'The Most Famous Man In America' by Debby Applegate

Fame and shame: Beecher sex scandal rocked 1875 America

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Like Bill Clinton, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was saved from ignominy by his spouse.

   
"THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA"

By Debby Applegate
Doubleday. ($27.95)

   

Accused of seducing the wife of a congregation member, Beecher was sued by the aggrieved husband, Theodore Tilton, who alleged "criminal conversation" involving his wife, Elizabeth.

In 1875 when his trial began, Beecher, at 61, was one of the nation's best-known preachers. He also was a star of the lecture circuit and a prolific producer of newspaper essays. So hungry was the public for words and wisdom from Beecher that at least two writers devoted themselves to collecting and publishing excerpts from his sermons, speeches and casual remarks.

"He was addicted to the adulation ... to the love that overwhelms a man standing alone on stage," Debby Applegate writes in her new biography of Beecher. "Yet still he was not sated."

The Connecticut-born clergyman also had developed a reputation as a flirt. Long before Tilton made his allegations, other husbands and fathers had murmured, or written about, the worrisome effect Beecher had on their womenfolk.

Just as Hillary's support was crucial to Bill Clinton's salvaging of his presidency over the Monica Lewinsky affair, the presence of Eunice Beecher at her husband's civil trial saved his pulpit career. She came nearly every day, dressed in black and wearing simple pieces of jewelry that had been gifts from her husband.

"Her face was stern, impassive, and dignified," Applegate writes. "Had she wavered even a little, all might well have been lost."

After hearing six months of contradictory testimony, the jury split 9-3 in favor of Beecher. His reputation was singed, but he continued to write, preach and to dabble in politics until his death in March 1887.

Applegate's biography includes at least one potential bombshell. Beecher was likely the biological father of Violet Beach, she writes.

Violet's mother, Chloe, was one of the many women to have come under Beecher's spell, a situation that prompted bitter correspondence from her long-suffering husband, Moses. Applegate describes Beecher's strong bond with young Violet and the physical resemblance between the two.

Applegate never persuaded me that Beecher, a near contemporary of Lincoln, Emerson, Grant, Lee and Mark Twain, was ever "The Most Famous Man in America." But hyperbole aside, she does a good job of describing his role in historic events and social change.

Beecher was a foe of slavery and early activist in Republican politics. President Lincoln credited his 1863 speeches in England with keeping Great Britain from recognizing the Confederacy.

In gratitude, he selected Beecher to be the main speaker at Fort Sumter after the federal installation was recaptured in 1865.

Fame is transitory, of course. Late in the 20th century, Beecher, to the extent he was remembered at all, was probably best known as the subject of a limerick. Applegate includes those lines, written by another 19th century icon, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.:

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Called the hen a most elegant creature
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat,
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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