During the first decade after the Civil War what was called the “trial of the century” opened in New York and became a sensational popular spectacle. It was not even a murder trial—just a husband’s suit against the man he claimed was his wife’s seducer—but it transfixed the nation, crowding other events off the front pages of the newspapers for the 112 days the trial lasted. The accused was the best-known Christian minister in the country, Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. From the day the trial opened, on January 11, 1875, thousands tried to get spectator seats at the trial in Brooklyn City Court. Only a few were able to obtain admission tickets, which were sold in the street for ten dollars apiece. Over a million words of testimony were recorded; there were more than a hundred witnesses; the summations took twenty-five days. In households throughout the land Beecher’s guilt was debated.
Only briefly present in the court though frequently mentioned was thirty-seven-year-old Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the woman who two years before, in November 1872, had bro-ken the story of Beecher’s adultery in her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. The jury was sequestered for eight days and there were fifty-two ballots, but no decision was reached, and a mistrial was declared. Beecher went back to his pulpit more popular than ever. But Woodhull, who had vowed to make it “hotter on earth for Henry Ward Beecher than Hell is below,” was implicitly rebuked by the verdict. Much of Barbara Goldsmith’s excellent book is devoted to showing how she came to attack him and why she eventually was defeated.
As remarkable a person as Beecher himself, Woodhull had, with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, made a fortune as a Wall Street stockbroker during the late 1860s, the first woman to do so. A handsome, dark-haired woman with a confident, determined manner, she had in the early 1870s seized a place at the front of the growing women’s movement, adored by many of its members, repelling others. Two years before the Beecher trial, as the head of her own party, “The People’s Party,” she had run as the first woman candidate for president. She had testified on the vote for women to a congressional committee—the first woman ever to address Congress.
What she stood for, as her speeches and the essays printed under her name in the Weekly soon made clear, was more than female suffrage. None of her diverse radical views and activities—not even the publication in her newspaper of the complete text of the Communist Manifesto, its first appearance in English in this country—shocked Americans so much as her demand for the overthrow of marriage. She thought women needed to be freed from marriage just as blacks had to be freed from slavery. Her own charge against Beecher was not the same as the complaint of the aggrieved husband,…
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