Name:  Theodore Tilton

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Born:  October 2, 1835
Died:  May 25, 1907
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Theodore Tilton was born in New York City to Eusebia Tilton and Silas Tilton, a cobbler. In 1851 he and Elizabeth Richards were betrothed. In 1853 he graduated from the Free Academy of New York and began work as a reporter for the New York Tribune and then for the New York Observer, a Protestant Christian publication. In the latter position, he was assigned to dictate and publish the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher, one of America's best known preachers. Beecher presided at the wedding of Tilton and Richards in 1855.

When Tilton, an abolitionist, left the Observer because of the journal's tepid stance against slavery, the Congregationalist Independent hired him primarily to ghostwrite a column for Beecher. The two men developed a close friendship during these years (1856-1860). In 1861 the Independent's owners hired Beecher as editor and he promoted Tilton to assistant editor. Two years later Beecher decided to step aside from managing the paper, so Tilton took over editing duties, then in 1865 was officially named editor. With Tilton at the helm, the Independent expanded beyond religious news and opinion to became a leading voice in American politics and society.

Over the years Tilton worked with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to promote abolition and women's rights. In the early 1860s he delivered popular lectures on those topics. It was Tilton who saw that Brown's body was returned to New York after the latter's execution for treason following the unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. After the Civil War the Independent endorsed Radical Reconstruction and was the first newspaper to call for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. It also criticized former editor Beecher's more moderate stance on Reconstruction and ceased to carry his weekly sermons.

Tilton's financial success as a lecturer allowed him to purchase a home in the exclusive section of Brooklyn Heights, New York. His journalistic achievements redounded in an offer to edit the Brooklyn Union, which he declined. His professional and monetary rewards, however, were clouded by turmoil in his private life. In 1870 his wife Elizabeth confessed that his suspicions about an affair between her and Beecher were true. Tilton was fired from the Independent ostensibly because of his radicalism, but in fact because the editor, who had learned of the affair, feared the paper's reputation would be sullied if the affair were made public. In 1871 Beecher and Frank Moulton, a friend of Tilton, provided funds to him to establish a new journal called the Golden Age. Meanwhile, under pressure from both Beecher and her husband, Elizabeth Tilton, wrote a letter retracting her confession, then a letter retracting her retraction.

The Beecher-Tilton affair finally went public when Victorian Woodhull, a leading women's rights advocate, reported it in the November 2, 1872, issue of her Woodhull & Caflin's Weekly newspaper. The titillating story of an extramarital affair between the country's foremost cleric and the wife of a well-known editor and public speaker created a national sensation. A board of inquiry at Plymouth Church exonerated Beecher of any moral wrongdoing, but excommunicated Mr. Tilton in 1873. Press scrutiny and public interest was exacerbated when Tilton sued Beecher. The trial commenced in January 1875 and ended with a hung jury six months later. The next year a second committee at Plymouth Church again supported Beecher. Elizabeth Tilton was not so lucky. Two years later, when she again confessed to the affair, the church excommunicated her. Beecher continued in his role as an evangelist of national influence. Tilton was unable to make a living in America, so in 1883 he moved to Paris, where he died in poverty in 1907. Henry Ward Beecher died in 1887. Elizabeth Tilton died in Brooklyn in 1897.

Source consulted: American National Biography.











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