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Henry Ward Beecher was, for much of the nineteenth century, America's most widely known public figure. In place of his own preacher father’s fire-and-brimstone theology, Beecher preached a gospel of unconditional love and forgiveness, giving us the Christianity we have today. Men such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriended—and sometimes parodied—him.
And then it fell apart. Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of adultery with his best friend’s wife, and the cuckolded Theodore Tilton brought charges of “criminal conversation,” leading to a salacious trial that was the most widely covered event of the nineteenth century, garnering, by some counts, more headlines than the entire Civil War.