Harriet Beecher Stowe: Scandals & Death
Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin is far and away the best known of Beecher Stowe’s books, she kept writing for decades after Cabin shook the world, publishing dozens of other books and articles. Because of the royalty arrangements, Beecher Stowe never grew wealthy from the outrageous popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She continued writing to support her family and to express her ideals. In 1856, she published the novel Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which was also about slavery. In 1859, she wrote The Minister’s Wooing, a satiric take on the intense Calvinistic faith she had grown up with (Beecher Stowe, like most of her siblings, adopted a more moderate form of Christianity as an adult). The novel was also a kind of outlet for her personal grief. In 1857, her son Henry drowned while swimming in the Connecticut River. The Dartmouth College student was only nineteen.
Beecher Stowe’s life wasn’t all piety, books, and reform. She found herself at the center of two notable scandals. Beecher Stowe had befriended Annabella Milbanke, the wife of England’s Lord Byron. Lord and Lady Byron had separated, and in 1869 Beecher Stowe published a long article in The Atlantic magazine alleging that Lord Byron was having an affair with his half-sister. The salacious story would have been more appropriate in Us Weekly than in a respectable nineteenth-century magazine, and disgusted Atlantic readers cancelled their subscriptions by the thousands. The gossipy story tarnished Beecher Stowe’s reputation as a beacon of moral authority.
The second scandal involved Beecher Stowe less directly, but was more painful. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher had become perhaps the most famous clergyman in America. In 1870, a woman named Elizabeth Tilton confessed to her husband that she had had an affair with Beecher. As Ted Haggard could tell you, the news of a famous preacher involved in a salacious sex scandal – then as now – spread like wildfire among the public. Beecher was tried for the crime of adultery in 1875; he was acquitted but his reputation still bore the stains of scandal. The sordid affair divided the entire Beecher family.
During the same year in which the charges against her brother came out, Beecher Stowe’s son Frederick, an alcoholic Civil War veteran, headed out to California and was never heard from again. Most likely, he died soon after reaching the West Coast. The same year that Frederick disappeared, Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe were forced to sell Oakholm, their beloved custom-built home in Hartford, Connecticut, because they could no longer afford to keep it up. In 1873, they settled into a smaller home on Hartford’s Forest Street, across the road from the family of Samuel Clemens – a writer better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.
Harriet Beecher Stowe lived to be an old lady, which – sadly enough – meant that most of the people she loved passed away before her. In 1878, her elder sister Catharine died. In 1886, she lost her husband. A year later, Henry Ward Beecher died of a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1890, her daughter Georgiana May died due to complications from morphine addiction. Her childrens’ struggles with substance abuse made Beecher Stowe far more sympathetic to the disease of addiction than most people of her time. She was one of the first people to write about addiction as a physical disease rather than a moral failing.
Harriet Beecher Stowe finally died in her sleep at her home in Hartford on 1 July 1896. She was 85 years old. At her funeral, her coffin was decorated with a wreath purchased by members of the African-American community in Boston that read “The Children of Uncle Tom.”9 Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t ever set out to become famous, or to write a best-selling book, or even to change American history. She probably would have just described herself as a Christian wife and mother trying to live by the rules of a merciful God who wanted a just and peaceful world. As one writer said of the famous Beecher clan, “They knew what [God] wanted and did their honest best to see that He got it.”10
Harriet Beecher Stowe
By Susan Belasco
When Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896 at the age of 85, an obituary published on July 2 in The New York Times declared that Stowe’s death was “one of the closing leaves in an era of our century.” Remembered primarily for her blockbuster novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ (1852) and its role as one of the causes of the Civil War, Stowe was among our first celebrity authors and one of the most famous people of 19th-century America. She was the author of more than two dozen books, including novels, works for children, short story collections, books of essays, a book of poetry and a travel narrative, as well as a prolific contributor to both newspapers and magazines.
Born in Litchfield, Conn., in 1811 to Roxana Foote Beecher, the well-educated and artistic granddaughter of a Revolutionary War general, and Lyman Beecher, an evangelical Presbyterian minister with a strong interest in Puritan theology, Stowe was raised in a household in which religion, reading and writing were considered a vital part of childhood. At the age of 9, she won a school prize for an essay. Years after Stowe was an established writer with an international reputation, she recalled that her father’s pleasure on that day was the proudest moment of her life.
After Lyman Beecher moved to Cincinnati in 1832 to take a position as the head of a theological seminary, both Stowe and her sister Catharine joined him with plans to start a school. There Stowe published her first book, “Primary Geography for Children.” She also became involved in the Semicolon Club, a literary society in which members shared their writing. A story that Stowe first presented to the club won a prize in a local contest and was later published in The Western Monthly Magazine. She continued to sharpen her skills as a writer, publishing a second book, “The Mayflower,” a collection of stories and sketches, and frequently contributing to magazines.
Becoming an Activist
In 1836, she married Calvin Stowe, a teacher at her father’s seminary, and for the next several years, Stowe was busy with her growing family. After the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Me., in 1850, however, Stowe began to consider writing about slavery. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that made all citizens responsible for upholding the institution of slavery turned her into an activist. With the encouragement of her siblings, she published “The Freeman’s Dream,” a parable in which a farmer fails to help a runaway slave and is condemned by God at judgment day.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
That sketch paved the way for the first installments of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” envisioned by Stowe as a three- or four-part story for The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper. The story, which began running on June 5, 1851, was so popular that readers wrote to the newspaper begging for more, and the circulation of The Era doubled. When “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published as a novel in the spring of 1852, it instantly became a bestseller and was also quickly adapted for the stage. Performances of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” toured the Northeast, and Uncle Tom, Eliza, Little Eva, and Topsy became characters everyone knew. Stowe found herself an international celebrity—but not a rich one. Little thinking that her book would be so successful, Stowe had refused a contract with her publisher that involved some risk and instead had signed a standard contract that gave her just 10 percent of the sales of the book.
Now regarded as a major player in the abolition movement, Stowe accepted an invitation from antislavery societies to make appearances in Great Britain and to accept a formal antislavery petition signed by more than 500,000 British women. Eager to counter criticism from southern Americans that she knew little of the slavery system, Stowe published “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a collection of documentary sources about slavery, just before she sailed for England in 1853. She was enthusiastically received wherever she travelled and met a number of famous British writers, including Charles Dickens. She later published a book about her travels, “Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands.”
In 1856, Stowe published another book about slavery, “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” and undertook a second journey to Europe where she met Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lady Byron, the widow of the famous poet. Although she participated in antislavery meetings, she was also eager to establish a British copyright for her new book. In the absence of international copyright laws, she had earned nothing from the huge sales of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” abroad. Now savvy about business matters, Stowe was determined to reap the financial rewards that had eluded her with the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
By the late 1850s, Stowe was firmly established as a major American writer. She was writing regularly for The Atlantic Monthly and she turned increasingly to domestic themes and stories, often drawing on childhood memories. While she continued to help with the antislavery cause, on the eve of the Civil War, she published “The Minister’s Wooing,” a historical novel set in Puritan New England. During the war, she met with President Abraham Lincoln, encouraging him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. According to family accounts, Lincoln greeted Stowe by saying that she was the “little lady who started the big war,” but no historical record confirms this conversation.
After the War
In the aftermath of the war, Stowe turned resolutely to New England society and history for her subject matter, publishing novels, collections of stories, poems, as well as “The American Woman’s Home,” a guide to middle-class domestic life, co-written with her sister Catharine. But her career underwent an abrupt change after a book about her friend, “Lady Byron Vindicated” (1870), shocked British and American audiences with her frankness about Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister. Even worse, her famous brother, the minister Henry Ward Beecher, had a scandalous affair with one of the members of his congregation. In the aftermath, Stowe mostly retreated from public life and lived at her homes in the Nook Farm area of Hartford, Conn., and in Mandarin, Fla. She was honored by her publisher Houghton, Mifflin and Company with a large birthday party in 1882, in which over 200 guests attended, including many major living writers of the 19th century, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Greenleaf Whittier. Stowe died on July 1, 1896, surrounded by her surviving family members.
Henry Ward Beecher
Photo courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Henry Ward Beecher was one of America’s best-known clergymen in the late 19th century and a popular speaker on the Lyceum lecture circuit. He was one of 11 surviving adult children of the famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher. Henry Ward Beecher assumed the pastorate of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848 and was an outspoken abolitionist. He once advocated sending Sharp’s rifles to John Brown in boxes marked as bibles. The story of “Beecher’s bibles” became well known after Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.
Beecher found his religious inspiration in a popular version of New England Transcendentalism and from it developed what he called “A Gospel of Love.” After the Civil War, he was elected president of the American Woman’s Suffrage organization and advocated a conservative approach to women’s suffrage, which brought him into conflict with his parishioner and friend Theodore Tilton, newly elected president of the National Woman’s Suffrage organization.
The conflicting issues between the organizations — women’s legal rights, divorce and “free love” spilled over into the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. On October 10, 1868, Theodore Tilton alleged that the 61-year-old Beecher had had a “free love,” adulterous affair with Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth. The ensuing trial split the Beecher sisters. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Beecher Perkins, and Catharine Beecher supported Henry’s denial of the affair. Isabella Beecher Hooker supported Victoria Woodhull, a leader of the spiritualist movement and an advocate of free love, who originally publicized the affair in her newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly.
Although Beecher’s congregation remained loyal to him until his death, his public reputation was tarnished. He approached Mark Twain and the Charles Webster Company about publishing his biography. On March 8, 1887, Beecher died of a stroke before he was able to begin work on the book.