Tilton, Elizabeth (b. 1834)

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Tilton, Elizabeth (b. 1834)

American who was at the center of a storm of controversy for her liaison with Henry Ward Beecher . Name variations: Mrs. Theodore Tilton; Lib Tilton. Born in 1834; married Theodore Tilton (a journalist), in 1851; probably lived in Brooklyn, New York.

Elizabeth Tilton was at the center of a sensational six-month adultery trial that began in 1875. She was married to Theodore Tilton, a lecturer and journalist who was a friend of the well-known abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe ). One the most prominent public figures of his day, Beecher drew thousands to Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church. Among those who came into his pastoral care was Elizabeth Tilton, with whom he conducted an affair which may have begun in October 1868. Their relationship remained unknown until 1870, when Elizabeth had a crisis of conscience and confessed to her husband Theodore.

Theodore accused his friend Henry of having seduced Elizabeth, and he pushed for legal action for "criminal conversation" with his devout wife. Although attempts were made prior to the trial to reach some kind of resolution between the two men, emotions escalated. Numerous inflammatory statements were exchanged between Henry and Theodore, and reconciliation could not be effected despite the involvement of a mutual friend, Frank Moulton. Much of what is known of the conflict is due to Moulton's carefully kept records of the pretrial statements, which reveal Henry Beecher's attempts to save face by changing his story: first confessing, then denying, any part in the adulterous liaison. Among other tactics, Henry characterized Elizabeth Tilton as mentally unbalanced—an accusation not uncommonly leveled against women of the day who embarrassed public figures.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, remained elusive and never presented a clear picture of events. Whereas prior to the trial she seemed to protect Beecher (claiming, according to Moulton's notes, that his behavior had simply consisted of "unhandsome advances"), after the trial she would declare herself an adulteress. Through the trial, she would never be permitted to testify.

In what became one of the foremost entertainment events of the period, the trial drew national and international attention. Required entry tickets to the proceedings were free but were in such great demand that they were scalped at the cost of $5 each. As many as 3,000 were turned away, and a carnival atmosphere developed, with vendors selling sandwiches and soft drinks and offering rented binoculars. Fans sent flowers to both Henry Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton.

Henry and Theodore, both testifying, made poor showings. Henry contradicted the testimony of the 95 witnesses who had appeared on his behalf and claimed a failure of memory 900 times. Theodore, meanwhile, failed to satisfactorily explain a brief association with feminist publisher and crusader Victoria Woodhull , who, notes George Kohn, had "dared Beecher in print to have the courage of his adulterous predilections and 'fess up.' (Her letter caused Anthony Comstock to have her jailed for six months for using immoral language.)" When the trial finally ended in a hung jury (they were reportedly too confused to come to a verdict), the controversy remained. Nonetheless, Henry Ward Beecher's reputation as one of America's foremost ministers went untarnished. The same could not be said for Elizabeth Tilton.

sources:

Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of American Scandal. NY: Facts on File, 1989.

suggested reading:

Fox, Richard Wightman. Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.