his father’s footsteps, serving as a director of the Mahoning Bank. He attended a directors meeting the day of his death.
He took a major interest in the development of Youngstown State, contributing significant funds for the construction of the science hall and planetarium that now bears his name, which opened in 1967. One of his stipulations was that the planetarium would always be free to the public.
Like many other business leaders of his generation, he served as a leader and benefactor of a number of Youngstown organizations from the Salvation Army to Boys’ Club, as well as the Youngstown Club, the Youngstown Country Club, the Elks, and other organizations. In the late 1950’s, the Beechers sold the Price homestead, where they were living to the Franciscan Friary. Later on, they made substantial contributions for improvements.
After this time, the Beechers moved to Boardman, where they lived together until Ward’s death on October 26, 1970. He was buried, along with many other famous Youngstown residents, at Oak Hill Cemetery. Florence Beecher lived until 1991, supporting a number of Youngstown cultural institutions including the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and the Butler Institute of American Art whose Beecher Court is named in her honor.
The family and the foundations established by Ward and Florence Beecher continue to invest in Youngstown. In 2006 Eleonor Beecher Flad, the Beechers’ daugher, and the Ward Beecher and Florence Simon Beecher Foundations contributed significant funds for a state of the art star projector in the planetarium to replace the one that had been there even before I was a student. Similar contributions were responsible for the construction of the Eleanor Beecher Flad Pavilion on the west side of the DeYor Center, a performance and event space to complement the beauty of Powers Auditorium and renovations of Lanterman’s Mill in the late 1980’s. Eleanor Beecher Flad is now an emeritus trustee of the YSU Foundation, serving for many years as one of the few women trustees of the Foundation.
I mentioned a question. Beechers have played an important part in American history. Both Lyman Beecher and Henry Ward Beecher were abolitionist preachers and leaders, also coming from Connecticut. Henry Ward Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the online family trees I accessed, I could find no connection, despite the shared names. It would not surprise me that there would be a connection, and I’d love to find it.
What I do know is that Ward Beecher, and his family have left an indelible imprint on the educational, cultural, charitable, religious, and historic institutions of the city. I may have been napping as a student, but I find myself deeply grateful now for the investment in both time and financial resources this family has given Youngstown.
Plymouth Church has an amazing history. When you sit in pew 89, you wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there. You can turn off the lights in the basement—where runaway slaves passed through on the Underground Railroad—and imagine what it feels like to run for your life. When you are in the pastor's office, you may think of Branch Rickey—a member of Plymouth Church and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers—praying there until he decided that God wanted him to invite Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.
Some of our church’s heritage is complicated. The sculptor of a statue of Henry Ward Beecher and a bas-relief of Abraham Lincoln in our church garden is Gutzon Borglum, who also created Mount Rushmore. Borglum was a member of the Klan.
The founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery and was considered the most famous man in America. His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury.
Every church has a history with which to deal. Churches stuck in their history keep talking about how great it was years ago. Churches that have forgotten their history mistakenly believe that there are no good gifts older than they are.
We can be grateful for our past without being trapped in it. We do not need to choose between being a museum and a church. We explore what God has done and discover that God is still at work.
Henry Ward Beecher was born in 1813 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the eighth of eleven children of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, minister of the established Congregational church there, and his first wife, Roxana Foote, who died when Henry was three. He grew up in a crowded parsonage with his father, who became one of the most prominent clergymen of that era, his stepmother, siblings and half siblings, and assorted relatives and servants. He was especially close to his sister Harriet, two years his senior, who later married Calvin Stowe and wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. This friendship with Harriet continued throughout their lives, and she was still listed on the membership rolls of Plymouth Church when she died in 1896.
Henry, bashful and mumbling as a child, began his oratorical training at Mt. Pleasant Institution, a boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. He graduated from Amherst College in 1834 and in 1837 from Lane Theological Seminary outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, which his father then headed. After serving Presbyterian churches in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and in Indianapolis, he and his wife, the former Eunice Bullard, and their three surviving children moved to Brooklyn in the fall of 1847 where Beecher undertook with relish the creation of a new Congregational church.
The most famous of these former slaves was a young girl named Pinky, auctioned during a regular Sunday worship service at Plymouth on February 5, 1860. A collection taken up that day raised $900 to buy Pinky from her owner. A gold ring was also placed in the collection plate, and Beecher presented it to the girl to commemorate her day of liberation. Pinky returned to Plymouth in 1927 at the time of the church's 80th anniversary to give the ring back to the Church with her thanks. Today, Pinky's ring and a copy of the bill of sale can still be viewed at Plymouth.
Despite these highly publicized activities, Beecher was viewed as a moderate compared to other abolitionists, and that perception greatly contributed to his influence. He never expected that a war would be required to free the slaves in the South, but when it came, the impact of his steadfast antislavery stance on public opinion helped the North endure horrific bloodshed.
From his earliest sermon in Brooklyn, Beecher made it plain that one cornerstone of his ministry at Plymouth would be his opposition to slavery, and it was that position, plus his powerful preaching, which quickly built Plymouth Church into the most prominent Protestant church of that era. His preaching was characterized by “originality, logic, pathos, and humor,” in the words of a contemporary, and stalwartly and eloquently he preached and wrote that slavery was a sin. He also spoke out against U.S. arrogance toward Mexico, and against mistreatment of the Indians, but it was his antislavery preaching which made him famous. He sent rifles to the Kansas territory, he obtained the chains with which John Brown had been bound, trampling them in the pulpit, and he also held mock “auctions” at which the congregation purchased the freedom of real slaves.
In the early days of the Civil War, Beecher pressed President Lincoln to issue a proclamation of emancipation. He went on a speaking tour in England to explain the North's war aims and to undermine support for the South among the English, whose economy had been hurt by the embargo against Southern cotton. Just as the war was drawing to a close, Beecher was the main speaker when the Stars and Stripes were again raised at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, site of the war's first battle.
Although remembered today for his social activism, in his own time Beecher was always, foremost, a minister of the Christian gospel. He was one of the leaders in the movement known as Romantic Christianity, preaching not the harsh judgment of God, as had his ancestors, but rather the loving presence of God. He also espoused the concept of the freedom of the individual with a social conscience, a cornerstone of Congregational belief. After the war, Beecher championed such causes as women's suffrage, temperance, and evolution, and he spoke out against anti-Semitism.
Beecher suffered a stroke in March of 1887 and died quietly in his sleep two days later. Brooklyn, still an independent city, declared a day of mourning. The state legislature recessed, and telegrams of condolence were sent by national figures, including President Cleveland. His funeral procession to Plymouth Church--led by a Black commander of the William Lloyd Garrison Post in Massachusetts and a Virginia Confederate general and former slaveholder, marching arm in arm - paid tribute to what Beecher helped accomplish.
Henry Ward Beecher was laid to rest in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery on March 11, 1887, survived by his wife Eunice, and four of the nine children born to them: Harriet, Henry, William and Herbert.
The Most Famous Man in America, web resource of Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate
June 24: Born to Fame, and Scandal — Celebrity Minister Henry Ward Beecher
Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous and influential — but also controversial — preachers and orators of 19th-century America, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, today in 1813. Henry was one of several literary giants of the extended Beecher family: his father Lyman was also a notable preacher his sister Harriet found international fame as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and sisters Isabella Beecher Hooker and Catherine Beecher influenced many with their well-articulated views on women’s rights and education.
As a student at a preparatory school in Amherst, Massachusetts, Henry discovered he had a gift for public speaking. After graduating from Amherst College in 1834, he entered the ministry and followed his father’s family to the Midwest, preaching in Ohio and Indiana. His growing ministerial reputation earned him an offer, which he accepted, to preside over the new Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. There, his popular preaching style turned him into a regional celebrity.
Like many of his siblings, Henry was an outspoken abolitionist. As antebellum tensions over slavery increased, he began infusing his sermons with powerful anti-slavery messages. He wrote scathing criticisms of the Compromise of 1850 and other political acts he viewed as concessions to the slave-holding South. These were widely circulated, earning him both national celebrity and death threats from pro-slavery advocates. Undeterred, Beecher raised money to purchase rifles for anti-slavery settlers during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis of the 1850s, arms that were quickly nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles” by the press.
Once the Civil War began, the question of whether the British government – whose textile-based economy was highly dependent on cotton – would side with the Confederacy loomed large. President Abraham Lincoln sent Beecher on a speaking tour of Europe in 1863 to bolster public support for the Union cause. The reception his speeches received added to the preacher’s status and elevated him to international celebrity.
One of the many tabloid-esque publications spurred by the Beecher-Tilton scandal.
Beecher’s fame had a dark side. He was dogged by rumors of womanizing throughout his career, but the undercurrent of rumors became a widely published national scandal during the Beecher-Tilton scandal of the 1870s. Beecher stood trial for charges of adultery filed by Elizabeth Tilton’s husband, which historian Walter McDougall deemed “the most sensational ‘he said, she said’ [story] in American history.” The sordid details of the lengthy trial — which involved prominent New Yorkers as well as the famous suffragists Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — were splashed across the front pages of newspapers across America. Beecher was ultimately acquitted.
Though he lived thereafter with a stain on his reputation, Beecher remained a relatively popular speaker throughout his life. When He died from a stroke in 1887 at age 73, over 40,000 people came to pay their respects in Brooklyn, remembering a man who, despite a checkered reputation, was still one of the most influential people in the United States.
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THE NOTORIOUS ADULTERY TRIAL OF THE REVEREND HENRY WARD BEECHER
In his new book, When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line between Law and Popular Culture (The University of Chicago Press 2000), Richard K. Sherwin considers the consequences when legal culture and popular culture dissolve into each other. The following excerpt explores the nineteenth-century trial of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and its attack on cultural assumptions about the inner self. The excerpt was adapted especially for Writ.
Throughout our history, some trials have been transformed into symbols freighted with intense public interest and emotion, they serve as a barometer of cultural anxiety and change. A compelling example of this phenomenon is the 1875 adultery trial of Tilton v. Beecher , which pitted claims of factual truth against overwhelming urgencies of belief.
The Case For, And Against, Beecher
The main players in this courtroom drama were the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, America's leading moral and spiritual teacher (and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), his best friend Theodore Tilton and Tilton's wife, Elizabeth. Tilton accused Beecher of carrying on an affair with Tilton's wife. But the significance of the trial went far beyond the simple issue of whether Beecher had indeed been physically as well as emotionally intimate with Elizabeth. More profound questions were at issue. Would Henry Ward Beecher, the most respected and idealized religious figure of the day, prove to be yet one more con man in a nation of incipient hucksters and deal makers? Had he, too, betrayed others' trust, captivating admirers by deceit, harboring, against all outward appearances, a secret core of moral decay?
"Yes," Tilton's lawyers loudly proclaimed. In summation, they urged the jurors not to be taken in by Beecher's reputation and bearing. In contrast, the defense could have come straight from Groucho Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" Beecher's defenders were betting on the fragility of facts before the urgency of belief. Would the jury let this icon of faith fall, and with him faith, trust and civility itself? Or would they credit Beecher's outward display of moral virtue and thus sustain our most cherished values? Like O.J. Simpson's dream team, the defense asked, Will you rush to judgment? Or do you have the courage to send a message? Will you, by your verdict of acquittal, put an end to corruption, when you have before you a man of such fine reputation?
The Cultural Context: Distrust, Anxiety And The Unknown Heart
What deep current of cultural anxiety gave the Beecher trial its remarkable intensity? One answer is that the sentimental belief in unitary character (as without, so within) was slowly eroding. This change came as part of the nation's post-bellum shift from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. City life offered new freedoms and unprecedented individual privacy, while straining received mores and creating a new sense of alienation. With the unraveling of traditional networks for maintaining reputations (such as local venues for gossip), trust among strangers was never more sorely needed -- or more sorely tried. Who can one trust? How does one read the signs of personal integrity and virtue?
It was this anxiety that the Beecher case brought to the fore, with a terrifying question: could someone so virtuous on the exterior hide such perfidy within? As early as 1857, Herman Melville had explored this theme in his poorly received final novel, The Confidence Man , a book permeated by ambiguity and moral skepticism. In Melville's dark, proto-modernist vision, the more we inquire, the stranger, the more remote, the more inaccessible things become -- the human heart (or soul) being the strangest, most unfathomable thing of all.
the reality of self-estrangement had become a commonplace of popular belief and experience. As Robert Louis Stevenson would put it a decade after the Beecher affair, in every mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll lurks a fearsome Mr. Hyde. But at the time of the Beecher trial, the idea of self-estrangement was still threatening and strange to the public and the jury.
The Beecher Case's Narratives: A Tale Of Two Tales
"You must dig beneath the surface of appearances with tools of reason," Tilton's lawyers urged the jury. "You must induce the truth from the clues presented, and follow them wherever they may lead." In so arguing, Tilton's counsel cast jurors and the public at large as skeptical, uncertainty-plagued detectives on a search for truth they were to follow no matter where it led them -- even into the most private inner sanctum of human personality.
To Beecher's defenders, however, the attack on outward appearances of sincerity was an attack on all who hold themselves out to be as they claim. It was to subject friends, mentors and spouses to a pernicious and unquenchable suspicion. In short, it was an indictment of an entire way of life. As Beecher's defense lawyer said in summation:
The attack is not that there are wolves in sheep's clothing, that vicious men dissemble and that they hide themselves under the cloak of sanctity to prowl on the society that they thus impose upon . . . It is that the favored, approved, tried, best results of this social scheme of ours, which includes marriage, and of this religious faith of ours, which adopts Christianity, is false to the core that the saintly man and the apostolic woman are delivered over to the lower intelligences and that being proved, the scheme itself is discredited and ready to be dissolved. . . .
Why, all the while it may be going on in all our families, and nobody knows anything about it. What, shall we then discard all this, shall we believe . . . that there is no necessary connection between character and conduct that these sins do not come from within, but that with all this purity they may arise?
By the time defense counsel was done, it was the jurors' values, loved ones and principles of judgment that were being tested. A vote for acquittal thus became a vote for virtue writ large -- and a way to avoid the modernist anguish of uncertainty, isolation and distrust.
The hung jury in the Beecher case (nine voted to acquit, three to condemn) illustrated the era's unwillingness, whether by conscious refusal or unwitting inability, to face the problematic realm of inward realities. Thus, in the end, a conventional popular sentimental fantasy won the day. Victorian morality denied the harsher moral uncertainties of the modernist mindset.
Beecher's defenders fought the unacceptable truth that even a man of such high social standing and accomplishment as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher cannot really be trusted. With the Tilton-Beecher affair the nation winked at the anxiety of disbelief, but one eye remained open. It is as if the American people had felt the future, shivered, and promptly tightened their grip on a fantasy that was about to pass.
Richard K. Sherwin, former New York County prosecutor and currently a Professor of Law at New York Law School, has written widely on the relationship between law and popular culture, including articles about film and television. He also writes on criminal law and has served as a commentator on a number of criminal trials.