TRIALS OF INTIMACY: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal

TRIALS OF INTIMACY: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal

Patricia Cline Cohen

By Richard Wightman Fox. Univ. of Chicago Press. 419 pp. $30

Read Time:
2m 27sec

In making emotional sense out of one of the most perplexing events of late Victorian America, Fox has succeeded where many have failed. For seven months in 1875, America was riveted by a civil trial in Brooklyn in which one of the country’s most famous and beloved ministers, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), defended himself against adultery charges brought by his onetime best friend and parishioner, Theodore Tilton. The trial ended with a hung jury, but many commentators since have imagined that they could resolve what the jurors could not. Fox, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, wisely forgoes that quest and takes us in new directions.

Without quite meaning to do so, Beecher, Tilton, and Tilton’s saintly appearing and highly religious wife, Elizabeth, were pioneering new forms of intimacy, pushing at the conventional boundaries both of marital love and intense friendship. Beecher and his much younger disciple Tilton initially shared an exhilarating soul love, a type of male bond neither unknown nor unacceptable to their sentimental age. But when Tilton’s enthusiasm for religion waned, Beecher transferred his powerful affections to Elizabeth, who welcomed the older man’s attentions. Rapturous but nonsexual love between the sexes was uncharted and dangerous territory in the 1870s, and the two evidently struggled with the difference between a permissible spiritual affinity and impermissible worldly desires.

Jealousy on multiple levels finally brought matters to a head, but, fearing publicity, the three managed to reach a private understanding about their complicated relationships. Eventually, public exposure forced Tilton’s hand, and he sought to assuage his wounded honor through the old-fashioned remedy of a lawsuit. In court, Beecher and Mrs. Tilton denied a sexual relationship. Then, three years later, she emerged from a self-imposed silence for one brief moment to confess to adultery.

Fox organizes his book around the concept of narrative and storytelling. He notes that the players’ accounts shifted over time, and he does not attempt to choose one version as the simple truth. Perhaps the most striking feature of the book is that Fox tells the tale backwards, underscoring his theme that narratives are constructs. After a pictorial prologue recapitulates the main outlines of the scandal, the text opens with the deaths of the three protagonists, then moves back in time, from late-life retellings, through Mrs. Tilton’s confession in 1878, to the civil trial of 1875, to the church investigation that exonerated Beecher. A remarkable chapter toward the end reprints some 30 love letters exchanged between the Tiltons in the late 1860s, on the eve of the crisis. By excavating the competing stories in reverse chronological order, Fox permits a much deeper reading of these letters, which provide an amazing window into a different culture of love from our own. All in all, Trials of Intimacy is an absorbing if demanding read and an extraordinary achievement.

—Patricia Cline Cohen


More From This Issue