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Tilton v. Beecher: 1875

Plymouth Church Clears Beecher, Mrs. Tilton Never Testifies, Suggestions For Further Reading

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 4—July 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.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882