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FREE LOVE by Robert Shaplen Kirkus Star


The Story of a Great American Scandal

by Robert Shaplen

Pub Date: April 16th, 2024
ISBN: 9781946022912
Publisher: McNally Editions

A fascinating account by a “far-flung correspondent” follows every nuance of the Henry Ward Beecher adultery scandal of 1870.

Initially serialized in the New Yorker, Shaplen’s work was published in 1954. As Louis Menand notes in the preface to this edition, “this was a custom at [William] Shawn’s New Yorker highly attractive to writers: they sold their work twice, first to the magazine, then to a publisher. And stylistically, the book is very much old-New-Yorker,” the editors of which “believed in letting the facts speak for themselves.” Shaplen delves intriguingly into the era of a swiftly changing, new-money, reform-minded New York City. Beecher, son of the fiery Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher and brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, had been the wildly successful reverend at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights for almost three decades when impassioned parishioner Elizabeth Tilton confessed to her husband, Theodore, that they had been having an affair. Theodore, the editor of the religious publication the Independent, also adored Beecher, and owed him his job. Furthermore, Lucy Maria, Independent owner Henry C. Bowen’s wife, made a similar confession about Beecher to her husband on her deathbed in 1862. Both husbands tried to bury the scandals, but the entanglements of these relationships became so intense that each player would end up incriminated, through confessions and letters, so that the wider public was sure to catch wind of the scandal, as when “radical spiritualist” Victoria Woodhull got involved. Shaplen’s account of Beecher and his “Gospel of Love” is a wonderfully spirited portrait of this “powerful symbol of the times.” As he recounts, the ensuing trials highlighted “the contemporary debate over private versus public conduct, the function of the evangelical church, and the place of women in the expanding social scene.”

An utterly engaging historical excavation of a passion play both farcical and resounding.