A wry, instructive, and hugely entertaining account of “one of the most sensational trials in American history” (New York Times Book Review).

On the night of July 3, 1870, Elizabeth Tilton confessed to her husband that she’d had an affair with their pastor, Henry Ward Beecher. This secret would soon transfix America, for Beecher was the most famous preacher of the day, founder of the most fashionable church in Brooklyn Heights, a presidential hopeful, an influential supporter of Abolition, and a leader of the campaign for women’s suffrage. When Beecher tried to silence the Tiltons, it was a whisper network of suffragists, notably Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spread news of the affair, and it was the radical Victoria Woodhull—an outspoken proponent of “free love”—who seized on it, as political dynamite, to blow up the myth of monogamy among the political elite. Her public accusations led to even more public trials, which shocked the country and divided the most progressive thinkers of the era.

In 1953, the journalist Robert Shaplen revisited the Tilton-Beecher affair in a series of articles for the New Yorker, relying on 3,000 pages of contemporary accounts—court transcripts, love-letters, newspaper reports and illustrations, even political cartoons—to reanimate a scandal that shook the American reform movement and to expose a strand of America’s cultural DNA that remains recognizable today.

About the author(s)

Robert Shaplen (1917–1988) began reporting in the Pacific theater during World War Two and became one of America’s most influential experts on East Asia in the postwar era. He was Far East correspondent for the New Yorker from 1962 to 1978, and remained a New Yorker staff writer for the rest of his life. He published ten books, including one novel and one story collection. Free Love (originally titled Free Love and Heavenly Sinners) was his only foray into nineteenth-century American history.

Louis Menand is an award-winning essayist, critic, author, professor, and historian, best known for his Pulitzer-winning book The Metaphysical Club, an intellectual and cultural history of late 19th and early 20th century America.


“One of the most sensational trials in American history . . . Shaplen tells the story with unvarnished realism against a background of circumstantial detail . . . In reviving what the author calls the ‘passion drama’ of the period he has brought a celebrated case into contemporary focus and has done it tellingly, assembling the record with stark precision and linking it closely to the moral and religious attitudes of the day.” 

Ishbel ross

“Remarkably level-headed and absorbing . . . Shaplen does not render a verdict, but he gives us the facts we need to reach our own.”

Louis Menand

“A fascinating account by a ‘far-flung correspondent’ follows every nuance of the Henry Ward Beecher adultery scandal of 1870 . . . Shaplen’s account of Beecher and his ‘Gospel of Love’ is a wonderfully spirited portrait of this ‘powerful symbol of the times’ . . . An utterly engaging historical excavation of a passion play both farcical and resounding.”

Free Love came out in 1954, and it’s fun to view this much older affair through the lens of Shaplen’s durable midcentury elegance—looking back in time twice. And yet we may as well be in the present . . . To be sure, Shaplen knows how to draw the preacher and his cohort into the currents of their time.”

Dan Piepenbring

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