Cover image for Trials of intimacy : love and loss in the Beecher-Tilton scandal
Trials of intimacy : love and loss in the Beecher-Tilton scandal
Fox, Richard Wightman, 1945-
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xi, 419 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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BX7260.B31 F68 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The nation's leading minister stands accused of adultery. He vehemently denies the charge but confesses to being on "the ragged edge of despair." His alleged lover is a woman of mystical faith, nearly "Catholic" in her piety. Her husband, a famous writer, sues the minister for damages. A six-month trial ends inconclusively, but it holds the nation in thrall. It produces gripping drama, scathing cartoons, and soul-searching editorials. Trials of Intimacy is the story of a scandal that shook American culture to the core in the 1870s because the key players were such vaunted moral leaders. In that respect there has never been another case like it--except The Scarlet Letter , to which it was constantly compared.

Henry Ward Beecher was pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church and for many the "representative man" of mid-nineteenth century America. Elizabeth Tilton was the wife of Beecher's longtime intimate friend Theodore. His accusation of "criminal conversation" between Henry and Elizabeth confronted the American public with entirely new dilemmas about religion and intimacy, privacy and publicity, reputation and celebrity. The scandal spotlighted a series of comic and tragic loves and betrayals among these three figures, with a supporting cast that included Victoria Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

To readers at the time, the Beecher-Tilton Scandal was an irresistible mystery. Richard Fox puts his readers into that same reverberating story, while offering it as a timeless tale of love, deception, faith, and the confounding indeterminacy of truth. Trials of Intimacy revises our conception of nineteenth-century morals and passions. And it is an American history richly resonant with present-day dramas.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The Beecher-Tilton scandal that titillated Americans in the 1870s rises again each generation. New biographies of Victoria Woodhull--Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria [BKL Ja 1 & 15 98] and Barbara Goldsmith's Other Powers [BKL F 1 98]--explain current interest; Woodhull's 1872 charge that Beecher committed adultery with Elizabeth Tilton placed the issue on the public record. Preacher Henry Ward Beecher and journalist Theodore Tilton and his wife worked together as abolitionists; the Tiltons were members of Beecher's flock. The three experimented with intimacy in the 1850s and '60s; by 1870, Mrs. Tilton felt she had gone too far. They tried to ignore Woodhull's bombshell but, in 1874, Tilton sued Beecher, and a media feeding frenzy ensued. Boston University historian Fox approaches the scandal as a collection of stories: stories the participants told themselves and each other; stories lawyers told in court; stories newspapers concocted; and stories later generations have told. His study moves from the scandal back to the behavior on which it was based. End matter contains an appendix of primary documents. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Beecher-Tilton adultery trial of 1874 held the nation in titillating thrall as Theodore Tilton, one of New York's most eminent editors and writers, sued Henry Ward Beecher, perhaps the era's most prominent U.S. clergyman, for "criminal conversation" with Tilton's notedly devout wife, Elizabeth. Broad outlines of the Beecher-Tilton scandal have appeared in several recent biographies of Victoria Woodhull, who first published the details of the adulterous affair in her Weekly. But Fox's book is a detailed history that, with enormous narrative skill and convincing analysis, not only delineates the motives and actions of the protagonists but also illuminates the religious, social and political world in which they lived. Fox argues that the scandal gripped the late 19th-century imagination because it resonated with immediate cultural concerns, including the sentimentalizing of a once more vigorous concept of Christianity and the perceived threat posed by "free love" and the movement for women's suffrage and personal freedom. He is particularly good at examining the role of popular fiction in the scandal: news reports referred constantly to The Scarlet Letter to "explain" the muddled situation, and Tilton even wrote a 600-page novel as a public relations gambit to save Elizabeth's reputation. Cogently argued and deftly written, Fox's analysis is likely to stand as the definitive account of this fascinating chapter in 19th-century American social history. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In 1874-75, America was gripped by the scandal of the century, when the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the nation's most renowned reformers, orators, and preachers, known as "the most trusted man in America," was accused of having an adulterous affair with one of his Brooklyn parishioners. The complicated story of intimate associations between Beecher and both Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton and the ensuing public trial fed a print culture eager for sensationalism. Beecher's church stood by him, and he escaped conviction in a civil suit, but he and his causes became subjects of mockery. Through it all, the "truth" of the charges was never secured. Fox (history, Boston Univ.) approaches the scandal ingeniously by reading it backward from the memories of the principals and the public accounts to show how the "truth" was constructed by the invention and layering of stories. He brings all the tools of the historical detective and the sensitivity of a novelist to the task to provide a fascinating portrait of storytelling and news mongering. A book of uncommon insight and intelligence.ÄRandall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Fox's book will make challenging reading for those convinced that recent sex scandals are clear and sufficient markers of the decline of American culture. The Beecher-Tilton affair of the 1870s, involving one of the country's most revered and famous ministers, was at least as titillating and portentous to Gilded Age Americans as the Clinton-Lewinsky fiasco has been to the present generation. Fox provides a subtle, intelligent, nuanced, and valuable retelling of the Beecher-Tilton story. Several features of his approach will make this book problematic for some readers, however. Fox abandons at the outset any attempt to determine who was telling the truth and who was lying. Arguing that a search for "truth" is an unworkable and largely unedifying procedure in this case, he instead concentrates on examining what the multiple narratives or "stories" offered by the principal participants tell readers about 19th-century American culture. In an unusual but surprisingly successful strategy, Fox also casts his own narrative in reverse chronological order, beginning with the deaths of the main figures and working his way back to the trial and alleged scandal itself. This is not a simple or straightforward book, but it is an important treatment of an issue of cultural significance and unusual current relevance. Upper-division undergraduates and above. K. Blaser; Wayne State College