Plymouth Church was founded by 21 people in 1827 and its first minister was the fiery aboliltionist, Henry Ward Beecher. The church is still open and operating at 124 Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights.
Plymouth Church was part of the Underground Railroad and the Beecher regularly gave sermons in which he appealed for financial donations to purchase the freedom of slaves. He held mock slave auctions and women took the jewelry off their fingers, wrists, and necks and placed it in the offering basket.
In the 19th century, the church was so well known throughout the country that Abraham Lincoln attended services at Plymouth Church in 1860. His pew is marked with a plaque. Charles Dickens gave a talk at Plymouth Church. Mark Twain travelled to Europe for several months with a group of church members and chronicled their journey in his book The Innocents Abroad, which by the way, I highly recommend.
Beecher’s salary was $100,000 a year – over $2,000,000 in today’s currency. Considering that a Union solider earned $15 a month, this made Beecher quite a big cheese. Beecher’s powerful charisma especially appealed to women and he was prone to affairs with congregation members. One affair, the one with Elizabeth Tilton, would become a public scandal and that wasn’t just because her husband Theodore Tilton was Beecher’s best friend. How and why that scandal erupted has to do with the interwoven lives of the movers and shakers of Old New York.
Henry Ward Beecher presided at the marriage of Elizabeth Richards and Theodore Tilton. Beecher and Tilton together edited The Independent newspaper. They were both ardent abolitionist speakers and sought-after on the lecture circuit – the 19th Century equivalent of TV. They were both out of town often, but not at the same time.
After the abolition of slavery, they needed other causes for their zeal. Tilton became an intense advocate for divorce reform (making it easier to obtain) and women’s emancipation. There’s some irony here. Beecher was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement, but not so much in favor of divorce reform. He also spoke out against the concept of “free love” (he was against the idea that women should be allowed to choose their sex partners) which was promoted by some women in the feminist movement of that era. The staunchest advocate for free love, Victoria Woodhull, made note of Beecher’s feelings.
Woodhull was a barely educated entrepreneurial type who worked as a medium and magnetic healer until she and her sister met the recently widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt who set them up at 44 Broad Street as the first female stock brokers – Woodhull & Claflins Co. Soon after, the sisters created the first newspaper run by women Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. And, for the hat trick, in 1872, Woodhull was the first woman to run for president.
But I digress.
Beecher was used to visiting the Tilton home and it didn’t appear out of line for him to visit Elizabeth when Theodore was away. One thing led to another as it often can, and Elizabeth eventually confessed to her husband that she’d been unfaithful to him with Beecher. Naturally upset, Theodore mentioned this affair to his friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who relayed the news to Victoria Woodhull who took it upon herself to publish an article about it in her newspaper and label Beecher a hypocrite. Imagine that.
Beecher was wise enough not to sue for libel. However, Woodhull was arrested for mailing salacious material. In other words, because she mailed out her newspaper to subscribers, and because the article was sexual in nature, she was jailed. When Elizabeth Tilton was questioned and confessed her affair to the police Woodhull was released after a month. [Adding more irony to the story, Theodore Tilton is rumored to have been a lover of Victoria Woodhull during his marriage.]
It took until 1875 – somewhere in the neighborhood of seven years – for Theodore Tilton to finally sue Beecher for “criminal conversation” adultery (basically meaning debauchery of Elizabeth) and “alienation of affection.” At the trial, Elizabeth made a short statement of confession. Beecher, however, declared in inimitable political sidestepping, that perhaps Mrs. Tilton had sexual relations with him but he had not had sex with her. This sounds awfully familiar. His lawyers argued for his reputation being ruined and that should Beecher be convicted, middle class values would be thrown into chaos. More double speak. The lawsuit ended in a hung jury and Theodore dropped his suit.
Theodore Tilton moved to Paris leaving Elizabeth to live in poverty, scorned by the Plymouth Church congregation, and buried in an unmarked grave at Green-Wood Cemetery. Beecher lived on in the same status as before, actually got a raise in salary, and there’s a big statue of him not far from Plymouth Church on Cadman Square in downtown Brooklyn (see above).