Celebrity and Scandal

Celebrity and Scandal

In addition to major historical events, Long Island’s past is also littered with scandals and accounts of local celebrities whose lives and adventures fascinated the American public. Explore the stories below to learn more.

“Mr. B. preaches to seven to eight of his mistresses every Sunday evening”

The Tilton-Beecher Sex Scandal

The love and respect that Plymouth Church congregants had for their Rev. Beecher led them to preserve this chair. It also guided their support of him throughout the public sex scandal that swept the religious leader and reformer into the national spotlight. In 1874, Beecher’s supposed affair with Brooklynite Elizabeth Tilton, wife of his longtime friend and protégé Theodore Tilton, became public. A national media firestorm tainted Beecher’s legacy with the suspicion of sin. 

When Beecher accepted the pastorate at Plymouth Church in 1847, he brought to Brooklyn his wife of a decade, Eunice Bullard Beecher. His charisma and passion at the pulpit, which increased Beecher’s celebrity and endeared him to churchgoers, reportedly also attracted female admirers. In fact, before the sex scandal became national news, local gossip, circulated by whisper and in published accounts, claimed that “Mr. B. preaches to seven to eight of his mistresses every Sunday evening.”

Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, circa 1870


Brooklyn Historical Society

Elizabeth Tilton was among Beecher’s rumored paramours. Her supposed sexual relationship with Beecher, from 1868 to 1870, was the spark that grew into Beecher’s future adultery trial. While Theodore Tilton, Elizabeth’s husband, and Beecher had become confidants following Beecher’s arrival in Brooklyn, professional and political differences later put them at odds. 

In late 1870, Elizabeth supposedly confessed the affair to her husband, only to recant and then recant her recanting. After confronting Beecher, Tilton negotiated a silence on the subject through a mutual friend, but the story nevertheless spread. In 1872, it reached spiritualist and reformer Victoria Woodhull. An ambitious supporter of women’s suffrage and marriage reform, and the first women to run for president, Woodhull exploited the rumors to bring attention to her causes. On October 28, 1872, she published “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case” in her magazine Woodhull & Clafin’s Weekly, launching the affair into the national spotlight. 

Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Tilton anniversary party invitation, 1865

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC .212)

Brooklyn Historical Society

In the 1800s, calls for women’s suffrage and the more radical demands for marriage reform and access to divorce clashed with strict traditional Christian morality and gender roles. In New York, adultery was a legitimate cause for legal suit, which is what Theodore Tilton ultimately did. Theodore Tilton v. Henry Ward Beecher, Action for Criminal Conversation began in January 1875 and lasted six months, each day’s events meticulously reported by the press. In the end, the result was a hung jury, votes stalled at 9 to 3 in Beecher’s favor.

“Testimony in the Great Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case Illustrated,” 1875

Cook, Haas & Rhodes

Library of Congress

Beecher continued at Plymouth Church until his death in 1887, supported by his loyal congregation who banded together to raise money to help pay his legal fees. Despite the community support, questions about the affair persisted, especially after 1878, when Elizabeth Tilton published a confession of their guilt. Beecher may have been the most famous man in America during his life, but like many other powerful men, his legacy is marked by a sex scandal.

“The Young Lady’s Mental Facilities Were Gradually Impaired”

“Melancholia” in 19th-century America

Martha J. Ovington died on June 22, 1882, at age 41 and was buried at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Cemetery records note epilepsy as “Mattie’s” cause of death. New research into public and private records reveals the tragic story of Ovington’s long struggle with physical and mental health, struggles that America’s then fledgling public health system was ill-equipped to manage. 

Unlike many other affluent young women in the 1800s, Ovington left behind no known personal documents recording the details of her daily life. However, public records like the 1880 federal census reveal unexpected information about her life. Ovington’s name is listed that year in the census’s new supplemental section for documenting the “defective, dependent, and delinquent classes.” Under “form of disease,” her illness is described simply as “melancholia,” or depression, from which she had apparently suffered for eighteen years.

Federal census Supplemental Schedule for “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent” classes, 1880

United States Census Bureau

National Archives and Records Administration

While modern audiences might assume that sensitive personal details like these would have remained largely private, the Ovington’s prominent family brought Martha’s struggles into the national spotlight. In July 1874, New York–area newspapers began running stories about a local divorce scandal. Brooklynite, Henry A. Ovington, Martha’s father, had been granted a divorce on his daughter’s behalf. 

The articles note that Martha’s “mental faculties” had supposedly declined following her overexertion as a student at Packer Collegiate Institute. Following Martha’s graduation, her parents sent her to Huntington, Long Island, for medical treatment, where Martha met a Mr. George Speier. The family agreed to let the couple marry, believing that domestic stability might “allay [Martha’s] disorder.” 

By 1874, however, Martha’s condition had deteriorated. Her parents ended the marriage and took in the couple’s two young children, one of whom, Florence, would later donate her mother’s Civil War flag to LIHS (now BHS).

“Marriage as a Patent Medicine” 

Galveston Daily News, July 17, 1874

“An Absolute Decree in the Ovington Case” 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 1874

Brooklyn Public Library

Records indicate that Martha was likely never formally institutionalized but rather had access to private care overseen by a physician or caregiver, which her family resources made possible. For those who could not afford private care, specialized care in mental hospitals—commonly known as asylums, then—became available in the United States beginning in the early 1800s, with numerous state-funded institutions built throughout the century.

Poor & Insane Asylum, 1878

George B. Brainerd

Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (V1972.1.34)

Brooklyn Historical Society

A Traitor in Our Midst?

Nicholas Couwenhoven and British-Occupied Brooklyn

The original Brooklyn owner of this portrait miniature was Nicholas Couwenhoven. Neither a devoted patriot nor traitorous loyalist, Couwenhoven was a pragmatist who played both sides to protect his own interests. This was in fact common in the Revolutionary Era as many people living in New York or Long Island considered themselves neutral in the fight. 

As was the case with many prominent Kings County landowners, any loyalty Couwenhoven felt to the Revolutionary cause early on cooled following the British victory at the Battle of Long Island and the subsequent occupation of Manhattan and Long Island. In contrast to the droves of Long Islanders who fled to Connecticut following the battle, Couwenhoven elected to stay at his home in New Utrecht and cooperate with British authorities.

Committee of Southampton License to Remove to Connecticut, 1776
Pelletreau family papers (ARC .142)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Couwenhoven’s wartime network was not limited to the British cause and its supporters. Occupied New York was not a fortress. Instead, it was a melting pot where patriots, loyalists, pragmatists, soldiers, civilians, enslaved people, and prisoners coexisted, at times uneasily. Individuals like Deborah Covenhoven (no known relation to Nicholas Couwenhoven) were routinely granted permission to travel throughout the city to conduct business or to visit with or assist relatives. Travelers needed official orders of permission to go on their way.

Order of Permission to Travel to Long Island, 1782
Deborah Covenhoven Orders of Permission (1977.640)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Couwenhoven frequently encountered potential enemies on Long Island during the war, all of whom he attempted to appease to protect his own interests. The Couwenhoven family heirlooms in the BHS collection provide evidence of this balancing act. Family history claims that Couwenhoven received this portrait miniature from a grateful American soldier, while a European-made snuffbox, also at BHS, attests to Couwenhoven’s good standing with the British. A British soldier who stayed with the Couwenhovens during the war supposedly gifted them with the snuffbox as a token of gratitude for their hospitality.

English or Continental, late 18th century
Brooklyn Historical Society

Following the American victory, Couwenhoven’s cooperation with the British during the war forced him to act quickly and strategically to defend himself from legal prosecution as a traitor. His portrait miniature played a key role in his defense, becoming proof of his “loyalty” to America.

Mark Twain’s “Poet Lariat”

Bloodgood Cutter and the Famed Quaker City Expedition

In 1867, Bloodgood Cutter traveled with the “Quaker City Expedition,” a five-month tourist cruise throughout the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. The trip quickly became known around the world because of a young journalist on the trip named Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). Clemens wrote about the journey and his fellow travelers first in a series of newspaper articles and then, in 1869, in his best-selling novel Innocents Abroad. The novel immortalized Bloodgood as the “Poet Lariat” of the Quaker City Expedition. While Twain bestowed the title with his characteristic sardonicism, Cutter nevertheless embraced it.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, 1867

Abdullah Freres 

LOT 13301, no. 8 

Library of Congress

Several Brooklynites from Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church congregation organized the 1867 Quaker City Expedition. Beecher himself was originally slated to attend but withdrew before the steamer set sail in June 1867. Although some prospective passengers also withdrew when Beecher did, ultimately 75 excursionists—including Bloodgood Cutter and Mark Twain—set out to explore the Old World for the hefty price of $1,250 each. According to Twain, the group included “three ministers of the gospel, eight doctors, sixteen or eighteen ladies, several military and naval chieftains with sounding titles, an ample crop of ‘professors’ of various kinds, and a gentleman who had ‘Commissioner of the United States of America to Europe, Asia, and Africa’ thundering after his name in one awful blast!”

USS Quaker City, circa 1900

Clary Ray 


Naval History and Heritage Command

Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to destinations including Gibraltar, Paris, Florence, Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Cairo, the pilgrims spent a great deal of time together, and the quirks of some travelers became the subject of Twain’s sharp pen. Of Bloodgood Cutter, the ship’s unwanted Poet Lariat, Twain recorded another passenger exclaiming, “I never seen one of them poets that yet knowed anything. He’ll go down and grind out about four reams of the awfellest slush about that old rock and give it to…anybody he comes across first which he can impose on. Pity but somebody’d take that poor old lunatic and dig all that poetry rubbage out of him.”

Bloodgood Cutter

The Long Island Farmer’s Poems (New York: N. Tibbals & Sons, 1886)

Brooklyn Historical Society

Bloodgood Cutter

Inscription in The Long Island Farmer’s Poems (New York: N. Tibbals & Sons, 1886)

Brooklyn Historical Society

Twain’s remarks, whether good-humored or mean-spirited, did not affect Cutter’s fondness for expressing himself in prose. He continued to write and share his poems—sometimes irreverent “musings on a wheel-barrow,” sometimes commentaries on friends’ weddings or deaths, sometimes reactions to major events like the Civil War. In 1886, Cutter finally collected hundreds of his pieces into a book, The Long Island Farmer’s Poems. At least half of the book was made up of poems inspired by the Quaker City Expedition, with one that included a gentle gibe at the young man who made him “famous.” 

One droll person there was on board,
The passengers called him “Mark Twain;”
He’d talk and write all sort of stuff,
In his queer way, would it explain.

“This country is inhabited by saints, sinners, and Beechers”

The Famous (and Infamous) Beecher Family

The appliqued “Beecher” embroidery along the chair’s back signals a likely connection to one of America’s most influential families in the 1800s. Beginning with the formidable family patriarch Lyman Beecher (17751863), members of the Beecher family became influential public figures and made vital contributions to the evolution of American religion and reform movements, including the temperance movement, and abolition, and women’s suffrage.

Lyman Beecher, undated 

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC.212) 

Brooklyn Historical Society

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1775, Lyman Beecher graduated from Yale College and became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1799. In addition to preaching to congregations in Long Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio, Beecher devoted himself to advocating social reform. He cofounded the American Temperance Society in 1826, and was also a critic of slavery.

“Dr. Lyman Beecher and His Family”

Engraved reproduction after 1859 daguerreotype by Matthew Brady 

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC.212) 

Brooklyn Historical Society

Beecher’s greater legacy, though, was undoubtedly his family. Ten of his thirteen children lived to adulthood and more than half went on to live very public lives. In 1863, the same year Lyman Beecher died, fellow minister Leonard Bacon quipped, “This country is inhabited by saints, sinners, and Beechers.” Members of the family, particularly Henry Ward, became so well known by the American public that “Beecher souvenirs” were common in the late nineteenth century.

Henry Ward Beecher/Brooklyn souvenir spoon, 1866-1905


Brooklyn Historical Society

All seven of Lyman’s sons—William, Edward, George, Henry Ward, Charles, Thomas, and James—followed him into the ministry and made their own marks as authors, speakers, educators, and military officers.

Henry Ward Beecher, circa 1870–80

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC.212) 

Brooklyn Historical Society

The women of the Beecher family were arguably even more impressive than the men. The eldest, Catharine, became a pioneer voice for women’s education. Isabella Beecher Hooker became a key activist in the women’s suffrage movement, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. And Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fame rivaled that of both her father and younger brother, Henry Ward. In 1852, her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin hit bookshelves, laying bare the horrors of slavery in America. An instant success, it nearly surpassed the Bible as the best-selling book of the 1800s.

Frontispiece engraving of Harriet Beecher Stowe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, circa 1853 

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC.212) 

Brooklyn Historical Society