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Free Love

The Story of a Great American Scandal

Foreword by Louis Menand
Published by McNally Editions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

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

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: McNally Editions (April 16, 2024)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781961341005

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Raves and Reviews

"Robert Shaplen, a late staff writer for The New Yorker, says in Free Love: The Story of a Great American Scandal that the six-month Beecher–Tilton trial was 'a great passion drama,' raising 'mere name-calling and character-destruction' to 'high literary and elocutionary levels.' . . . 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. Some of the pleasure in sex-scandal watching comes from its undying steadiness. It’s a genre. It has rules. Like a Trump or a Depp, Beecher’s “new aura of sin now made him a stronger attraction than ever.'"

– Dan Piepenbring, Harper's Magazine

“The famous trial and the people and events surrounding it are the subjects of Robert Shaplen’s entertaining book Free Love . . . 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, New Yorker

“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, New York Times

“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.”

– Kirkus (starred review)

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, Harper's Magazine

"This droll and waggish chronicle of an American media frenzy from journalist Shaplen revels in the eccentricity of 19th-century elites . . . [his] eye for detail creates a vision of sweaty, prurient absurdity in postbellum America. This enthralls".

– Publishers Weekly

“A fascinating account of the great scandal.”

– Time

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