cover image Free Love: The Story of a Great American Scandal

Free Love: The Story of a Great American Scandal

Robert Shaplen. McNally, $18 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-946-02291-2

First published in 1954, this droll and waggish chronicle of an American media frenzy from journalist Shaplen (The Lost Revolution) revels in the eccentricity of 19th-century elites. Tracking the consummation and public fallout of an 1860s extramarital affair between famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Theodore Tilton, one of Beecher’s most ardent followers, Shaplen pokes sly fun at the trio and their upper-crust set through extensive excerpting of their saccharine letters to one another and reports on their outlandish behavior, all of which became public during a civil trial. Beecher, a serial philanderer, comes off as a charismatic seducer (instructing Elizabeth in his letters on how to keep their affair secret by referring to it as “nest-hiding”), while Elizabeth appears pitiable and lonely in light of her husband’s strange aloofness (a bizarre man, Theodore was given to walking around his house at two in the morning moving picture frames). Shaplen’s liberal quotations from the correspondence occasionally bog down the narrative in confessions and apologies; however, the book comes alive in the latter half with the entrance of Victoria Woodhull, a politically ambitious spiritualist who pushed the scandal into public view (she hoped that this evidence of men’s fallibility would undercut the public’s faith in male politicians). Shaplen’s eye for detail creates a vision of sweaty, prurient absurdity in postbellum America. This enthralls. (Apr.)