The alleged adultery of respected clergyman Henry Ward Beecher was not just sensational fodder for the 19th century press: It drew in the leaders of the women's rights movement and affected the movement's progress.
An exhibition and lecture at the University of Rochester will explore how some of the people drawn into the scandal, including suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, viewed the events and differed in their opinions on how to respond.
" 'The Crisis is Here': The Beecher Tilton-Scandal," a collection of correspondence and other items related to the major players in the scandal, will be on display in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Rush Rhees Library beginning Friday, Nov. 15. The title is taken from a letter from Anthony to Beecher's sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker.
The exhibition will open with a talk by Richard Wightman Fox, author of an acclaimed book on the affair, who will discuss " 'Holocaust for Womanhood': The Beecher-Tilton Scandal and the Women's Rights Movement in the 1870s" at 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. A "holocaust for womanhood" is how Stanton described the scandal in a letter that will be on display.
The exhibit includes 10 previously unknown letters relating to the scandal from Anthony, Stanton, and Henry Ward Beecher himself, written to Beecher's sister, her husband, and to Beecher's accused lover.
Beecher, a respected reformer who supported causes such as temperance and women's suffrage, was accused of having an adulterous relationship with the wife of Theodore Tilton, a writing colleague and parishioner. The scandal first erupted publicly in 1872 when radical reformer Victoria Woodhull, who contended she heard of the affair from Anthony and Stanton, published the accusation in her paper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. Tilton sued the clergyman for alienation of affection in 1875. The six-month trial became a national sensation, with the jury unable to reach a verdict. The scandal caused a rift among the Beecher siblings, including author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and also led to dissension in the women's rights movement.
According to Fox, author of Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, the Library's newly acquired letters "shed intriguing light on the intersection between the women's rights movement and the Beecher-Tilton scandal. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the most important women's rights leaders, agreed that the scandal posed a dire threat to the movement. But they disagreed about how to respond to it. Their difference of opinion bespoke a deeper divergence in their views of women's rights and of the proper path to women's equality."
Fox is professor of history at the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in 19th century American history and thought and American intellectual and cultural history.
The exhibit " 'The Crisis is Here': The Beecher-Tilton Scandal" will be on display until Feb. 1, 2003. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Sponsors of the event are the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Department of History, and the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women's Studies. For more information, contact (585) 275-4477.