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Tilton’s friends and fellow reformers wonder what in the world has come over him. “How do you like Theodore Tilton’s biography of Mrs. Woodhull?” Ellen Garrison, a niece of Lucretia Mott, asks her mother rhetorically. “Too ridiculous almost, even to ridicule!” Julia Ward Howe predicts Tilton’s demise as a credible public figure. “Such a book is a tomb from which no author again rises,” she says. Ellen Garrison wonders, “Can anything but infatuation or aberration explain its absurdities?”
Infatuation or aberration: these seem to be the alternatives. Perhaps it is both; Tilton wouldn’t be the first person made foolish by love. Does he love her? Victoria thinks so. And she says she loves him. At least they are lovers. “He was my devoted lover for more than half a year,” she says later, in response to a question. “And I admit that during that time he was my accepted lover. A woman who could not love Theodore Tilton, especially in reciprocation of a generous, impulsive, overwhelming affection such as he is capable of bestowing, must indeed be dead to all the sweeter impulses of our nature. I could not resist his inspiring fascination.”
“Do I understand, dear madam, that the fascination was mutual and irresistible?” her questioner asks.
“You will think so when I tell you that so enamored and infatuated with each other were we that for three months we were hardly out of each other’s sight, and that during that time he rarely left my house day or night.”
Victoria’s secret—the knowledge she has of Henry Beecher and Tilton’s wife—has brought Tilton to her house; infatuation, possibly, keeps him there. But Victoria doesn’t forget what she wants in exchange for keeping her secret. She has once again rented the hall at the Cooper Institute, this time to give a lecture on the financial question. The topic suits a candidate for president, but a candidate requires an introduction. She asks Tilton if he will do the honors. He agrees and remains on the platform while she delivers what he later characterizes as “a perfectly harmless and stupid production, of which I think nobody has heard since.”
The finance lecture is merely a warm-up. She next engages Steinway Hall for an address on the “social question.” The phrase is a signal that she will be speaking about relations between the sexes, and is so understood. By now everyone in New York knows of Victoria’s unusual living arrangements, and thousands want to hear her explain herself. A few will come to lend support, others to heckle, most to be horrified or entertained.
For this event she plans to invite Henry Beecher to do the introduction. She knows that he practices what she intends to preach; he seems to her the ideal introducer. But she also knows that he is reluctant to be identified with anything radical on the social question, for such identification will jeopardize his popularity and even his position at Plymouth Church. “I made my speech as soft as I conscientiously could,” she says later. “I toned it down in order that it might not frighten him. When it was in type, I went to his study and gave him a copy, and asked him to read it carefully, and give me his candid opinion concerning it.” Meanwhile she tells Tilton and Moulton that she intends to ask Beecher to preside at Steinway Hall. She speaks bluntly. “I explained to them that the only safety he had was in coming out as soon as possible as an advocate of social freedom, and thus palliate, if he could not completely justify, his practices by founding them at least on principle.”
Tilton and Moulton agree. Tilton carries the invitation to Beecher and presents the case for acceptance. “I told him I thought he might preside,” Tilton testifies later. “I said, ‘I have once presided for Mrs. Woodhull; nothing came of it; no harm grew out of it, and if you will go and preside at her meeting you can do it without harm to yourself, and you will put her in that public way under such obligation to you that I think she has been put under to me. I don’t think that woman can ever turn and injure me after what I have done for her, and if you will in some public way identify yourself as being friendly to her—not that you have to agree with what she says, but if you will go and preside at that meeting—I think she will consider that an act of courtesy done by you, and it will be a new bond by which we shall all be able to hold her against any ebullition of her strange mind.”
Beecher is torn. Victoria holds his fate in her hands, but to stand by her on the platform might ruin him as surely as if his sordid secret comes out. He cannot bring himself to choose.
The question hangs like Damocles’ sword over Beecher until the day before the speech. Victoria needs an answer. “Dear sir,” she writes to him. “For reasons in which you are deeply interested, as well as myself and the cause of truth, I desire to have an interview with you, without fail, at some hour tomorrow. Two of your sisters have gone out of their way to assail my character and purposes, both by the means of the public press and by means of private letters written to various persons with whom they seek to injure me, and thus to defeat the political end at which I aim. You doubtless know that it is in my power to strike back, and in ways more disastrous than anything that can come to me; but I do not desire to do this. I simply desire justice from those from whom I have a right to expect it; and a reasonable course on your part will assist me to it. I speak guardedly, but I think you will understand me. I repeat that I must have an interview tomorrow, since I am to speak tomorrow evening at Steinway Hall, and what I shall or shall not say will depend largely upon the result of the interview.…P.S. Please return answer by bearer.”
Beecher agrees to meet her. “I went over again to press Mr. Beecher to a decision,” she explains later. “I had then a long private interview with him, urging all the arguments I could to induce him to consent.” She reminds him of the corrosive effect of hypocrisy on one’s soul, and of the freedom that comes from embracing the truth. She doesn’t remind him that she can force his hand, but she doesn’t have to.
He is in agony. “He said he agreed perfectly with what I was to say, but that he could not stand on the platform at Steinway Hall and introduce me. He said, ‘I should sink through the floor. I am a moral coward on this subject, and I know it, and I am not fit to stand by you, who go there to speak what you know to be the truth. I should stand there a living lie.’ He got upon the sofa on his knees beside me, and taking my face between his hands, while tears streamed down his cheeks, begged me to let him off.”
Victoria forcibly removes herself from his grasp. “Becoming thoroughly disgusted with what seemed to me pusillanimity, I left the room under the control of a feeling of contempt for the man, and reported to my friends what he had said. They then took me again with them and endeavored to persuade him. Mr. Tilton said to him: ‘Mr. Beecher, some day you have got to fall; go and introduce this woman and win the radicals of the country, and it will break your fall.’ ‘Do you think,’ said Beecher, ‘that this thing will come out to the world?’ Mr. Tilton replied: ‘Nothing is more certain in earth or heaven, Mr. Beecher; and this may be your last chance to save yourself from complete ruin.’”
Victoria watches coldly as Beecher suffers. “Mr. Beecher replied: ‘I can never endure such a terror. Oh! if it must come, let me know of it twenty-four hours in advance, that I may take my own life. I cannot, cannot face this thing!’”