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The Many Faces of Henry Ward Beecher

Feb 2, 2011 3:54 PM | 0 comments

In the pages of the nineteenth century illustrated magazines, certain Brooklyn-related subjects seem to have been of perennial interest. One was the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a huge source of prestige and employment for the city (as it was until consolidation with New York City 1898.) Another was the controversial figure of Henry Ward Beecher.

A thoroughly respectful engraving depicting the young HWB. From the Drawing Room Gallery of Eminent Personages, [c.1860]

From his early days as a slim young preacher, to his more corpulent middle-aged presence as a master of oratory and Pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, to his supposed involvement with Mrs Tilton and the terrible trial that followed, Beecher's face turns up again and again, first mainly as an object of admiration and respect, but later as one of humor and scorn.

Most of the magazine illustrations in our collection are from nationally known publications, such as Puck, Frank Leslie's and Harper's. But one of the hundreds of magazines that have flashed and fizzled within Brooklyn's boundaries also provides a source.  It is hard to believe, but according to Worldcat, Brooklyn Public Library is the only repository to have retained copies of that page-turner of the 1870s and 1880s devoted to the Sunday School Interests and Mission Work of Plymouth Church, called Plymouth Chimes.  As Pastor of Plymouth Church Beecher looms large, not least in his endorsements of products advertised in its pages.

Did we know that Beecher suffered from hay fever? No? Beecher endorsed and recommended Dr Townsend's Hay Fever and Asthma Remedy in a long and orotund paragraph containing far too many details about the state of his mucous membranes. His praise for Pears Soap, accompanied by a noble portrait in profile, is more eye-catching and only slightly less verbose:

One does begin to understand how Beecher might have rubbed people up the wrong way. In one sermon evidently Beecher, who was able to accumulate earnings of $20,000 a year through his salary, lecture fees, publications etc, demonstrated how it was possible to live on $1 a day. This was too much for the cartoonists. In this cartoon entitled "Beecher's Theory and Practice" from the pages of the German-language version of Puck magazine, Beecher's immense earning power and exaggerated waistline are contrasted with his advice to others:  "He lives large on sausage and wine; for others just bread and water are fine."

Other illustrations document his involvement in ongoing controversies.


THE OLD ATTEMPT. Mr. Beecher is Trying to Bridge the Chasm between the Old Orthodixy and Science with his Little Series of "Evolution Sermons." We Wish Him Luck; but We Don't Feel Hopeful. Puck magazine, no date

OUT OF THE FOLD. [Speaking of the Oneida Community] "Oh, dreadful! They dwell in peace and harmony, and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out." Puck, February 26, 1879

By 1879 it was no longer even necessary to show Beecher's face in a cartoon; the portly figure on the left (above) with the cape and the long white hair is unmistakable. And the reason for this notoriety was a scandal that is documented in a series of scrap books here in the Brooklyn Collection.

In 1874, Beecher was accused of forming an inappropriate liaison with one of his parishioners, Mrs Elizabeth Tilton. Mrs Tilton confessed, denied, then re-confessed. Her husband, Theodore Tilton,  was a prominent abolitionist and journalist who filed suit against Beecher for adultery.  

The ensuing court case captured national interest and gave rise to some fascinating imagery, some of which was collected by the anonymous creator of our scrapbooks. (These have been conserved thanks to a generous grant from the Bay and Paul Foundation.) Are these illustrations the product of a precursor of Photoshop? At left, HWB supposedly with Mrs Tilton leaning into his lap.

Ye Brooklyn Cherubs [At left, HWB resting his hand on the "Life of Christ." At right, Theodore Tilton the wronged husband, resting on the "Life of Woodhull." It was Victoria Woodhull's newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, that first exposed the scandal as a protest against the double standard and the minister's hypocrisy.]

Beecher's broad interests, intellectual and oratorical gifts, his moral standing, his sexual appetites and the disconnects between some of the above, inspired the satirical pens of a generation of cartoonists and illustrators. It's a subject ripe for further investigation.