Tilton v. Beecher: 1875

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Tilton v. Beecher: 1875

Plaintiff: Theodore Tilton
Defendant: Henry Ward Beecher
Plaintiff Claim: That Beecher had committed adultery with Tilton's wife
Chief Defense Lawyers: William M. Evarts, John L. Hill, John K. Porter, Thomas G. Shearman, and Benjamin F. Tracy
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: W. Fullerton, Samuel D. Morris, and Roger A. Pryor
Judge: Neilson (historical records do not indicate first name)
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Dates of Trial: January 4July 1, 1875
Decision: Verdict for Beecher

SIGNIFICANCE: This was one of the most celebrated and emblematic cases of the Victorian era. Despite its notoriety and Beecher's public stature, the woman he allegedly committed adultery with never testified. This was due to the common-law rule of interspousal witness immunity: Because her husband was the plaintiff, she could not testify. This case aptly illustrates the burden this old rule placed on the judicial system's effort to discover the truth.

Reverend Henry Ward Beecher had a long and prestigious career as one of 19th-century America's foremost preachers. Not only was he popular with the faithful at his Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, he was also well-known for his advocacy of social reform. Beecher spoke out on behalf of abolition before the Civil War freed the slaves, in favor of women's suffrage long before women got the right to vote, and expressed his belief in Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection decades before evolution gained popular acceptance.

Beecher often used a local newspaper called the New York Independent as a forum to express his views. The Independent was operated by Congregational ministers sympathetic to Beecher's views, and his sermons and letters were routinely published. Beecher's influence over the paper was such that, when in 1861 the Independent needed a new editor, he was able to arrange the appointment of his young protege Theodore Tilton. Tilton was a member of the Plymouth Church congregation and had become Beecher's friend. Although in theory Beecher himself became the chief editor of the Independent and Tilton was only his assistant, Tilton in fact ran the paper.

Beecher and Tilton remained friends through the 1860s. Beecher regularly visited Tilton, his wife Elizabeth and their family at home. In the late 1860s, however, Tilton's editorials in the Independent began to take a very radical turn. He began to espouse the doctrine of "free love," which challenged the institution of marriage and traditional morality. Further, beginning in 1868, Elizabeth Tilton began to see Beecher regularly and privately for what Beecher later claimed was religious guidance and consolation regarding Tilton's unorthodox beliefs.

In July of 1870, however, Elizabeth Tilton went to her husband with an entirely different story. She claimed that Beecher had made "improper advances" to her and implied that Beecher had tried to seduce her, but she didn't expressly admit to adultery. For some reason, Tilton waited nearly four years until June of 1874 to make his wife's claims public. When he did, New York and the entire nation were shocked. Tilton had long since been removed as editor of the Independent, and Beecher now saw to it that Tilton was expelled from the Plymouth Church.

Plymouth Church Clears Beecher

When the scandal became public, Beecher asked for an investigation to clear his name. He turned to the membership of the Plymouth Church, and asked its most distinguished members to form an investigating committee. This committee investigated the scandal beginning on June 27, 1874 and issued its report on August 27. The committee's investigation was reputed to be thorough but naturally somewhat suspect since Beecher was their preacher. The committee reported:

The Committee have given the evidence their most useful consideration, and find therefore that in 1861 Mr. Beecher became editor and Mr. Tilton assistant editor of the Independent, and that during this relation they became warm and intimate friends. On or about 1863 Mr. Tilton began to urge Mr. Beecher to visit his [Tilton's] house, and he became more intimately acquainted with Tilton's family.

The friendly relations existing between Mr. Beecher and Mrs. Tilton were always well known and understood, and met with Mr. Tilton's cordial approval.

[Tilton's] social views [around 1870] underwent a radical change in the direction of free love. This marked change in the religious and social views of Mr. Tilton was a source of great grief and sorrow to Mrs. Tilton. Mrs. Tilton seemed to be a very religious woman, amounting almost to enthusiasm, and when this change occurred in her husband she naturally sought her pastor for counsel and sympathy. It now appears that during these years Mrs. Tilton became strongly attached to Mr. Beecher and in July, 1870, confessed to her husband an overshadowing affection for her Pastor.

The committee found Beecher innocent, and issued a ringing endorsement of his character:

This man has been living in the clear light of noonday, before his people and before all men, a life of great Christian usefulness and incessant work. None have known him but to admire and love him. Upon a review of all the evidence, made with an earnest desire to find the truth, and to advise what truth and justice shall require, we feel bound to state that, in our judgment, the evidence relied on by the accuser utterly fails to sustain the charges made.

Tilton was not satisfied with the committee's findings, however, and filed a lawsuit against Beecher. Beecher's lawyers were William M. Evarts, John L. Hill, John K. Porter, Thomas G. Shearman, and Benjamin F. Tracy. Tilton's lawyers were ex-Judge W. Fullerton, Samuel D. Morris, and Roger A. Pryor. The judge was Judge Neilson. The trial began January 4, 1875 and was to titillate the public for nearly six long months.

Mrs. Tilton Never Testifies

Although Tilton and Beecher both testified during the trial, Elizabeth Tilton never took the witness stand. This was because of the common-law principle of interspousal immunity. When Tilton's attorneys attempted to put Tilton on the witness stand, Evarts objected on Beecher's behalf that the same interspousal immunity rule prevented him from testifying as well:

Neither in a civil action nor in a criminal prosecution are they [spouses] permitted to give any evidence which, in its future effects, may incriminate each other, and this rule is so inviolable that no consent of the other party may authorize the breach of it.

This rule, accurately expressed by Evarts, meant that spouses couldn't testify for or against each other in court for fear that, if the testifying spouse committed perjury or revealed something adverse under cross-examination, the marriage would be hurt and possibly result in divorce. Marriage was sacred to the common law, which held that "two souls are joined as one."

Although Elizabeth Tilton couldn't testify, Judge Neilson allowed Tilton to take the stand but stated that Tilton couldn't testify concerning any "confidential communications" with his wife. This was an accepted exception to the interspousal testimony rule, but it meant that the courtroom testimony about the alleged adultery took place in very elliptical terms. Further, much of Tilton's testimony suggested that there had been no adultery. An example is the following cross-examination of Tilton by Evarts:

Question: Now, up to the time of [Mrs. Tilton's alleged confession] had you observed in the demeanor of Mr. Beecher toward your wife, or of your wife toward Mr. Beecher, any variance from that ordinary relation which you had been familiar with?

Answer: No sir; one or two little incidents happened a number of years before that, which Mrs. Tilton explained away, and which left no impression.

Beecher's testimony was equally unimpressive. He contradicted himself and his supporting witnesses many times and repeatedly claimed that he couldn't remember the specifics of certain events. The trial dragged on for nearly six months, as Beecher's attorneys brought in nearly 100 supporting witnesses. These witnesses' testimony was often repetitive, and frequently consisted merely of vouching for Beecher's character.

The jury deliberated for several days, and on July 1 reported to Judge Neilson that it couldn't reach a verdict. Nine jurors believed that Beecher was innocent, the other three that he was guilty. There was no retrial. Beecher was vindicated, and Judge Neilson even expressed his belief in Beecher's innocence when he spoke eight years later at a party given by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to celebrate Beecher's 70th birthday:

By the integrity of his life and the purity of his character he has vanquished misrepresentation and abuse.

Beecher never quite regained his previous stature as a spokesman on social issues, however, because of the scandal.

In addition to its notoriety, Tilton v. Beecher demonstrated the severe limitations of the interspousal immunity rule concerning testimony. The woman Beecher allegedly committed adultery with never testified, because her husband was the plaintiff. The judicial system was thus unable to get at the complete truth. Although Beecher may well have been innocent, there is no way to determine what additional facts would have been brought out by Elizabeth Tilton's testimony. In the 20th century, courts and legislatures began to recognize the problems that the rule imposed on the judicial system, and today it has been virtually abolished.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Abbott, Lyman. Henry WVard Beecher. New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of American Scandal. New York: Facts On File, 1989.

Marshall, Charles F. The Tine History of the Brooklyn Scandal. Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1874.

Ryan, Halford Ross. Henry WVard Beecher: Peripatetic Preacher. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Shaplen, Robert. Free Love and Heavenly Sinners. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.

WaIler, Altina L. Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America. Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

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Tilton v. Beecher: 1875

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