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