The Beecher-Tilton Scandal of 1873

Recommended reading:

Other Powers: The Age of Sufferage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith

Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, by Richard Wightman Fox

Gentle reader, do not for one moment think that you and your people have invented any new ways to screw up your personal and professional lives. Rather, content yourself with the knowledge that human beings have been making poor decisions in their personal live for, roughly, forever. Rest easy knowing that nothing you can do will likely surpass the incredible social, emotional, and legal shit-show that was the Beecher-Tilton Scandal of 1873.

No, not even if you blog, tweet, tumbl, or snapchat the entire disaster. Because, bless their hearts, the scandal of 1873 did all of that, too.

The shortest possible summary I can make of the scandal is this:

Henry Ward Beecher was a nationally beloved charismatic religious leader who preached a gospel of universal love. His young parishoner, Theodore Tilton, became his beloved follower, protege, business partner, and best friend. The two were know to hold hands, sit on each other’s laps, and kiss while declaring their love. They were business and political allies. They fell out over politics, but not before Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, Theodore’s wife, developed an intensely passionate spiritual and emotional bond. Libby was Beecher’s divine muse, he was her spiritual lover. They did things together that both hid from Tilton, and both called sin.

After many go-rounds of telling all their friends and relations (Frank Moulton, Eunice Beecher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull, Henry Bowen, Isabella Beecher Hooker,) after Woodhull’s trial for indecency, Tilton’s excommunication from the Plymouth Church, Beecher’s trial for corrupting Libby, and two-and-a-half years of newspaper coverage, the whole thing ended on the highly unsatisfactory note that no-one could explain what really happened.

Were Beecher and Libby lovers? Physically? Or was their sin emotional adultery? Did Tilton and Beecher have a physically intimate relationship that they hid from the world? Or was their love merely epistolary? How many of the men in Libby’s life were gaslighting her? Or was she lying to all comers in turn?

Despite the fact that these people documented every scrap of their lives, we have no answers. We have letters (most of which contain the urging to “burn this letter immediately upon reading,” which, well, clearly folks just didn’t do. And thank goodness for that.) We have interviews. We have newspaper articles. We have the endless broadsheets, notes, and circulars that these highly-literate folks printed out relentlessly. We have vasty realms of documentation, both of what they said and did, but how they felt.

And that, gentle reader, is the source of the confusion.

I fucking love humanity. I love people. I love our confusion and our emotions and our tangle. I love how intense we get about things. I love that Libby Tilton could not decide whether her feelings of passionate love for Beecher were, in and of themselves, infidelity. I love that Tilton was so hurt by Beecher finding other best friends that he accused his own wife of adultery to take Beecher down. I love that Victoria Woodhull was so pissed off at their shenanigans that she exposed them all in her newspaper as evidence for America’s need for divorce reform.

If you’ve had a bad breakup recently — or, well, EVER, really — I highly recommend reading these books. Read them and be comforted. You’re not alone. You’re not special or unique. Your fuck-ups have been done a thousand times before by ten thousand people. Your fuck-ups will continue on into the future.

You’re not stupid. You’re not especially dense, or naive, or clingy, or angry. What you are is human. Your life and loves are part of the world’s narrative of relationships. You and your breakup are welcome to the parade.

Read. Enjoy. Make some popcorn. Take some comfort. One hundred and thirty years ago, some smart, passionate, political, caring people were blogging their disaster all over New York City. Whatever you’ve done in your breakups is likely not any worse.

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